An early gripe with Eclipse, the latest instalment in the Twilight saga, is that it ducks - or, more precisely, postpones answering - the question popped at the end of last year's New Moon as a major series cliffhanger. Instead, we find Kristen Stewart's Bella Swan still attempting to broker peace between the vampire and werewolf factions of her Washington neighborhood, and - accordingly - refusing to commit fully to either pre-eminent bloodsucker Edward (Robert Pattinson) or oft-topless lycanthrope Jacob (Taylor Lautner). "From now on, I'm Switzerland," our heroine declares, which at least explains the suspicious gold reserves tucked away under her bed.
Eclipse is the one where these main characters graduate high school, and there is - just - a sense of a franchise beginning at last to grow up - and out. The director is David Slade, who made the effective 30 Days of Night, and the introduction of a gang of "new bloods" - unruly vampire debutantes - permits a heightened level of carnage: at one point, unless I'm very much mistaken, there's even an allusion to gang rape, which would never be allowed at Hogwarts. (As ever in this franchise, sexuality in all its forms is something to be fearful of.) As signalled by the first image after the opening credits - Bella reading poetry to Edward in a field of glowing bluebells - the saga has become ever more floridly self-involved. In Eclipse, what seems like every supporting vamp and werewolf gets their own expositional flashback, pushing the running time over two hours, and - for the first time - we see this interspecies conflict receiving serious coverage on CNN. (There should have been a Twilight-themed special edition of The Situation Room, presented by Werewolf Blitzer.)
In other words, the franchise, a decent-sized juggernaut to begin with, has got bigger and bigger ever since - and yet: every time Eclipse threatens to crush the delicate, swoony rhythms that made the first film so intoxicating, it can pull back to show Bella and Edward tentatively testing the parameters of their relationship; if nothing else, it's a franchise with restraint in its veins. As a consequence, some pleasing elements have survived the relentless process of sequelisation. Stewart and Pattinson really do have something going on, onscreen at least, and one might also spare a few words for the increasingly wry and welcome participation of Billy Burke as Bella's father, a touchstone for grown-up viewers in the same way Mr. Bennet is for any men reading Pride and Prejudice.
Of course, this wouldn't be a summer event movie without its flaws and wastage. The new vampires (even Bryce Dallas Howard, a passenger once more after last summer's Terminator: Salvation; someone get this girl a better agent) are little more than a passing, naggingly irrelevant sideshow. (I was happy enough with the old vampires.) And the plasticky Lautner, all teeth and torso ("Doesn't he have a shirt?," Edward muses in one of the film's occasional moments of self-awareness), remains a sticking point in the efficacy of the central love triangle; frankly, Team Jacob is for morons, like anyone who thought England might still win the World Cup after their performance in the group stages. That rare beast - a truly feminine movie phenomenon - it'll again be a nonsense if you're not, or if you've never been, a 14-year-old girl. But if you are 14 years old, and a boy has just refused to hold your hand, then I could see how it might just mean the world to you.
The Twilight Saga: Eclipse previews today, and opens nationwide from Friday.