One of the primary problems with the Twilight franchise so far has been how seriously it took all its teen angst and fantasy elements, building two entire movies on Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart staring at each other, and presenting with a straight face vampires who sparkled in sunlight and had bright amber eyes. It's not that the directors should have made fun of Stephenie Meyer's source material or discounted fan passion for the books, but at some point someone needed to acknowledge that this is a story about hormonal teenagers with superpowers, and maybe it could be romantic and a little funny at the same time.
With the third film Eclipse, director David Slade doesn't just bring a much-needed dose of humor to the glum franchise, but cranks up the action to the point that some sections could be considered genuinely exciting. Much of the film is still a slog, of course, and atrocious dialogue and wooden acting abound, but Eclipse is the first Twilight film that works at all on its own, giving us better characters, tense action sequences, and a wry acknowledgement that, yes, this is maybe all a little bit silly.
The wink-wink nods to Twilight mania are pretty brief-- Edward (Pattinson) asks if Jacob (Taylor Lautner) even owns a shirt, Jacob later counters by telling Edward "Admit it, I'm hotter than you"-- and are balanced nicely by some of the first genuine human interactions between the characters. It's amazing that it took us this long to see Edward and Bella (Stewart) smile at each other, or to watch Bella's dad Charlie (Billy Burke) cope, in a very realistic Dad way, with his daughter's all-consuming new relationship. Little moments like these ground the film in a way neither of the first two managed, and while they don't exactly make you care about the characters-- they're all far too thinly drawn and ridiculous for that-- they at least make them a lot more tolerable this time around.
It also helps that Eclipse has much more plot than the previous two films, and though Slade and writer Melissa Rosenberg don't quite make sense of all the vampire logic-- what are the Volturi doing there again?-- things move along swiftly enough that you don't much care. Down in Seattle the newborn vampire Riley (Xavier Samuel) is amassing an army of ultraviolent vampires at the behest of Victoria (now played by Bryce Dallas Howard), who want revenge on the Cullens and Bella for killing her true love James way back in the first film. Knowing they can't fight the newborns on their own, the Cullens reluctantly team up with Jacob and his pack of werewolves, forcing Edward and Jacob to also stop their macho posturing and team up to protect Bella, the woman they both love.
The central trio all have their moments- Pattinson has never seemed more natural or likable in his vampire makeup, Lautner occasionally overcomes Jacob's generally creepy demeanor, and even the simply awful Stewart acts like a real human once or twice-- but when the side characters step up, Eclipse really shines. The flashbacks showing how Jasper (Jackson Rathbone) and Rosalie (Nikki Reed) became vampires are narratively pointless but fun to watch, and though they're both terribly underused, Howard and Dakota Fanning (as evil Volturi Jane) both take advantage of their every moment onscreen. Recent Oscar nominee Anna Kendrick pops up for a bubbly graduation speech, and even the constantly shirtless wolfpack manage to be endearing while also looking straight out of a gay porn. There many moments in Eclipse when you can forget the Twilight series is about a dull girl and her romantic troubles and get wrapped up in the action or the weird magic of the vampires and werewolves. Just try not to let yourself think too hard about how much better the movie might be without Bella at all.
The purpose of Eclipse within the franchise is to solidify Bella's decision to join Edward as a vampire, but aside from a hastily included speech in the final scene, the movie fails entirely to convey that. I'd be happy to blame Stewart only, but the Twilight films have now failed three times to build Bella as a believable lead character, putting her in place as the human window into a supernatural world but giving us no reason to relate to her or care about her struggles. Eclipse works because it gets away from much of that, focusing on Edward and Jacob's poorly contained rivalry and Cullens' conflicted feelings about their immortal status. But Bella is relied on for all of the film's emotional stakes, and because she is such a blank slate, there are none at all. Because of the human crater at their center, the Twilight films have no choice but to be faithful adaptations to please the fans; Eclipse is merely the first of the three to have a few things to offer to the rest of us as well.