As you may or may not know, the Twilight franchise consists of four novels. For the film adaptations, the decision was made to split the final book, Breaking Dawn, into two parts, in the same manner as had been done with the final Harry Potter book before, and with the final Hunger Games instalment thereafter.
The question always is: is it necessary, and do the films benefit from it in any way? Because otherwise, people will always suspect that it was just a cynical move by the studio to earn some more money.
In the case of Breaking Dawn, it is difficult to say. Of course we can safely assume that the studio was not averse to making more money. But Part 1 of this two-part adaptation also feels as if the studio went full steam ahead with the “cheese”, devoting ample room for things they thought their targeted female teenage audience would want to see. So while some might argue that these two parts could easily have been merged into one, the filmmakers might think of that split as fan-service.
Breaking Dawn, Part 1 covers only a very brief period of time. It begins with Bella’s wedding and covers her honeymoon and the few weeks after that. Bella suffers a major health crisis which exceeds Dr Cullen’s knowledge and his ability to help. It also leads to uncertainty as it creates new, untested ground for both the Cullens and the neighbouring werewolf pack. In the process, loyalties are tested (and up-ended), while new alliances are forged and unlikely friendships develop. Over all, however, hovers the question if Bella will survive, and in what form.
Now, as I said, some might argue that splitting the book into two films was unnecessary, especially as Part 1 covers only a short period of time with arguably very little plot, whereas the filmmakers might have felt that – after the build-up and the adversities regarding Bella’s love life – they owed the fans a lavish wedding display.
And this is precisely what they get. With Alice organising the event, it becomes a visually opulent sugar-fairy-wedding – and a lot of time (this whole first chapter of the film is 28 minutes long) is devoted to emotional scenes before, during, and after the ceremony. And just in case all of that was too subtle for you, the studio went and re-hired Carter Burwell for the score music, the composer who had already drowned the first Twilight film in acoustic treacle.
There are several reasons why the studio may have wanted Burwell back. The tone of the wedding and honeymoon scenes called for cheesy music. And the filmmakers may have realised that for long periods of time there is not much happening in this film. We have many scenes without dialogue, some montages, and lots of “people-looking-at-each-other-in-a-worried-manner”. Scenes in which the filmmakers may have felt lots of cheap, manipulative mood-music was going to come in handy.
After the ceremony, the film moves on directly to Bella’s Brazilian honeymoon. Scriptwriter Melissa Rosenberg and director Bill Condon (the franchise’s 4th director in its 4th film) seem to be struggling with how best to display this. While they opted for a somewhat steamy wedding night display – which, again, might have been intended as fan service – they have difficulties with displaying the rest of the time in Brazil which in plot terms is completely empty. Bella’s return to Forks does not make things any better, as the problems at hand are only offering room for discussions, not for actions. And this franchise is not really suitable for philosophical or ethical debates, so all falls a bit flat, with the filmmakers trying to somehow get to the next short action sequence (of which, as I said, there are but few).
The film also struggles to find a suitable “break-off point” – the moment where to end this part and pick the story up again in the sequel. They were looking for a way to offer some closure while at the same time ending on a scene which – while not really being a cliff-hanger – makes you ask for more. And, given the various objectives they had to juggle with, I believe the filmmakers found as good a solution as was possible under the circumstances.
If I put aside my dislike for Burwell’s score, and if I acknowledge the fact that I am as far from being a teenage girl as it gets, there are some positive things to be said about the whole wedding part of the film. It looks great, if over-the-top-sugary is the style you are going for. The filmmakers also included some nods and winks to the fact that Alice got a bit carried away with the wedding preparations and that everything is rather over-the-top and everyone knows it. They also added humour and realism to the wedding by including a number of deliberately cringeworthy wedding speeches, thankfully all shown in brief snippets only.
The wedding also gives Bella’s parents one or two emotional scenes with her, which means Billy Burke and Sarah Clarke have another opportunity to shine in this franchise. The guest list also allows for the inclusion of some regulars, and while Bella’s other school friends are almost relegated to set dressing, Anna Kendrick’ Jessica again provides two or three little nuggets that are very enjoyable.
It is the Brazilian honeymoon where things fall apart. Personally, I could have lived without the detailed display of Bella’s wedding night – but I suspect this is another case were filmmakers felt they were simply giving their core audience exactly what they wanted. But, as aforementioned, the chief problem with the honeymoon chapter is that there is very little happening in the roughly two weeks between the wedding night and the departure from Brazil. The filmmakers obviously could not show the departure directly after the wedding night, so the rest of the time had to be filled somehow. Spending a whole two minutes on the travel arrangements (seemingly unnecessary) and stretching the wedding night scenes were all ways of dealing with the problem, and the rest of this chapter (which lasts for over 27 minutes in total) is equally filled with a whole lot of nothingness and, of course, a montage.
On the plus side, once things move back to Forks, the filmmakers found a way to skip another two weeks of very little happening – they achieved this by switching the story to Jacob’s point of view. And they sort of stick with that angle. With Bella sick and the Cullens at her side, almost all outside activity revolves around Jacob, who gets into conflict with Sam and the rest of the pack. This involves a complete 180°-turn in opinions which is very poorly established and justified.
But the whole focus on the wolves leads to another massive problem of this film: with the werewolves becoming the centre of attention to an unprecedented degree, some mediocre aspects of their CG-design – which I was absolutely fine with in the previous films – get difficult to ignore. In addition, there is a scene in which one of the wolves is almost involved in a car crash, and the green-screen work here is a bit shoddy. But the main reason why the werewolves in this film are getting a tad ridiculous is that we as an audience can “hear” their telepathic dialogues. I realise that the writer and the director pretty much had no other option, but that does not change the fact that it does not work. The poor quality of the written dialogue – nothing new in this franchise – does not help much in these scenes either.
As mentioned above, aside from the scenes with the wolves the film consists mostly of people sitting around in the Cullen’s house talking. The film meanders towards its somewhat weak climax which sees a crisis inside as well as outside the house. Nothing here compares to the battle of Eclipse, for example, smallish as that one was. Still, the drama inside the house is somewhat well done, even though there are certain aspects of its gory-ness that seem a questionable choice.
The resolution of the crisis outside the house, however, the resolution of the conflict between the wolves and the Cullens, is a bit of a storytelling disaster. The cause which brings the conflict to an abrupt hold is extremely stupid and contrived, although it had been set up in the franchise for a long time. [It also involves some of the creepiest images of a CG-human in the history of film-making. For a vampire/werewolf franchise that is extremely short on gore and horror it is more than a bit embarrassing that the most horrifying and traumatic image is an unintentional one.]
The cause for the resolution aside, the chief problem here is that the communication between the wolves is telepathic. Whereas earlier scenes allowed audiences to “hear” these thoughts (which, as I mentioned, renders those scenes ridiculous), this idea is suddenly dropped here and replaced with one that is barely any better: Edward reading the minds of the wolves and giving a summary of their “conversation” to his family (and thus to the audience). Over the course of the previous reviews I have repeatedly mentioned the poorly written dialogue, as well as Robert Pattinson’s mostly hopeless struggles with his poorly written character. Pattinson’s inability to turn all the rubbish he is being given into even a half-way decent performance has possibly never been more visible than in this scene.
As I said, the filmmakers have found a reasonably good point at which to leave the story in order to pick things up again in the next film. But the poor contrivance of the resolution of the werewolf-conflict, in combination with Pattinson’s atrocious delivery in that mind-reading scene (for which he is (again) far, far less to blame than the writer(s) and the director), significantly deflates the film’s ending.
A few additional words about the acting: Kristen Stewart is nicely transporting her character’s nervousness during the wedding ceremony and the honeymoon. These are not just normal worries about the wedding, the impossibly shoes Alice is making her wear, etc.; these are also worries that come from past encounters with dark forces, and challenges that will lie in her future. Stewart is also providing one of the few amusing scenes in the film, when Bella unpacks her luggage in search of underwear only to realise with horror that it may have been a mistake to allow Alice to pack her bags. For the rest of the film, Bella’s input is limited, as she is mostly written off as an invalid. The Cullen family, meanwhile, gets little to do other than look concerned, but the actors do that nicely. Ashley Greene again has some very nice scenes as Alice, but her strengths lie in her character’s amusing pre-wedding scenes when Alice forces her ideas about a perfect wedding on everybody else. When she is merely tasked with looking concerned for the duration of the rest of the film, she is doing a fine job but is not given an opportunity to shine. Unfortunately, she also gets burdened with one or two lines of dialogue so sub-par that she is struggling with the delivery in those scenes, proving again that the script is the franchise’s main problem and is affecting the acting performances.
Other supporting performances see Booboo Stewart’s role as Seth expanded considerably, and he is doing a very good job. As is Julia Jones playing Seth’s somewhat two-dimensional sister Leah. Finally, Michael Sheen returns to the franchise for a brief but amusing cameo in a mid-credit scene.
So, back to the question: was it necessary to split the final book in the franchise into two films? With the two parts of Breaking Dawn each being nearly two hours long, I assume putting all the material into one film might have been a challenge. But with so little actual plot being shown in Part 1, I would still argue that this film could have easily been 30 minutes shorter. So it might have been possible to adapt Breaking Dawn into one single film, even if it might have been ended up being a sprawling 160-minute behemoth like some modern-day superhero films are.
In the end, however, splitting the novel into two films is not the issue on which the quality of Part 1 hinges: this film has so many problems and deficiencies which are independent of this question that it almost becomes a moot point. Breaking Dawn, Part 1 is considerably weaker than the previous films in the franchise. And that is saying something, since neither of them exactly set impossibly high standards.
Maybe it is because I am not a teenage girl – maybe it is because I am not mesmerised by the one-hour-long footage from the wedding ceremony and the honeymoon – but this film had little to nothing to offer to me. Nothing in this film was engaging, and – a few very short scenes with Alice, Jessica or with Bella’s parents aside – nothing here was even remotely entertaining. Add to that all the serious shortcomings mentioned above, and I cannot rate this film any higher than 4 out of 10.