It's probably a little early to speculate but here goes: New Moon might be the best film this franchise has to offer, and here's why: The first Twilight movie, based on the series of books by Stephenie Meyer, thrived off the unrealized sexual tension between vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) and ordinary mortal Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart).
Sure, if they were to do it, he might kill her -- but there was something unrealistic about a hot-for-each other duo (whose lust carried on, delightfully, offscreen, as well) steering clear of any carnal action.
In New Moon, Edward dumps Bella. Yes, it's for her own protection, but it's a romantic plot twist that's infinitely more interesting. And it's Bella's newfound freedom (and Stewart's much stronger performance) that imbues the series' second film with a more robust pulse and liberates the film's director and screenwriter from sticking too closely to Meyer's often prudish text.
The darker subject matter suits Stewart well. Having reigned in some of her distracting mannerisms, she continues to make Bella the realistic and complex character that her pagebound counterpart was not. Her brooding expression conveys as much about heartbreak as her dirty sweatpants. Director Chris Weitz (About a Boy, The Golden Compass) observes Bella's despondency without protracting it. As the post-breakup months tick by, the camera spins around Bella's bedroom where she sits, listless, listening to sad songs by Lykke Li.
Meanwhile, R Patz -- whose character is less central to this film's plotline -- isn't exactly missed, either, no doubt a disappointing realization for Team Edward (aka Twilight fans who prefer Pattinson's character as the lead male protagonist). Stewart and Pattinson's cagey public behavior -- a response to rumors of a real-life romance -- only underscores the occasional ridiculousness of their characters' obsessive attachment. The chemistry that propelled the first film is fading and Pattinson seems stymied by its absence.
Those who saw Twilight might remember the first time Edward caught a whiff of Bella and fought the urge to devour her: Pattinson's nostrils flared, and he appeared somewhat constipated. That's how he looks all the time in the sequel. It's not entirely the actor's fault -- as a character, Edward is a relentless killjoy, an ice-cold ball of suppressed desire. But for whatever reason, Pattinson cannot summon genuine emotion without looking like he just smelled something awful.
So Bella turns to Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner), her Native American best friend, for consolation, hanging out on his reservation, where none of the boys wear shirts (including Lautner, who added 30 pounds of chiseled muscle for the role), adrenaline tends to be contagious -- oh yeah, and everyone's secretly a werewolf. Before long, she's zooming around on motorbikes and diving off cliffs, but not just for the hell of it.
Flirting with danger brings her closer to Edward; she hallucinates his ghostly apparition whenever she takes life-threatening risks. This is a classic example of the wish fulfillment that defines the Twilight series: In real life, acting suicidal doesn't win anybody back. But, then again, in real life, dudes don't dump you because they love you too much.
Lautner's Jacob is refreshingly amiable. He offers Bella what she can never have with Edward: a good time. This dichotomy develops over the rest of the series but it works better in New Moon than it ever does again. For the audience, if not for Bella, there's a certain satisfaction in knowing that true love is never far away -- so why not live a little first?
Meanwhile, Weitz, who replaced Twilight's Catherine Hardwicke, and returning screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg seem energized by the events of the second book, which they remain faithful to. But Rosenberg has a little more fun with the source material this time, like when Bella joins her high school friends for a movie, and they choose between purposefully absurd titles like Love Spelled Backwards Still Spells Love and Face Punch. Also, Up in the Air's impressive Anna Kendrick, who reprises her all-too-small role as Bella's friend Jessica, goes on an amusingly indignant rant about zombies.
By the time Bella takes off to Italy to stop Edward from sparkling in public and incurring the wrath of the Volturi (the vampire governing body -- just roll with it), a lot has already happened. I would have been resistant to the special-effects-heavy showdown if actors Michael Sheen and Dakota Fanning didn't relish their evil roles so delightfully.
And even as the reunited lovers rush to sacrifice themselves to save the other (groan), there's levity from the rest of the Volturi, who behave like an ancient vamp version of a Project Runway panel. Meyer never had the savvy to wink at her audience like this.