Things begin, happily enough, with a wedding, as Bella (Kristen Stewart) says "I do" to Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) and joins his family of shimmeringly benevolent vampires. Still violently opposed to the union is Bella's lupine best friend and spurned suitor, Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner), especially when he learns the new Mrs. Cullen has decided to postpone her bloodsucker transformation until after her Brazilian honeymoon.
Jacob is right to worry: Though filmed with the utmost soft-focus, duvet-wrapped tastefulness, the couple's wedding night leaves Bella covered with bruises, the bed in tatters, and the audience, presumably, in a puddle of ecstasy. Surely this must be the first movie series so innately fearful of sex (and yet so dependent on its leads' sex appeal) that even proper conjugal relations come with a note of caution, none more frightening than when Bella suddenly finds herself with child -- half-human, half-vampire, a phenomenon with no biological precedent.
Up to this point, Condon and returning series scribe Melissa Rosenberg have translated the material in appreciably swoon-worthy fashion. Bella and Edward's woodland wedding may look like an Abercrombie & Fitch spread (their honeymoon suite skews more Pottery Barn), but it's an ardently, unabashedly romantic setpiece. By now Stewart and Pattinson have merged so completely with their roles and each other that the sight of the duo's matrimonial bliss -- delicately shaded by that sense of transience and loss that attends even happy life transitions -- delivers a genuine emotional payoff.
Woozy soft-rock montages and moonlit skinny-dipping interludes come effortlessly to "Breaking Dawn -- Part 1." The film is far less adept at conveying the requisite mounting stakes once the newlyweds rush home to find themselves under siege on multiple fronts. True to the spirit of masochistic self-sacrifice that has defined the series, the now haggard-looking, blood-sipping Bella insists on carrying her demon-child to term, not only endangering her own life (and suggesting a potentially fascinating medical debate), but also inciting a full-on war between the Cullens and Jacob's werewolf pack.
Every time the film shifts away from Bella and Edward to address the larger group dynamics, the narrative goes flat and the ensemble's line readings turn to wood, in large part because this style of dramatization is so at odds with the thrust of the source material. Meyer, no great prose stylist but an intuitive storyteller, places unusual emphasis on sensory and extrasensory gifts; that various characters can read minds, smell scents and hear heartbeats is of crucial importance to the advancing narrative. These are tricky, fundamentally un-cinematic modes of perception, and that they haven't found their visual equivalents here is hardly surprising.
More trying is the fact that Lautner plays the pivotal role of Jacob as such a softie; a more ferocious, testosterone-fueled approach would have raised the temperature of individual scenes and enabled the actor to hold his own better opposite Stewart and Pattinson. On the action front, the otherwise polished production reps a significant downgrade from the superior "Eclipse": Two nocturnal wolves-vs.-vamps combat scenes are essentially thrill-free, and so underlit that one is inclined to suspect slapdash CGI. With any luck, it's a mere warm-up act for the more epic supernatural showdown brewing a year from now.