It's precisely three shots into The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1 that Taylor Lautner takes his shirt off, and in all honesty I don't suppose that there can possibly be a more legitimate justification for seeing the movie.

Actually, the shocking thing about Breaking Dawn 1 is that, after three years and four directors, the Twilight franchise has finally ended up in the hands of a filmmaker who's capable of turning it into a legitimately functional piece of cinema. Bill Condon may or may not be your idea of a great director (he is not mine), but he has succeeded in doing away with all the whirling camera movements and suffocating slate greys and blues and omnipresent diffusion filter that dominated Catherine Hardwicke's Twilight, Chris Weitz's New Moon, and David Slade's Eclipse, replacing them with a straightforward, grown-up approach to filmmaking that assumes a) that we want to look at what we're looking at, and b) that we want it to look even vaguely natural. That's not much, but it's enough to make Breaking Dawn the best of the Twilight pictures, though I do love the English language too much to feel very nice about what I just did to the word "best".

Do you remember how Eclipse ended, all the way back in summer, '10? With a ponderous lack of conflict, dreadful werewolf VFX, and the moment that made a thousand teenage girls melt in ecstasy, when Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart), the mopey girl who can't take a deep breath without falling down and cutting herself to ribbons, the blank-faced prima donna of Forks, Washington, finally said "yes" to her sparkly vampire boyfriend Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), who refused to turn her into a vampire or have sex until they were married, because he is a good Mormon surrogate. Now, it's their wedding! in a magical woodsy glade that is positively apocalyptic with droopy white plant hangings, and everybody we've ever seen in any of these movies who isn't dead yet, and also Bella's terrible nightmare about murdering everybody she has ever loved. It's like symbolism, except without the part where you have to decode what it means.

But, they get married anyway, and even though Bella's ex best friend Jacob Black (Lautner) comes in and is all smoldering and pissy that his crush who has never, at any point in their shared lives, led him to believe that she is sexually attracted to him, is now getting married, everything goes wonderfully, and then Edward and Bella are whisked off to a beautiful island that the Cullens own off the coast of Rio de Janeiro, where they enjoy the most acrobatic, room-destroying fucking that you can possibly depict in a PG-13 movie (and apparently, Condon's first cut was tagged with an R for too much sexiness by the MPAA), and then Edward is absolutely horrified that he has somehow damaged his glowing 18-year-old virgin bride and refuses to touch her. Which is just as well, for that one night of lovemaking is all it took to get Bella knocked up with a human-vampire hybrid - something that nobody thought could even happen - and the baby is growing at a freakish pace, and reducing its mother to a rickety bag of dry, grey skin and bones (the makeup and digital amplification that went into making Stewart look like the wrong side of a years-long heroin habit is, all by itself, a better effect than anything in the first three movies).

So, here's the thing: maybe five things happen in Breaking Dawn, the exhaustively long book by Stephenie Meyer, and for the most mercenary reasons imaginable Summit Entertainment required Condon and longtime series screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg to divide those five incidents and 700 pages into a pair of two-hour movies. This despite the fact that its three predecessors were all unendurably boring despite condensing roughly the same amount of plot into just over two hours each. Which means, naturally enough, that Breaking Dawn is pretty freaking tedious, though at least the switch from "Bella moons over Edward" to "Bella has sex with Edward" means that it's not as much a clone of the other movies as Eclipse was of New Moon. Also, the whole last 40 minutes, when the baby starts to kill Bella, is at least modestly effective, though none of it is a tenth as gleefully outlandish as on the page, where Meyer started for the first time in her monotonous epic to pile on Grand Guignol quantities of splattering blood - in the book, the fetus literally eats its way through her uterus, a wonderfully insane spot of body horror that is not even slightly indicated by the peekaboo blocking Condon is required to use in order to keep the film comfortably within its audience-friendly rating.

Boring, yes, but I still say it's the best, even though it has, pound for pound, less content than any of the three preceding movies; for at least it's not gloomy to look at. As shot by the unbelievably overqualified Guillermo Navarro, Guillermo del Toro's go-to cinematographer, parts of it are even kind of lovely - Rio and the island, especially - and the whole thing is properly saturated but not too bright, and the vampires in particular look a great deal more physical and less ethereal than ever before. Nor is there even a single instance of sparkling vampires, even in places where there really had ought to be.

And, for the first time in the franchise, Stewart is doing something that is not staring ahead and mumbling like a stoner. It is not necessarily something good, but she has apparently decided the time is come to do anything besides play Bella Swan, and lets some oxygen into the role for the very first time. This is a brighter, more articulate, more physical Bella, a Bella who does not appear to be largely dead (that is, until she is largely dead), a Bella who is still not convincing as a young girl in love, and the performance still seems to be Stewart's way of elliptically demonstrating that she hates Bella Swan and Twilight more than anyone else alive. But it's different, and different is necessarily good. Anyway, it's the closest the film comes to a good performance: the side characters, never very interesting, have all dropped massively in quality since the last movie, and the handful of new characters are some of the worst yet, with Maggie Grace giving a 90-second performance that might very well be the worst piece of acting in 2011.

These are, for the most part, incremental changes: the unspeakable - literally - flowery dialogue is still intact, as is the wall-to-wall miserabilist indie rock soundtrack, Pattinson still has no chemistry with Stewart, Lautner still can't outact the shirts he so angrily throws to the ground all the time (also, I never really thought about this before, but he has a face like a smug potato). At least one of the scenes ranks among the dumbest things you will ever see in a movie theater, as Jacob and the other werewolves stand in a circle and have a telepathic argument; it barely worked in the book, when the action switched over to Jacob's first-person POV for a few chapters, but Rosenberg's solution to that perspective is grimly obvious and Condon basically treats it as a dialogue-heavy confrontation between cartoon wolves that look almost like something besides CGI. Also, Lautner has to fall in love with a baby with a face that is the most uncomfortably artificial looking thing ever - I think it has computer-animated eyes, but maybe it's just a lot of post-processing. Anyway, it looks horrible, and that's without the bit where a teenage boy is falling in love with a baby, something that makes a little bit of sense if you've read the books and don't care about anything decent in the world.

Anyway, it is better than Breaking Dawn 2 is apt to be - for there is one whole plot point left in the whole two hours of that movie - and less fun - for that movie is going to have to resort to some awfully crazy shit to keep itself moving - and almost good enough to be watchable in the most unengaging, disinterested way possible. Almost.

Reviews in this series
Twilight (Hardwicke, 2008)
The Twilight Saga: New Moon (Weitz, 2009)
The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (Slade, 2010)
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1 (Condon, 2011)
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2 (Condon, 2012)