Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1 - Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) and Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) have a few more problems than most newlyweds encounter © 2011 Summit Entertainment, Photo by Andrew Cooper

When it’s good, this fourth installment in the Twilight series – The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1 – is a supernatural-romance guilty pleasure that’s self-aware enough to be tongue in cheek. And when it’s bad, it’s werewolves.

As the dangerously lovestruck Bella Swan, Kristen Stewart is the only cast member who displays anything resembling naturalism. That’s somehow appropriate, considering everyone around her is an anxiously troubled vampire, a flexingly hammy werewolf or the sort of warm and/or witty human who populates teen-centered TV dramas.

Nearly everybody from the previous movies is on hand for Bella’s elaborate outdoor wedding to palefaced vampire dreamboat Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson). Even rejected suitor Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner), who is so furious when he gets news of those nuptials he dramatically tears off his shirt during the movie’s first minute and wolfs into the woods, turns up for an unlikely dance with the bride.

Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner) thinks he’s the best man © 2011 Summit Entertainment

While the real wedding is a rustic Martha Stewart fantasy, Bella’s night-before nightmare version is outrageously cooler. Everyone’s in white, thousands of rose petals are bright red and the bloodstained not-so-happy couple stands atop a wedding cake of corpses. Why this unforgettable image isn’t on the movie’s poster, instead of boringly conventional shots of the three principals, is the year’s biggest marketing mystery.

An easier-to-understand commercial consideration was spreading author Stephenie Meyers’ novel over two movies to double box-office profits. The problem is that there’s not enough story here to justify that decision in anything but monetary terms. The entire plot can be summed up by saying Bella gets married and has a potentially demonic pregnancy, but this is no stylishly elaborate Rosemary’s Baby. The similarly halved Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows had a lot more story to warrant such a split. On the other hand, much of Deathly Hallows Part 1 was deadly dull and the movie ended with a cliffhanger, so call it a draw.

Many supporting players are welcomely familiar. Bella’s former schoolmate Jessica Stanley (the always adorable Anna Kendrick) has a couple of the movie’s most amusingly self-referential lines. Mistakenly believing the bride is knocked up, she cattily asks a friend, “Who else gets married at 18?” She later toasts “Edward, or ‘The Hair,’ as they call him.”

In the groom’s fanged artificial family, psychic Alice Cullen (Ashley Greene) is perpetually perky and impossibly pretty, the grim Dr. Carlisle Cullen (Peter Facinelli) is somberly fatherly and Rosalie Hale (Nikki Reed) is so sullenly resentful she’s almost comic about it.

The werewolves are the weak link. Lautner is so posingly inauthentic he makes Tom Cruise look like Jimmy Stewart. Most members of his wolfpack seem like overacting, interchangeable dumbbells with ‘roid rage. The exception is lil’ cub Seth Clearwater (Booboo Stewart), an easygoing teen who is likable without being obnoxious about it. But computer-animated shots of telepathic wolves snarling at each other and engaging in blurry, hard-to-follow dogfights are not only goofy but nowhere near state-of-the-art.

Director Bill Condon (who simultaneously filmed next year’s Part 2) is better with more intimate scenes, such as Bella and Edward’s picturesque, sometimes playful but sexually awkward island honeymoon. Although the movie is rated PG-13, parents of tweens should be aware that there’s some literally bed-wrecking thrusting on display, and later a whole lot of gore during a violent and surprisingly horrific childbirth.

The bizarre Jacob/Edward/Bella love triangle and the ongoing vampire/werewolf feud remain inherently silly, but the screenplay (by Melissa Rosenberg, writer of all four adaptations) has three things going for it. The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1 offers an easy jumping-on point for anyone who missed the first three movies, it has an ending that makes it a self-contained story and it’s not in 3D.

What’s too bad is that a bonus scene midway through the end credits is so inappropriately campy it undercuts the movie’s killer (or should that be “Thriller?”) climax. The filmmakers should have known when to leave a tender undead moment alone.

[Rating: 3 stars]

James Dawson

Jim is Film Review Online's Los Angeles based reviewer.