The official Summit press notes for "The Twilight Saga: Eclipse" are a whopping 113 pages. Some of that includes widely spaced credits at the end, but most of the packet is extensive background information on the film, its source material, the "Twilight" franchise itself and nearly everybody involved with it. Want information on the "Eclipse" gaffers and fluffers? I've got that info!

The "Eclipse" press notes had no bearing on my opinion on the film, but I mention them for two reasons:
 
The first is that somebody put a lot of effort into this packet and, at the very least, had the decency to print it double-sided. It's a hefty and daunting package to internalize, especially on top of the responsibility to read the entire book series, a responsibility this critic took quite seriously.
 
The second is that the press notes are a reminder of exactly how essential this franchise is to Summit Entertainment. Yes, the company has had a couple small successes with non-"Twilight" films, but when you get presented with a door-jam-ready set of notes like this, it's because Summit is the house the Robert Pattinson built, the house that Kristen Stewart decorated and the cars parked out front came courtesy of Taylor Lautner. [Kellen Lutz is responsible for, I dunno, the sconces and whatever Ashley Greene brought to the table, I'm sure it was frilly.]
 
That's why it's interesting that Summit handed "Eclipse" over to David Slade, a former music video director whose only features were a disturbing two-hander about a predatory pedophile and his equally predatory prey ("Hard Candy") and a gory horror film ("30 Days of Night") that treated vampires as soulless killing machines, basically the antithesis of their "Twilight" depiction. 
 
It could have been a disaster. 
 
It isn't. Yup. There's my rave right there. 
 
"The Twilight Saga: Eclipse" is probably the series' best film so far and it's certainly the one most likely to expand the franchise's reach beyond its devoted (and burgeoning) core. I'm not going out on much of a limb to say that, mind you. 
 
Does that mean that I think "Eclipse" is a particularly great film?Well, not. How about a particularly good film? Probably not that either. It's still frequently undone by the earnestness of its central love triangle and my limitations of an inherently talky and stagey script, but I'm very well aware that the moments that occasionally (frequently) had me chuckling a little bit derisively (a lot derisively) are exactly the moments that would lead core fans into a revolt if they were trimmed or augmented in any way. Probably more-so even than the "Harry Potter" franchise or Marvel's various comic adaptations, the "Twilight" films have been made for the fans to the exclusion of all others, so the smartest thing for any reviewer to do, coming at least partially from the outside of the maelstrom, is to give some sort of perspective on how the film handles the things aimed exclusively at fans and what it offers for anybody else.
 
Full review after the break...
 
[This review contains some spoilers, but not many. But honestly, is this a movie that requires spoiler warnings? Either you're going to see it because you already know exactly how it ends, or else you're probably smart enough that you'll be able to figure out exactly how it ends. Either way, I could pretty much give a play-by-play of the movie's Werewolves vs. Vampires vs. Frankenstein's Monsters climax and it wouldn't spoil anything, right?]
 
With the first "Twilight" film, director Catherine Hardwicke introduced the passion for the source material and was such a demonstrative fan herself that viewers ignored a movie which was, at best, technically cheap and amateurish (don't get me started on the "at worst"). With "New Moon," Chris Weitz got a bigger budget and delivered a movie which looked professional and competent, but he couldn't simultaneously be true to an inert book and deliver a movie that wasn't also inert. Funny how that happens. 
 
Slade is gifted with both an even larger budget and, more importantly, a book that features a driving main plotline and genuine progress in the Edward-Bella-Jacob triangle. With those things in his corner, Slade is able to do something truly noteworthy: He's able to give "Eclipse" a look that is distinctive from the first two films, at times make this the first movie in the franchise driven by the director rather than screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg's uber-literal take on Stephenie Meyer's books.
 
The directorial fingerprints are visible from the opening scene, in which we escape from Forks for a few minutes for a visit to Seattle, where some creepy things are going on, creepy vampire-related things. In this sequence, the editing is jarring and disorienting. Javier Aguirresarobe's cinematography is chilly and evocative. I don't want to oversell the scene, but it's *almost* scary and *almost* unnerving and those are two sensations which, for the most part, the franchise hasn't aspired to previously.
 
It doesn't last long, because in no time we're back to Forks and back to Bella's (Kristen Stewart) voiceover and back to Bella and Edward (Robert Pattinson) in a sunlit field. On one hand, you see, the plot of "Eclipse" focuses on the scary thing that's happening in Seattle, where people are going missing and the Cullens have fears of an army of newborn vampires, but that plot is mostly relevant insofar as Bella is about to need protecting and that's going to require help from Jacob (Taylor Lautner) and his wolf-y buddies. As Edward becomes more and more mopey about the prospect of fulfilling Bella's desires to become a vampire herself, Jacob is becoming more and more viable as a protector and a potential love interest, forcing Bella to make a choice.
 
Relative to "New Moon," "Eclipse" feels both more action-driven *and* more character-driven, which makes you wonder what the heck was going on to fill two hours in the last movie.
 
The action is delivered in odd bursts, which can be largely blamed on Meyer and her peculiar love for fizzled climaxes and off-screen (or off-page) set pieces. So Slade makes do with at least one vampire training montage and by packing as much vampire-on-werewolf brawling into the big closing fight scene as possible. We're still not working with especially terrific CGI here -- fast-running Victoria (played by Bryce Dallas Howard, who isn't bad, but is certainly distractingly not Rachelle Lefevre) is especially silly -- but there's no doubt that the werewolves look better this time around and that the vampire action is much more engaging when they're trying to kill things than when they're playing baseball. Slade, unlike Hardwicke and Weitz, is also capable of producing momentum in the editing room, with the help of regular cutter Art Jones. Since "New Moon" peaked with a leisurely trip to Italy and some less-than-believable cliff-diving this is a tremendous improvement and male viewers (and more than a handful of female viewers) will be grateful.
 
But Slade didn't come into "Eclipse" thinking he was supposed to be making a "Transformers" sequel. He respects that for the core viewers, this is a series about yearning glances, florid and declarative pronouncements and passionate, close-mouthed kissing. He shows his understanding for the film's intimate scope by shooting an unexpected amount of time in tight close-ups. Since "Eclipse" is also being blown up for IMAX venues, this movie should be absolute kibble for fans wanting to experience the sensation of climbing up Lautner's nose or burrowing deeply into Pattinson's pores.
 
[Yes, actually, you *can* have too many close-ups. I wasn't in love with the rudimentary grammar of the style, but I liked the actors' willingness to be shot at sometimes-less-than-complimentary angles and in less-than-flattering light. These folks are all kinda famous for their prettiness and while sometimes Slade is very kind to them, he's also sometimes harsh.]
 
In the second movie, with Pattinson miserable and tortured the whole time and Lautner upbeat and topless, it felt as if Bella was chugging along in the direction of making a very wrong choice. Here, there's more balance and, as a result, Bella's decision is more proactive and less of a literary default. 
 
Oddly, although the stakes in this love triangle are higher than ever, the characters and the actors seem looser than ever. Edward makes at least one joke! Jacob makes at least one joke! Bella cracks a smile! And there are scenes between all three characters in which you can see the actors relaxing a little and no longer feeling the pressure of 50 million swooning teens (and nearly as many swooning viewers of other ages) on their shoulders. The Tent Scene -- readers of the book need no more explanation -- is effective and humanizing for all involved, even though it's set in one of the most ridiculous looking fake snow storms I've ever seen. It's still a problem that a half-dozen brief seconds of levity in a two-hour movie is cause for celebration.
 
And, of course, for every scene late allows the young stars to show more dimension -- Pattinson benefits most from the fresh shadings, while Lautner proves most limited -- there are scenes so earnest that nary a thespian alive could come out unscathed. Meyer's ideological feelings about pre-marital sex and the glories of abstinence are one thing on the page, where you can skim them and move on, but on the big screen with actors actually saying the words? With Bella climbing all over Edward, trying to tear her clothes off and begging him to have sex with her and Edward pulling back and launching into a lengthy speech about the courtly virtues of chaste romance? I'm not making any judgment on the message itself, merely the impossibility of it being convincingly conveyed in this venue. It's hilarious, especially in a movie that goes on and on about Bella's power and her ability to make her own choices, only to take away her sexual agency once she makes that choice.
 
[HitFix's Drew McWeeny has a thematic reading of the film that's pretty much spot-on... Check it out, assuming you haven't already.]
 
Also less plausible on the screen than on the page is the moment at which Jacob basically forces himself on Bella, which read a good deal more rape-y (or sexual assault-y) on the page, but has been transformed into a slightly inappropriate purloined smooch here. 
 
[Side note: Kristen Stewart does less lip-biting in this movie. Significantly less lip biting. I don't know if that was a choice she made, if that was a choice Slade impressed upon her or if it was a choice made in the editing room. But pay attention. There may not be any lip-biting at all. That won't stop lazy online video parodies from being all about lip-biting, but somebody ought to give Stewart credit for breaking from that nervous tic and it might as well be me.]
 
Returning again to my point that Slade and Rosenberg somehow got much more overall value out of "Eclipse," the movie is full of exposure for some of the less featured supporting characters from past installments. Several members of the Cullen clan get to tell their origin stories, allowing Jackson Rathbone to make his first actual impression to-date and letting Nikki Reed escape from the "Boy she's miscast!" ghetto that she's been stuck in since the first movie. Peter Facinelli gets several good monologues as well, though Carlisle has a new accent in this movie that I'm pretty sure was absent previously. And while I excused Stewart and Pattinson for their difficulties espousing abstinence with a straight face, I should salute Billy Burke for pulling off a perfectly believable version of The Talk with his on-screen daughter, a scene that only served to re-convince me that Burke is the most underrated part of this entire franchise.
 
Ack. This review somehow became very long. Can I find a way to bottom line this? "Eclipse" isn't the first great movie in the "Twilight" franchise, but it had more moments in it that I enjoyed than the first two movies combined. And the parts I didn't enjoy? Well, you'll probably love them too. I'm glad to offer Summit the pull quote, "'Eclipse' is the 'Twilight' movie you'll feel least bad watching," but I somehow doubt that'll make the press notes for the next one.
 
[And yes, I'm rather insanely curious about how Melissa Rosenberg and Bill Condon are going to pull off *anything* in their two-part adaptation of "Breaking Dawn." The sex, the imprinting, the climactic battle that builds into nothing? That is going to take some courage to pull off.]