So here’s what the movie adaptations of Stephenie Meyer’s vampire-werewolf-sad girl love triangle needed: Something to actually happen. And things do happen in The Twilight Saga: Eclipse. Sure the story only gets the characters a few steps away from point A toward B, but in the taking of those baby steps, director David Slade and screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg (who adapted the previous two movies in the series) have finally put something resembling conflict on screen.

A giant step up from its redundant predecessor, the third installment in the eternal love affair between the mopey, teenage human Bella (Kristen Stewart) and the (abusive) vampire Edward (Robert Pattinson) succeeds in soap opera frivolity — taking everything a lot less seriously — although it still fails to make these characters and their drawn-out struggles anything more than such.

After the last-second proposal that ended the previous movie, Bella still doesn’t want to marry Edward. Try and ask as often as he may (and he does a lot here), she says no. What’s the reason? Well, Bella is still indecisive, because that’s about all there is to her character. Well, indecisiveness and loving Edward as much as any girl can love a controlling, domineering vampire are all there are to her character. Two out of three marriages end in divorce, she tells him. The vampire-human marriage ratio is better, he argues.

After blowing him off with stark honesty, Bella wants to try to reconcile with her other supernatural admirer, the werewolf Jacob (Taylor Lautner). He loves her and wants her to love and be with him. Nothing less will do for this constantly shirtless, comparably vicious kid, and halfway through their squabbles and showy public displays of affection with Bella, Edward, the jealous type he is, asks Jacob what the audience has been pondering for two and half movies: “Does he have a shirt?”

Either Rosenberg has finally developed a sense of humor about this material, or neither of the series’ previous directors bothered to make it as clear as Slade does this time around. Whichever the case, the movie benefits greatly from their shared realization that this stuff can be played for laughs and not just happen upon unintentional ones.

As Jacob is about to run off to battle an army of newborn vampires whose only goal is to kill her, Bella orders him to stay, with the intonation of yelling at a disobedient dog. One of Edward’s adoptive sisters relays the story of her taking vengeance against the people who left her for dead, ending with her barging into her former fiancé’s room in a bridal gown. “I was more theatrical back then,” she smirks.

Then there’s the moment Jacob tries to steal a kiss from Bella, who punches him in the face. As Edward and Jacob fight on Bella’s front lawn, her father (Billy Burke) walks between them to find out what the fuss is about. With a straight face, Jacob admits, “I kissed Bella. She punched me in the face and broke her hand.” The dad’s blank reaction sells the gag, and his failed stab at having the sex talk with his daughter is pretty funny on a self-analysis level.

Small, amusing details like this paint a more human semblance for these characters more than any of Bella’s tragically toned voiceovers, which are considerably less present in this one. Bella’s own troubled personality and inner conflict take the back seat to the green-eyed chest-thumping of her suitors, and that’s another element in the movie’s favor. A scene between the two as they hide Bella away from her pursuers in a tent on a freezing hillside contains as much honesty as these characters, whose only significant layering is their relationship to the heroine, can muster.

The plot continues the red-headed vampire Victoria’s (now played by Bryce Dallas Howard) attempt to kill Bella to avenge the death of her own love at Edward’s hands. She’s building an army of ferocious, newly turned vampires, led by her second-in-command Riley (Xavier Samuel). In response, Edward and his coven forge an alliance with Jacob and his tribe to fight the looming threat.

The big battle between the vampires (with some werewolves thrown in) is effective, the downed bloodsuckers cracking like plaster statues under strain. For its minor successes, the story suffers a lot of weight in efforts to flesh out its mythology, including flashbacks to the initial quarrel between the vampires and lycanthropes, others showing the pasts of a pair of side players, and the return of the unintimidating Volturi, whose purpose makes even less sense in this entry.

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse is wise to change the propulsion of the series, and it does so in major ways. Unfortunately, they are not enough to overcome the flaws inherent to the material.

Mark Dujsik is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. For more of his reviews, visit his website.

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