The Twilight films seem to divide people into two distinct camps - obsessed fans and everyone else. Those in the first group have already made their mind up about New Moon, probably before even a single frame was shot. They're going to see it, and they're going to love it. It's faithful to the book (almost to a fault) and filled with romantic tension, teen angst and, of course, hot boys running around without their shirts on. The problem is that all of this fan service comes at the expense of telling a good story with characters the general audience can care about without having read any of Stephenie Meyer's books.
If you're wondering what all the fuss is about, the answer is complicated and can be hard to understand if you've never been a teenage girl. At its essence, the Twilight books are a wish-fulfillment fantasy, wrapped in an abstinence metaphor. The central character is Bella, played by Kristen Stewart, a plain, ordinary girl who attracts the romantic attention of just about every boy in Forks, Wash., where she lives with her divorced dad. That attention includes a beautiful and exquisitely tortured vampire named Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), who attends school with the rest of his vampire clan in an attempt to fit in (because the fact the they're pasty white and have golden eyes doesn't make them stand out at all). Edward isn't just attracted to Bella physically, he's drawn to the deliciously sweet smell of her blood. But he's a benevolent "vegetarian" vampire who doesn't eat humans, so he's forced to constantly keep himself in check whenever he's around her. It's that gentlemanly restraint that fuels the tension between these two, who really just want to get it on, but can't. At least, not until they're married. But that's skipping ahead.
New Moon introduces two new elements to the mythology of the series. The first is the existence of werewolves, in this case a group of Native American boys from the Quileute reservation not far from Forks. Like the vampires, who don't have fangs and sparkle in the sunlight, the werewolves in the Twi-verse have their own set of rules that don't conform to the familiar legend. They can transform at will, day or night, and their metamorphosis has no bearing on the phases of the moon (despite the title). Also, in this world, lycanthropy is hereditary and exclusive to the Quileute tribe; it's not caused by a bite or scratch.
The other new element is the development of a love triangle between Bella, Edward and Bella's friend Jacob (Taylor Lautner), who we saw briefly in the first film. Bella and Edward are separated for much of the film, leaving Jacob to pick up the pieces after she descends into a deep depression. Jacob, who has his own problems to deal with when he discovers he's a werewolf, serves as a shoulder to cry on and also a potential alternate love interest for Bella. Unfortunately for Jacob, though, Bella and Edward have already been set up as this epic, star-crossed couple, so you never really feel like he has a chance with her, though he's arguably a much better match in some ways.
Meanwhile, Bella is so wrapped up in her love for Edward that it practically defines her existence. When she accidentally discovers that she has visions of him whenever she's in danger, she seeks out increasingly perilous situations, just to see him again. Conveniently for her, Jacob builds motorcycles, so she buys a couple and gets him to help her fix them up. Jacob is fully aware she's only using him, but he lets her do it anyway, because he's a young fool in love. It doesn't engender much sympathy for either of the characters, nor does Edward come off looking like much of a hero after abandoning Bella "for her own good."
The film suffers a bit from middle-child syndrome, often a problem with the second part of multiple-film franchises. Bella and Edward are already together when we enter the story, so there isn't that initial rush of watching the characters fall in love. The plot is also burdened with exposition and laying the groundwork of the next installment, most of which is done in the climactic final act, set in the Italian city of Volterra. Until we get there, the pace tends to drag, and it often feels as though the story is just treading water.
The performances don't really help matters much. With Edward out of the picture, Jacob becomes the male romantic lead for much of the film, and Lautner is up to the challenge. He's done a lot of work to bulk himself up for the role, and takes every possible opportunity to show it, even when it's not relevant to the story. Pattinson's job doesn't require much more of him than looking pretty and tortured, and he does both with equal proficiency. Stewart is the weak link here, however. She rushes through much of her dialogue, as if she is fully aware of how cheesy it is and just wants to get through it as quickly as possible. Her delivery isn't as flat and wooden as it was in Twilight, but she's still fairly subdued and joyless throughout much of the film. Which is a problem when you're the central character with whom audiences are supposed to identify.
The most improved aspect here, in comparison with the last film, is the action scenes. Director Chris Weitz (The Golden Compass) is clearly much more comfortable with the scope of a project like this, and he's a lot better at handling action than Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke. This isn't an action film by any stretch, but the conflict between the vampires and werewolves heats up in this installment, and we get a few cool action and chase sequences. The CG is also well designed and rendered. The werewolves in particular are expressive, and the transitions from human to creature are swift and seamless.
At its heart, though, New Moon is an unabashedly melodramatic tale of tortured romance. Fueled by a melancholy indie soundtrack featuring the likes of Death Cab for Cutie, Thom Yorke, Bon Iver and The Killers, this film knows its audience well. It delivers what is expected of it, but not much more. New Moon will undoubtedly appeal to the legions of Twilight fans out there, but it'll be a harder sell for the rest of the movie-going public. As a standalone film judged on its own merits, this vampire/werewolf movie doesn't have much bite.