The only thing that makes the “Twilight” films tolerable for non-fans of the Stephenie Meyer franchise is the constant presence of Kristen Stewart, an actor who never seems to be doing much but is almost unfailingly bewitching doing it. But from the opening minutes of “Eclipse,” the third of what will eventually be five films adapted from the four novels, I felt something was a little off about Stewart this time. At first I couldn’t put my finger on it, but it had something to do with over-immaculate grooming. Her eyebrows had gotten smaller, trimmed to widen the gap between them, contributing a feel of beauty salon phoniness. Was this responsible, in turn, for the heavy-liddedness of her right eye not having quite the breathtaking sultry effect it usually does? Maybe, to a certain extent. But there was still something else. Finally, it was obvious: It was her hair. Too straight, matted down, tended to, fussed into lifelessness. Was she wearing too many extensions? Even a wig?
I didn’t learn until afterward what all fans already knew, that Stewart had to wear a mop due to her short cut for “The Runaways.” (And, yes, the eyebrows were different too.) Why does this minor degree of falseness matter in a movie bulging with matty-furred werewolves and fancy-haired vampires sporting golden sepia contact lenses? Precisely because Stewart’s Bella Swan is the sole pure, uncorrupted, virginal, natural state human being of note in the universe of the film, and anything that detracts from that image is bound to disruptive, even if subliminally. The viewer gazes at Stewart almost continuously for two hours, and so consistent and unerring is her work that the slightest false note sticks out like a broken rib.
Because exposition is now mostly out of the way and the rivalry for Bella between Robert Pattinson’s courtly vampire and Taylor Lautner’s more physically imposing werewolf is equally balanced, “Eclipse” arguably has the best story of the “Twilight” entries. But while the action and the male conflict does lift the film’s second half, a general, modestly swooning lethargy still prevails as the dominant trait of this series. That much of its appeal stems from the beautiful young faces and bodies on display has been apparent from the first installment, which benefited from the freshness of audience discovery (the frequency with which Lautner shows up this time with his shirt off provoked laughs from the Los Angeles preview screening audience, as did the movie’s best line, delivered by Lautner to Pattinson, in reference to their respective characters’ body temperatures: “Let’s face it, I’m hotter than you!”). But “New Moon” virtually suffocated from its langorous listlessness and director David Slade, whose debut feature “Hard Candy” was so tense and edgy, has been able to reignite the general dynamics less than I’d hoped he might. The PG-13 rating has evidently dictated a virtually gore-free battle royal between the encroaching Newborn vampire clan and the uneasy alliance between the werewolves and more senior vampires (now equipped with backstory flashbacks revealing how some of them made the switch), with decapitations and other dismemberments demonstrating how desperately devoid of blood these vampires (and, by extension, the films) really are.