From the start of the moody and brooding opening title cards you know you're in for a better experience than the last go-round. Director Chris Weitz has delivered a treat, a legitimate artistic expression on love, loss, and the obsessive qualities of initial attraction. Sure, it has a few flaws, but New Moon succeeds on a level that few films have this year. It gives the people exactly what they want, but with an artistic flourish. If you've read the books, it definitely works. If you haven't? I'm not so sure. It's hard to unknow things, and you won't find me speaking for those so casually dismissive of what's clearly a generation's love mythos.
Remember that first person you dropped an "L-O-V-E" on? The guy or gal who made you feel angry, sad, manic, and wanted all at once? That's the vibe of New Moon, the eternal theme of first love mined for maximum effect, the vulnerability and desperation that comes with caring about someone more than you could possibly care about yourself analyzed and laid bare onscreen. Weitz has tapped into that phenomenon here, and he balances well the feelings of suffocation and giddiness that come with the realization juxtaposed with the awful dread of losing it. When Bella is supposed to look distraught, she does; when Jasper is in a scene, he doesn't just scrunch his face up for unintended comical effect. The film moves along well, and there are real moments of beauty here, too: a crow flying at a third the speed of a vampire running, delightful overhead camera work showing off gorgeous visual spectacle.
The plot (for those non-book readers hoping to read some tea leaves) involves a quasi-love triangle between Jacob (Taylor Lautner), Bella (Kristen Stewart), and Edward (Robert Pattinson). The setting is again Forks, Washington. The supernatural takes center stage with werewolves and vampires battling it out for Bella supremacy. So then, Bella Swan and the gang are back, only this time they've clearly been given solid direction and are up to the task. They're asked to carry a ton of emotional weight, and they generally come through. Little moments about this film stand out, and the interaction between Bella and Edward feels a little more subtle, a little more nuanced. There's a moment early on where Bella reacts to something Edward doesn't say, a huge improvement from the monster telegraphs of the first film. The obsessive and seemingly limitless first love of your teenage years feels very well thought out, even if it's with a vampire, even if you happen to run with a few werewolves.
Chuck Klosterman recently wrote a strong essay (in his new book, Eating the Dinosaur) about ABBA where he discussed the song "The Winner Takes it All." Klosterman felt, within the confines of a couple breaking up:
"The individual leaving takes everything with them."
And that's heartily apparent within Stewart's portrayal of Bella. She's left with nothing, dispatched to a world that is all sharp angles and pain. Klosterman, in his essay, goes on to expose the fallacy of rejecting something you find "cheesy" on those grounds alone, pointing out that ABBA's lyrics and style set them apart (in a good way) from almost every band in history. Somewhere in there you can find an analogous comparison to New Moon. Those who would reject the cheese do so at their own peril because the message and concepts presented are ubiquitous and viral. People (myself included) respond to the material for a reason. Acting as though that reason isn't valid simply points to a global and shared hypocrisy -- namely, that it's fun and easy to taunt the romantic and idealistic. But I'm not so sure there's any honor or joy in doing so.
Now then, there are three elements I have to knock New Moon on:
* Without knowing the source material this might be tougher to relate to. Having read New Moon it seemed extremely well executed, but I know not everyone will have that experience going in.
* Director Chris Weitz uses music to cover almost everything in the film, to the point where it's tough to say what's pulling on your heart. Is it the actors? The dialogue? Or the persistent and haunting noise in the background? As a sucker for music I don't quite trust myself with a film this drenched in tunes.
* There are points where the melodrama is a beat too long. For minutes on end things feel authentic, but there are a few cringe-worthy moments too. You'll know them when you see them; the audience I was with chuckled a few times when things went a little too far.
That said, this is the film you've seen in your head if you've read the books. The film comes by its earnest love in an honest manner, it does the work to make the characters relatable and dynamic. The notion of how we hurt the people we care about is fused tautly with the supernatural. The werewolves look great, and the slowed down (yet styled up) action clearly elevates the work.
There are people here who won't "get it." And that's fine. They don't connect with the stories, and this clearly isn't for them. But the movie looks tremendous, the dialogue works, there are numerous well-placed jokes, and the acting is on point. The fact that certain folks won't be moved is irrelevant; this isn't the way they relate, and they're too far past that moment of having your heart shattered into a thousand pieces. In a way you've got to envy them, as they've already taken the Death Cab for Cutie song to heart. For me? The film worked surprisingly well, and I'm interested to see the direction they'll take with Eclipse. So long as there are people, there will be love stories -- I hope they all feel as lush and lively as this one.