The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, part one

I’d like to preface this review with a short note about where I stand on the Twilight franchise as a whole thus far. I haven’t read any of the novels (nor do I intend to), and thought the first three films were generally pretty awful. I’m fully aware that I am not the intended audience for these stories, but I do maintain an interest in seeing what is popular, particularly in the case of this franchise which is nothing short of a global phenomenon. The first two films are almost unbearable, and I never would have made it through them if I hadn’t already promised a friend that I would. The second movie (New Moon) specifically is one of the most painful film watching experiences I think I have ever had. The third film (Eclipse) actually did show many signs of improvement, but unfortunately having sat through the previous films I already absolutely hated every single character, so, regardless of how much better Eclipse is, it’s still simply terrible. So it was with some trepidation that I decided to see Breaking Dawn in the cinema, on opening day no less. Here we go…

One of the most impressive things I have seen in the cinema this year was the final chapter in the Harry Potter series, not necessarily because of the quality of the film, but rather how Warner Bros. managed to maintain the quality of the franchise over ten years and eight films. Seeing the end to a cinematic phenomenon, one which we are unlikely to see the likes of again for quite some time, is bittersweet, but The Deathly Hallows, part two managed to tie everything together in a satisfying, if not ultimately surprising manner. While maybe the film didn’t need to be split into two, it’s hard to imagine that many fans of the series would be disappointed in how the conclusion turned out. Now that Harry Potter has ended, the next huge franchise soon to end is the Twilight saga, and, like Potter, in the interest of selling twice the number of tickets the finale Breaking Dawn has been split into two films. I can understand why Harry Potter is such a beloved franchise. We are given a compelling, easily relatable hero who bravely stands his ground against everything awful that is thrown at him, while also dealing with the realities of growing up and facing responsibility. Surrounded by the fantastical world of wizards, potions and dragons, there is something so real about Harry that grounds the story for us. Twilight on the other hand is a complete mystery. I honestly cannot understand the popularity of these books and films, and if I had children of my own I probably wouldn’t allow them to watch this series. It’s upsetting that this has become the standard of young adult fiction, and how anyone, regardless of age, could find this nonsense even slightly romantic is baffling. That said, Breaking Dawn, part one is an absolutely fascinating film, filled with more bizarre moments than the previous three films combined, and it’s almost worth seeing just to bask in the sheer lunacy of it all. Almost.

Following an opening scene which allows Jacob (Taylor Lautner) to take his shirt off, Breaking Dawn begins with the lead-up to the moment everyone has been waiting for: the marriage of Bella (Kristen Stewart) and Edward (Robert Pattinson). Predictably the scene is pure wedding porn, dragged out to a ridiculous length, but interestingly highlights the biggest problem with the Twilight saga right from the outset: Bella and Edward are a terrible couple. Bella seems so disconnected from Edward, even scared of him. They’re supposed to be this perfect couple, but their relationship is so weird and distant that it just never seems right. Only when Jacob appears at the wedding does Bella seem to come to life, suggesting that she probably should have been with him all along. But no, she and Edward are married and set off for their honeymoon on the Cullen family’s private island (after an inexplicable stopover in Rio de Janeiro). So far, so humdrum, but luckily it’s at this point that Breaking Dawn really goes off the deep end. Given free rein following the success of the earlier books, it seems that author Stephenie Meyer had no-one around to question the decisions she makes regarding this story, all of which are completely insane.

First, the love scene. It has been established that vampire/human sex is potentially dangerous, and that Bella’s life is in danger if she and Edward wish to consummate their marriage. So, what Meyer expects to be a touching, romantic moment between young lovers becomes a sick, voyeuristic ordeal that leaves Bella bruised, and the bedroom in ruins. Thankfully, in the interests of salvaging the film’s PG-13 rating, the scene is brief. Much has been made of Twilight‘s theme of abstinence, but is Meyer really that terrified of intercourse that, even after the wedding, sex is still so closely aligned with physical abuse? Next, Bella instantly becomes pregnant with a half human, half vampire demon child which grows at such a rate that it begins to consume its mother from the inside. There’s some mention of abortion made which is more or less forgotten right away, bringing up another problem with this series: Meyer isn’t able to effectively convey what her themes are at all. There are so many random moments where some message seems to be coming through, but before it can be explored it’s forgotten, or more likely replaced by another obscure metaphor which doesn’t make ay sense. Maybe it’s because I’m not in the targeted teenage girl demographic, but it seemed that for at least half of this film I was left scratching my head.

As unpleasant as Bella and Edward’s married life appears to be, nothing can really prepare you for the birth of their child. Having had this portion of the book described to me, this was my greatest motivation for seeing Breaking Dawn, and it doesn’t disappoint. What exactly was in Meyer’s head when she decided that her heroine should drink human blood from a fast food cup (“It tastes good” she says. Shudder) is something we perhaps shouldn’t ever know, but it’s just the beginning. After the baby (soon to be named……. sigh……. Renesmee) graphically snaps Bella’s spine with a swift, in utero kick, we’re treated to the most ghastly and bloody scene imaginable. Edward proceeds to tear the baby from the womb with his teeth, covering himself with viscera from his dying wife, and even closing your eyes cannot protect you from the vomit-inducing sound effects. Just as the romance of the honeymoon was completely overshadowed by the threat of spousal abuse, the wonder of childbirth is completely lost in a truly upsetting sequence that has no place in a film intended for young girls. If you can make it through the birth however, what happens next between Jacob and the nightmarish CG Renesmee is all the reward you could ask for, and seeing it is worth the price of admission.

So where does the story of Bella, Edward and Jacob go from here. I have absolutely no idea. You would assume, being that this is Breaking Dawn, part one, that some set-up of part two would occur. You would be wrong. Everything is more or less neatly tied up at the end. The Deathly Hallows‘s two parts told one large story, but there doesn’t seem to be anywhere to go in this story that requires another full length feature, or at least not Breaking Dawn, part two. The wedding is done, the baby is born, the vampires and werewolves have some semblance of peace again, so what could possibly come next. I can’t begin to guess, but if it’s anywhere near as demented as Breaking Dawn, part one, I’ll be there on opening day.

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Contagion

Few filmmakers have the ability to draw the same kind of star power as Steven Soderbergh, and his latest film Contagion is no exception. In fact, it might be his most star-studded film to date, with a mixture of huge lead names and excellent character actors all coming together in a film that, unfortunately but perhaps unsurprisingly, bites off a little more than it can chew. That’s not to say Contagion isn’t good; it’s arguably the most frightening film of the year, and the massive cast largely turn in solid performances, but the relatively brief running time (106 minutes) sees some of the story threads left underdeveloped, while some could arguably have been jettisoned altogether.

Contagion documents the spread of a mystery disease outbreak named MEV-1, and how people, fed by the media, deal with the epidemic, and it’s in this aspect that the film shines. It’s familiar cinematic ground that has had some mixed results in the past, with movies like The Andromeda Strain and Outbreak being decent examples, but Soderbergh presents the subject matter in a much more realistic way. Not known for being overly flashy in his direction, Soderbergh takes a much more objective stance, simply letting events unfold in a credible fashion, and the level of research he must have done is clear to see in the procedural, bureaucratic handling from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and various other governmental agencies. There is some subtle visual flair however, with the majority of the film shot in sickly green and yellow tones, and lingering shots on door handles, hand rails and the like driving home the concept of our lack of awareness concerning the spread of disease, and how easily a virus like MEV-1 could get out of control in the real world. There are plot holes, but for the most part the scenario is a believable and terrifying one.

Where Contagion is less successful however is in its treatment of the viral nature of modern media, and how the internet and social media have changed the spread of information across the globe. There are brief mentions of phenomena such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, but the idea that the internet is feeding the developing panic isn’t quite fleshed out enough. The biggest problem comes down to Jude Law’s character, blogger Alan Krumwiede. It’s an interesting idea to place a freelance, whistle-blowing character at the centre of the panic surrounding MEV-1, but given that Soderbergh is juggling several other story threads simultaneously, Krumwiede’s presence simply doesn’t have the impact he should. Soderbergh clearly wants to critique this concept of unaccountable journalism and fearmongering within the blogosphere, but Law’s over-the-top, mustache twirling performance doesn’t fit the film’s tone, and the issues surrounding Krumwiede and his alleged homeopathic ‘cure’, while again potentially interesting, aren’t pursued enough to be compelling. Soderbergh tries to show as many aspects of the crisis as he can, yet had he excised one of the less vital stories (perhaps those concerning Marion Cotillard or Elliott Gould), the pervasiveness of the internet in the media could have been explored in much more depth, using the disease as an effective macguffin to examine media-fuelled panic in society.

A new Steven Soderbergh film is always worthy of discussion, especially given that, if we are to believe the director himself, we’re unlikely to see too many more of them. Contagion is a textbook example of the adage that ‘less is more’, and while it presents a realistically unsettling story, ultimately the film tries to do to much and loses some impact as a result. You will possibly walk out of the cinema more mindful of the unseen dangers that are all around, but because of its mis-steps, Contagion isn’t as frightening, or simply as good as it feels like it should be.

Filling the Gaps: Repulsion (1965)

Well, for my second Filling the Gaps post, I chose a film which is probably even creepier than the first one. Roman Polanski’s Repulsion tells the story of Carole (Catherine Deneuve) and her gradual descent into madness. It’s a pretty small-scale story, with most of the plot taking place in the apartment that Carole shares with her sister Helen (Yvonne Furneaux), but Polanski works masterfully within the confines of the location. While the film initially made me think of French new-wave cinema, it rapidly evolves into something frightening and deeply unsettling, and it’s not likely to be something I’ll forget any time soon. 

There’s never any explicit explanation for Carole’s madness, but the implication is that it stems from sexual repression, possibly due to some form of childhood abuse. Polanski establishes Carole from the very beginning as pure and virginal in several ways, such as her apparent compulsive behaviour regarding cleanliness. Interestingly, Repulsion feels at times like a companion piece to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, with both directors using black and white film for thematic reasons. Where Hitchcock changed Marion Crane’s underwear from white at the beginning to black following her crime, Polanski contrasts Carole and Helen through hair colour and clothing. Helen, with her darker hair and wardrobe, is sexually promiscuous, and is involved with a married man, but Carole’s purity is again highlighted by her blonde hair, pale skin, and lighter coloured clothing. 

When Helen and her lover depart for a few days on vacation, Repulsion slips into a surreal nightmare. The world around Carole begins to disintegrate, and the cracks that begin to appear all over the walls mirror the fracturing of her mind. She begins to hear and see noises around the apartment as she lays in bed, and hallucinations of rape plague her repeatedly. The fear and disgust she has concerning sexual contact, coupled with her already compulsive behaviour, destroy what fragile grip on reality she has, and ultimately lead her to shocking violence when confronted by two men who show amorous interest in her. The deeper into insanity she falls, the more Polanski distorts the perspective and framing of his shots, building terrific suspense and dread until the conclusion, closing with a slow zoom into a photograph which suggests some form of explanation for the chaos we’ve just seen. He doesn’t give up all the answers, and is maybe a little heavy-handed with some of his metaphors, but by and large the film is an excellent example of psychological horror and suspense.

After this film and The Wicker Man I think for the next Filling the Gaps entry I’m going to try and go a lttle more light-hearted, maybe with some screwball comedy. I’ve got more time on my hands now, so I’ll try to do at least one of these posts each week, along with my reviews of new stuff.

The Thing (2011)

It’s a reasonably safe bet to say that very rarely will a remake of a film meet the standard set by an original, as of course if the source material was bad in the first place, a remake would likely not even be considered. The number of times a remake is better than the original can probably be counted on one hand. Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven and David Cronenberg’s The Fly spring to mind as a couple of those rare examples. And, of course, John Carpenter’s 1982 masterpiece The Thing, which goes beyond being a superior remake to being considered one of the finest sci-fi/horror films ever made. As for prequels, it’s hard to come up with a single example that improved on its predecessor. In modern Hollywood, there are prequels, there are remakes, and then there is Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.’s 2011 version of The Thing.

Ostensibly a prequel of a remake, The Thing finds itself uncomfortably torn between the two. The story concerns the initial discovery of an alien artifact buried deep under the ice of Antarctica, and the events that follow lead directly to the opening scene of Carpenter’s 1982 film. So, it’s a prequel, right? Well, not quite. The way the events unfold is almost a beat-for-beat copy of the earlier film, and a number of well-known scenes from Carpenter’s version are recreated. So maybe it’s a remake? I don’t know, and it seems like van Heijningen doesn’t know either. There’s only one sure way to clarify what this movie is: terrible. Van Heijningen’s The Thing is derivative, pointless, four-quadrant filmmaking at its absolute worst. It tries so hard to recreate the atmosphere of paranoia and claustrophobia of Carpenter’s film, but fails to engage on any level.

The problems go well beyond what any comparison with the 1982 version could reveal, but by trying so hard to mimic the far, far superior film, van Heijningen holds his film up to be judged against it, and it’s not pretty. The first issue lies with the characters. To lead the story, Carpenter gave us RJ Macready, played by Kurt Russell at the peak of his badass days. Van Heijningen gives us Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Sam Carter (Joel Edgerton), unnecessarily dividing the Macready role to make way for a female lead, obviously in the hopes of expanding the potential audience by drawing women to the cinema. Winstead does the best she can, but it’s difficult to buy her as an expert paleontologist, particularly when there doesn’t seem to be any real reason for her character to be there. She is even told that she isn’t there to think, just to make sure they can get the thing out of the ice. Why a scientific facility doing research on things drilled out of the ice needs to bring in an ‘expert’ from America to help them drill a thing out of the ice is never made clear, but I guess they needed to get the American stars in there. A female lead in a sci-fi/horror film has worked before, but it’s not the case here. As for Edgerton, he seems to be there simply because he looks tough and has a beard (like Macready!). As for the other characters, they really aren’t given much of a chance to establish themselves, so it’s hard to care as they are picked off one by one. Carpenter subtly developed his supporting characters to make audiences feel for them, but van Heijningen simply throws them all out there and tries to focus on an unconvincing lead.

Perhaps the two most enduring elements of Carpenter’s The Thing were the terrifying special effects and the excellent ambiguous ending. The new version fails here as well, with atrocious CGI which lacks a tenth of the impact of the 30 year-old practical effects, and a woeful third act that obliterates what little atmosphere the film had developed. The men of Carpenter’s version were not heroes, they were simply working-class guys faced with a situation they were ill-prepared for and ill-equipped to deal with. Van Heijningen insists on giving audiences an awful ‘hero moment’, before ruining the one slightly interesting plot point by having a character spell everything out for the audience. It’s insulting that Hollywood filmmakers nowadays don’t trust their audiences enough to pick up on nuanced visual cues, we must have everything very deliberately spelled out for us. And the less said about the ham-fisted credit sequence, the better.

2011’s The Thing is among the most redundant and dreadful prequel/remakes since Gus van Sant remade Psycho. It is a film to be avoided, particularly if you have any attachment to Carpenter’s 1982 version. Thankfully the legacy of the previous film cannot really be scarred too badly, as it’s unlikely anyone will remember van Heijningen’s The Thing by this time next year.