Anyone worried about the fate of Bella, Edward, Jacob and the rest of the "Twilight" gang after the moody blues of movie No. 2 can breathe a sigh of relief. "The Twilight Saga: Eclipse" is back with all of the lethal and loving bite it was meant to have: The kiss of the vampire is cooler, the werewolf is hotter, the battles are bigger and the choices are, as everyone with a pulse knows by now, life-changing.
It's really all because the kids are growing up. Not just Bella, Edward and Jacob, though they're doing their share of hitting major milestones what with their love triangle more fraught than ever, but Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner who finally, finally have figured out how to breathe life into the characters first created by publishing phenom Stephenie Meyer.
No doubt the thanks in large part should go to David Slade, the latest director in the hot seat and just what the soap opera doctor ordered. Though "Eclipse" is not high art, the "Twilight" series does have its own sort of mystical magic in the way it blends teenage angst with epic political conflicts (vampire-land has just as many turf wars and ridiculously rigid rules as the real world). Slade finds a way to blend the street-smart edge he found in "Hard Candy" with the dark irony of "30 Days of Night" to bring some serious fun to "Eclipse." About time someone mined the humor in these inter-species affairs of the heart....
As the movie opens, Victoria ( Bryce Dallas Howard), the flame-haired villainess set on destroying Bella, is out creating an army of newborns to take with her into battle. They're hungry little suckers under the unruly control of delicious new hunk Riley (Xavier Samuel). They're also extremely messy about their feeding needs, much to the growing dismay of the living locals in Seattle and the Cullen vampire clan back in Forks.
Meanwhile, Bella (Stewart) has a few other things on her mind, like high school graduation and the whole vampire wannabe issue — with her dreaded 18th birthday looming, she'll soon be a year older than Edward (Pattinson), and she wants some of that special serum that will halt aging in its tracks (but then don't we all).
If, for a moment, you take the "should she or shouldn't she become a vampire" question off the table, Bella's issues are as old as time itself: Who does she love, is she ready to commit forever and what is she willing to sacrifice for it? That's a lot to chew on, but then everyone here has teeth, including screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg, doing her best yet to channel Meyer while adding some much-needed wryness to the proceedings.
Everyone is also very concerned about Bella's virtue: Her dad Charlie ( Billy Burke) wants her to be careful, Edward wants her to wait until they're married and Jacob (Lautner) just wants her to wait.
While Bella sorts through all of her "who do you love?" conflicts, the newborns close in, a few of the ancient and unpredictable Italian Volturi enforcers show up, leaving Edward and Jacob to form an uneasy alliance to protect their damsel in distress.
The good news is that all that tension helps "Eclipse" eclipse its predecessors. There is a new tenderness and sweetness that Stewart brings to her relationships — more playful with Pattinson, more affectionate with Burke (especially when Charlie tries to have "the sex talk"), and more intense with Lautner. Bella doesn't want to let down anyone, and Stewart makes sure she doesn't. But it's Lautner, in particular, who has grown, giving Jacob an emotional interior nearly as hard-packed as those abs, which are very much on display.
Since the swoon factor is significant, Slade and director of photography Javier Aguirresarobe are ever mindful of the power of those faces, letting the camera go in for the close-up kill whenever it can. As for the rest of the landscape, the wonderful Aguirresarobe ( "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" and "The Sea Inside") knows how to do luminous, and Slade has given him more room to move than he got in "New Moon." "Eclipse" benefits from it throughout, including the rain-drenched lethal nights in Seattle and the extensive vampire smack downs.
The action comes in fast and furious waves. Having the werewolves getting their fur ruffled helps since your typical vampire battle is basically a bloodless sport. Dead vampires, at least as imagined in "The Twilight Saga," have the look of broken Greek statues in a vandalized museum, which kind of takes the sting out of things and not in a good way. The same goes for the historical flashbacks that fill in werewolf lore and more about vampire Jasper ( Jackson Rathbone). Enough already.
But just when you think everything is going to come apart at the seams, someone remembers the money shot, and the screen fills with those fine-boned faces of Edward and Bella, the music soars and, gulp, they … tune in next time kids, this soap opera's a long way from over.