With Twilight: Eclipse (Summit Entertainment), the third installment of the teen-vampire film franchise based on the books by Stephenie Meyer, it’s clear that the movie version of the series has become its own thing, a multipart organism that operates independently of the matrix that generated it. Like the Harry Potter movies, the Twilight films cater—some might say pander—to fans of the books. But three films in, the source material has become vestigial to the viewer’s enjoyment—it’s possible to be interested in Twilight based on the movies alone. After finishing the first book in the series, I wouldn’t pick up another Meyer novel for anything less than a five-figure raise. But I wouldn’t miss a Twilight movie. Not because the films are good, exactly, but because they are terrifying, transfixing, and, yes, moving bulletins from the trenches of contemporary American girlhood.
Dan Kois’ Village Voice review of the film compares the task of the Twilight movies to “fan service,” the manga tradition of breaking up comic-book narratives every few pages with a cheesecake drawing of a favorite character. Eclipse is certainly awash in cheesecake, or beefcake, or whatever the vampire and werewolf equivalents would be. (Fang-cake? Fur-cake?) Robert Pattinson as the eternally emo vampire Edward Cullen, and Taylor Lautner as the eternally shirtless werewolf Jacob, all but rub themselves up against the camera. But the itch this movie scratches is more complex than the enabling of sexual fantasy. The common object of Edward’s and Jacob’s passion, Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart), is indeed passive and blank, a transparent proxy for the audience. This episode takes Bella’s passivity to new heights, with one plot contrivance requiring her to literally be carried from place to place by Jacob. But to argue that this passivity makes Bella a weak character or a bad role model for young girls is to misapprehend the function of the Twilight universe. What Twilight has to offer its fans is not the wholesome noonday sun of feminism but the sick, weird moonlight of actual desire.
Far from being a powerless cipher, Bella Swan now occupies a position at the center of Twilight’s complex cosmology. As the only human on earth who’s privy to the secrets of the vampire world—thanks to her connection with Edward and the pale-faced Cullen clan—she’s wanted by the Volturi, a kind of vampire Inquisition headed up by Jane (a baby-voiced but commanding Dakota Fanning). Thanks to her smoldering platonic friendship with the garment-averse Jacob, Bella is also the only person capable of brokering a truce in the age-old vampire/werewolf feud. And, as of this installment, a fresh contingent of supernatural meanies—an army of just-created vampires known as “newborns”—is being organized by a rogue lady vampire (Bryce Dallas Howard) for the express purpose of destroying Edward and Bella’s love. This high-school romance actually has the world-historical significance that the rest of us only felt like our high-school romance had.
But global interspecies monster warfare is really only the backdrop to the Twilight series, just as the Civil War was the backdrop to Gone With the Wind. The real action takes place in the intersubjective space between Bella and Edward, or rather, among the threesome of Bella, Edward, and Jacob. The energy generated by this perpetually irresolvable love triangle manages, by some obscure law of physics, to supersede the viewers’ goodwill toward the characters. In other words, even if you could care less who Bella chooses—if you’re neither Team Edward nor Team Jacob—you may find yourself compelled, and amused, by the moments when their rivalry is exposed in its raw state. Nothing like kissing your boyfriend goodbye and then making him watch as you nestle against the bare chest of the wolf-boy who must, for obscure reasons, now carry you across an entire forest in his arms. The triangulation torture reaches its height in a scene where Bella, rather than freeze to death in a tent pitched high on a mountain, must snuggle all night against Jacob’s extra-warm lupine bod while Edward—who, as a vampire, has neither body heat nor the ability to sleep—sits up all night watching them. We’ve all mistreated our fair share of suitors, but not even the most cavalier heartbreaker ever dreamed of getting away with this.
“It’s not a choice between the two of you,” Bella tells Edward at a key point in the story. “It’s a choice between who I should be and who I am.” If my Twilight decoder amulet is still working, that means that our heroine is torn between the warm, mortal, animal love she feels for Jacob and the cold, eternal, sexless-but-therefore-sexy sublimity of her bond with Edward. But this line of dialogue has another possible interpretation, one that (like the whole series) puts the audience in Bella’s place. The choice of whether to see Eclipse isn’t really a question of whether the movie is good or bad. (By any objective, thumbs-up or thumbs-down standard of aesthetic judgment, this installment, directed by David Slade, is in keeping with the previous two films: a competently made bit of Gothic schlock.) It’s a question of whether or not the movie speaks to your secret, unregulated, inherently ridiculous experience of identification and desire—not who you should be, but who you are. Does the warm blood of a teenager still flow beneath your icy grown-up flesh?