Review | <i>The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn -- Part 1</i>

Every cynical viewer of the Twilight movies has a particularly memorable "What the hell?" moment. Here's mine: Jacob (Taylor Lautner) angrily flees the Cullen family compound in wolf form after he learns that vampire Edward (Robert Pattinson) has impregnated his new bride Bella (Kristen Stewart). After seeing Bella wasted away, being consumed from the inside out by the demon spawn, he calls on his wolf pack (we know because we're suddenly shot inside his head, privy to the inner monologues of his comrades). The CGI beasts gather, snarling and pacing, and proceed to argue over whether to kill the vampire-human hybrid mommy-eating baby ... cognitively.

What. The. Hell.

It's not like we haven't had three previous films to warn us: The plot of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn -- Part 1 is utterly absurd, the dialogue is clunky and unimaginative, and the acting is varying degrees of sub-par. Luckily, the franchise nabbed a director who understands the inherent campiness at play, and makes a concerted effort to extract it. It's clear that Bill Condon is far superior to the material, but he sure does attempt to transform the fourth installment of this mind-numbingly emo series into something resembling a faceted, entertaining experience.

And, in some ways, he succeeds.

It probably goes without saying, but if you haven't seen the previous three Twilight movies, you're going to be mighty confused by Breaking Dawn -- Part 1. Not only does the narrative jump right in where Eclipse left off, but this installment weaves in a refreshing bit of subtlety -- for every overly expositional set of statements, there's a veiled hint at items only devout readers of the original material would notice (the first mention of imprinting in Breaking Dawn, for example, includes references to secondary storylines hashed out exclusively in author Stephenie Meyer's novel).

We open on a shot panning down from rainclouds, over a roof and onto a front door, where Jacob exits, angrily fleeing the Black family compound (are you having deja vu from my first paragraph yet? If this script was a Mad Lib, every blank line after Jacob's name would be filled in with "angrily flees"), flinging a piece of paper to the ground, ripping off his shirt (savor this moment; unlike the Twilight movies of yore, this is the only time you'll gaze upon Jake's bodacious bare bod) and transforming into a werewolf. We see the paper on the ground: Bella and Edward's wedding invitation.

Next up is the ceremony, handled in decisive edits and seeped in fun energy. Alongside Bella's nerves, Alice's (Ashley Greene) fussing as stylist/planner and Edward's trademark holding-in-a-bout-of-bad-gas expression, we're treated to some hilariously sarcastic banter from Bella's classmates (led by the one spark of talent in these films, Anna Kendrick as Jessica), a surprisingly intimately shot trip down the aisle (we linger on the close-up details of Bella's dress, expressions on the guests' faces, the bouquet in her hands), a frenetic quick-fire edit of wedding toasts, and then the couple is off to the honeymoon -- one last human trip for Bella until, as they agreed, Edward turns her into a vampire.

This is where things get good. Condon delves right into the nervous tension of their wedding night, secluded on an island near Rio de Janeiro. Before the Deed, Bella rushes off to the bathroom for a “human moment," to brush her teeth, comb her hair, shave her legs. It's handled with an air of quirkiness, and Stewart -- dare I say it? -- emotes more realness and likability in this scene than any other in the previous three films. And then, yes, there's headboard crushing ... and pillow ripping ... and lots of PG-13-friendly petting. After Edward exerts too much sexytime strength (minorly bruising his blushing bride) and refuses to do her again until she's turned, Bella launches into a days-long tease-fest, to the tune of awkward lingerie modeling and some seriously sultry games of chess.

Their bubble is ultimately burst when Bella lands herself on the fast track to preggo, something the two never considered a possibility -- and something that, as Peter Facinelli’s Carlisle later explains, there's no precedent for. (Worth noting: the "Oh, shit" look on Edward's face as Bella explains her condition over the phone is pretty much worth the price of admission.) Within weeks, Bella is holed up at the Cullen compound, heavily pregnant, gaunt, hollow-eyed and starving to death, thanks to her rapidly growing fetus. The make-up and CGI effects are pretty harrowing, especially during a shot of Bella as she takes off her robe before bathing. If cheekbones and rib cages could kill ...

So this brings us around to where I started: Jacob, still in love with Bella, drops the knowledge on his pack, the wolves consider the fetus a violation of the long-standing werewolf-vampire treaty, and loyalties are tested. This is also where the pace of the movie slows considerably, giving way to the trademark melodrama of its unnecessarily complicated (without being complex) story and lending far too much screen time to the wooden delivery of its players (Jackson Rathborne's Jasper lets loose one particular line that makes you wonder whether Condon is purposely poking fun at the actor's inability to inflect).

The slog is worth it, though, because Condon delivers a gloriously campy, gory, horror-style ending that could easily stand alongside Darren Aronofsky's recently released anti-meth PSAs. “If I’d asked, ‘Can vampire sex lead to high-risk pregnancy?’ I wouldn’t be asking.” And for anyone musing over where exactly the film leaves off (knowing full well we've still got one more to go), Condon chooses a perfect moment. Another PSA, if you will: Sit through the credits (which happen to be quite well-designed, graphic sans-serif font in stark blacks, whites and reds) for an important scene.

Thanks to Condon's fresh take, I'm slowly edging my way from apathy to curiosity regarding the final Twilight movie. It's not like the material's going to get any better, or the roles will be re-cast, but if the treatment of Breaking Dawn - Part 1 is any indication, there are still some surprises left in store.

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 opens today nationwide.

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