Notably more polished but less engaging than its more honest and rough-hewed predecessor, "New Moon" is a morbid and awkward middle child entry in the already highly successful "Twilight" film series. Lighter in look but darker in tone, 'Moon' gives us glimpses of a wide-appealing larger world in play here, but too often ignores it in favour of an ill-conceived love triangle storyline that never delivers any emotional honesty.
While the parallels to "Romeo and Juliet" are laboured on thick, more fitting a comparison is "Moby Dick". What else is Edward if not a pale white force of nature, and Bella the protagonist so utterly consumed by her obsession to him much to the detriment of everyone around her. Of course Melville took Ahab's obsession to its logical conclusion, Meyer's story on the other hand kindly rewards Bella's narcissism and borderline schizophrenic personality disorder.
That makes the character sound far more interesting than she is of course for Bella is an empty shell for the film's target audience to project themselves onto and empathise with. What makes it difficult to do so however is that there is nothing sympathetic or commendable about the character at all short of her rundown truck and Target-bought clothes signifying she's at least not as materialistic as many her age increasingly are.
Irrational, utterly self-centred, awash with feelings of entitlement, deeply disturbed on an emotional level, and profoundly stupid - the character is a sink hole that threatens to capsize the picture, especially during the hour-long segment post-Edward but pre-Italy where the focus is all on her depression and the narrative moves with all the energy of a three-hour art movie about heroin-addicted housewives in East Azerbaijan.
A central character doesn't have to be sympathetic, but they do have to be involving and Bella possesses neither the charm, wit or assertiveness to do that. It's not Kristen Stewart's fault, the generally solid actress actually makes some of the less extreme actions of her emotionally ravaged character seem more grounded and credible even if they're not particularly logical. Nor is it director Chris Weitz who gets slightly more natural performances out of most involved than Hardwicke did in the first film.
The blame for that goes solely on the writers, a fact made painfully visible by not being able to counter balance the elements with either a compelling story or effective romantic foils. Missing for much of the film aside from ineffective hallucinations, Pattinson delivers the same barely serviceable work as last time, once again playing the chaste bad boy full of stifled passion. Even more this time out, Edward is very much a gothic romance archetype more akin to a bodice-ripping paperback hero than anything approaching a fleshed out character.
The surprise here is Taylor Lautner. Very unimpressive in the first film and not much better in the early scenes of this one, the newly muscular teenager suddenly becomes a decent little actor at the halfway point when he dons a new haircut and struts around topless. A scene with him and Bella standing in the rain and him struggling with a secret actually has some effective delivery and pathos. Considering Lautner's acting improved so much sans shirt, I wonder if there might have been Oscar buzz had he taken off his pants. Stewart herself can't seem to take her eyes off his chest throughout their scenes together.
In both cases however the romance rings empty as the situations that cause these bonds to form are thoroughly contrived. The men themselves may be devoted to her, but they treat her with a sense of possessiveness akin to serial wife beaters rather than sharing an emotional bond of mutual love and respect. More successful but never quite properly integrated are questions of the compatibility of mortal/immortal love from the effects of the mortal partner's natural ageing to a graphic example of what can happen when the 'beast' you love loses control even for just a split second.
The biggest improvement from the first film is the visuals. Armed with a much bigger budget, the blue saturation effect and bad wire-fu work of the first film have been ditched in favor of a more normal color palette and better integrated computer effects. While the natural lighting makes the vampire makeup and light brown contact lenses seem more artificial than before, they give the dark story a more tangible feel and grander sense - especially during the Italian scenes. The usually reliable Alexandre Desplat however provides a generally underwhelming score amidst the forgettable pop songs with no real unifying components to give this series a much needed signature tune.
The cinematography is notably better with shots on a much wider scale and carried out with more ambition, even if they don't always work. A single shot circling Bella's window to note the passing of time would've been a nice touch had text notations of each month not spoiled it somewhat. A pan up & down trick shot of Bella and Alice leaving Washington and getting to Italy is a good idea for a 'travel montage' but brings up the question how in hell do vampires get through customs & immigration with glowing skin?
One sequence pulled off well has Victoria appearing and being chased through the woods by wolves. The threat of her return is just one of the several side subplots going on that are often more engaging than the main storyline. While the CG wolves are too animated to be truly credible, their design and size make them a tangible threat while the Native American Abercrombie & Fitch line-up that constitute their human halves are underwritten characters that would've been nice to get some more exploration of.
The narrative's sudden jump to Italy seems rushed and forced, but the 15-20 minute segment provides a welcome bit of life to the picture with the location work, a modestly successful race against the clock bit of suspense, and a visit with the Volturi (vampire royalty). Michael Sheen visibly delights in getting to chew the scenery as the Volturi leader Aro, while Dakota Fanning puts in a nice little cameo as psychically well-endowed young vampiress Jane.
Peter Facinelli, who seemed oddly miscast as the Cullen patriarch the first time around, and Billy Burke prove comforting and rational father figures despite having only a few lines each. Ashley Greene's Alice is a delightfully welcoming optimistic presence amongst all the gloom, but you feel sorry for Anna Kendrick and Michael Welch who're stuck as Bella's long-suffering school friends whom she treats with little more than contempt.
Like any franchise with a devoted fanbase from "Star Wars" and "Harry Potter" to the various superhero movies that plague our multiplexes, one's level of enjoyment greatly depends on how much goodwill is in play with you as the viewer. If the books and or earlier film have significant meaning to you, chances are you will likely recognise but have a lot more patience, innate understanding and forgiveness of the film's flaws than the casual viewer like myself. There will also be the haters though, the ones with a pre-determined agenda or aversion to the material who will pounce on every single pockmark of the film (and this one has quite a few).
In the end the film is a better looking, better produced and from what I understand more faithful adaptation than the first film was. Yet I can't help but feel that the first one has more replay value than this often too dull, sullen and drawn out entry which has a much more uneven sense of pacing and structure about it. The ending leaves things open for the already shot and far more exciting sounding next chapter in the series, but 'Moon' makes me wonder how many of the non-devotees will stick around for that.