Splitting Stephenie Meyer’s fourth and final Twilight book, Breaking Dawn, into two movies certainly makes sense from a business perspective: Studio Summit Entertainment can get Twi-hards to fork over cash for two (or two dozen) trips to the theater, two DVDs, two sets of merchandise and so on. But narratively, the result of cutting Breaking Dawn in half is that the first installment is two hours of slow, tedious setup with very little payoff, an extended interlude after the relative excitement of 2010’s Eclipse. It’s not that nothing happens in Breaking Dawn, Part 1—human Bella (Kristen Stewart) and vampire Edward (Robert Pattinson) get married, go on their honeymoon and give birth to a freakish vampire-human hybrid baby—but that it’s all drawn-out and flat (even more so than is typical for the franchise), delivered at a slow, plodding pace that seems designed solely to stretch things out to two hours.
Edward and Bella’s romance remains as inert and pathological as ever, and even at their wedding they seem forlorn and distant. The much-hyped sex scenes between the two (only after they’re married, of course) are timid and halting, encapsulating the prudish outlook of the series as a whole. When Bella becomes pregnant with the fast-growing, parasitic fetus, she’s once again the helpless pawn in a petulant feud between Edward and werewolf Jacob (Taylor Lautner), who wants to protect Bella but is still mad that she’s chosen Edward over him. The rivalry between the two has lost much of its urgency now that Bella’s married to Edward, and Lautner’s acting is still pretty laughable, especially when he has to express any serious emotions (he does, however, obligingly take his shirt off within less than a minute of the movie starting). A scene in which the werewolves, in their wolf forms, argue over what to do about Bella’s unborn child, with the actors delivering lines in cheesy voiceover as the CGI creatures menace each other, is especially full of unintentional laughs.
Director Bill Condon, who’s been responsible for such prestige projects as Dreamgirls, Kinsey and Gods and Monsters, does bring a little stylistic flair to some sequences, most notably at the beginning of the movie, in a flashback to Edward’s early days as a vampire (using black-and-white images that evoke old monster movies) and a disturbing dream that Bella has the night before her wedding (one of the only times the franchise has embraced actual horror). But mostly Breaking Dawn sticks to the same gloomy template as the previous movies, and Condon is still saddled with Meyer’s prissy, moralistic story (which turns into a perverse sort of anti-abortion drama for a while) and Melissa Rosenberg’s tone-deaf screenplay.
There’s virtually no suspense to Bella’s condition, since even people who’ve never read the books know that the heroine isn’t going to die, and the brief fight sequences between the vampires and werewolves are underwhelming. After the first few end credits roll, the movie tacks on a scene featuring Michael Sheen as the head of the Volturi, the ancient vampire cabal with a grudge against the Cullens, and his gleefully evil delivery of a threat to the main characters is easily the most exciting and entertaining part of the movie. That bodes well for the showdown to come in Breaking Dawn, Part 2, but this first chapter represents the Twilight series at its gooey, brooding worst.