Saturday, March 7, 2009

Who Watches the Watchmen? I did.

[SPOILER ALERT] These are my reactions to Watchmen. If you haven’t seen it, and want to, you might not want to read this. Also, I’m assuming anyone who reads this is familiar with the story, so there will no exposition of plot. Keep up. [/SPOILER ALERT]

Like the good comic book geek that I am, on Thursday I went to the midnight showing of “Watchmen”, along with every nerd and his mother in downtown Brooklyn. I went to the show with a group of college buddies, a few of whom had been responsible for me reading the comic in the first place, about which I later went on to write my undergraduate thesis. So, as you might expect, my expectations were high. Or at least they would have been if I hadn’t spent the last 9 months in near monk-like meditation keeping them at appropriately realistic levels. I figured that if I kept them low, I wouldn’t be too disappointed when Zack Snyder failed to achieve in a movie what Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons had achieved with the comic.

Well, he didn’t and I wasn’t. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy myself or that he completely missed the mark, because neither of those things are true. Anyway, without further ado, some of my thoughts on the movie:

All in all, I was really pleased with the casting. You can tell Snyder loves the book by how closely (in most cases) he tries to match actor to their source material. This is most notable in the casting of Moloch, played by Max Headroom (glad to see they let him out of the box to do some work). I also thought that Jeffrey Dean Morgan was a great choice for Edward Blake/Comedian – he looked the part and gave a pretty solid performance, and any failings in his ability to convey Blake’s nihilism I attribute to Snyder’s inability to direct actors. One nitpick (others to follow... I did write a fucking book about this thing, after all): his scar was impossible to see! It was there, but not distinguishable in most scenes from regular wrinkles/creases. This really bugged me for some reason. And in general, the make-up (notably, the old age make-up of Sally Jupiter and Janey Slater) was pretty sub-par, especially for a movie that dedicated itself so thoroughly to recreating as faithfully as possible the look and feel of the comic. What, did they run out of money in the budget from over-animating Bill Crudup’s little Smurf wang? (Actually, “little” is inaccurate. Doc Manhattan is swinging some serious pipe, and often – those dismayed by the lack of full frontal male nudity in films will be pleased with how often Big Blue appears on screen.)

I was very pleased with Billy Crudup and the rendering of Doc Manhattan, which was one of the more exciting aspects of the book brought to life. Of course, the real winner, and the guy everyone will be talking about, is former Bad News Bear Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach, whose performance was phenomenal and without question the best of the movie. Really, he is probably the all around best part of the movie, which is apt because Rorschach is also the anchor of the book. And the animation of his mask was perfectly executed.

Probably my favorite bit of casting of the main cast was actually Patrick Wilson as Night Owl II. Sure, he could have been a bit flabbier, but in general I though he really captured Dreiberg’s look and pathos. And, with all of the other more discussion-worthy characters (for good or bad), I imagine he will get overlooked. As for Malina Akerman as Silk Spectre II, I was not nearly as bothered by her performance as many others seem to be. Visually, at least, I thought she was spot on and the slight tweak to her costume was an improvement over the original.

My real problem was Matthew (not so) Goode as Ozymandias. Not only did I think he was miscast based purely on physical appearance – Goode is young, thin, British and I think of Ozymandias as a much more imposing, Aryan, corn-fed, middle-aged, running back-sized dude – but his (Snyder’s?) choice to play Adrian as a fey, emo, arch supervillain seemed to really miss the mark, and in general every scene in which he appeared made me cringe. And because of his cartoon-evil approach, I felt like it was really no surprise when we “find out” in the end that he is the center of the conspiracy.

So, speaking of the ending, it should be discussed. There will be lots of ink spilled on this – was it a good change? a bad change? etc. – so, I’ll throw my two cents into the pot:

I understand why the change was made, I really do. Maybe the original ending was too “comic-y” or unrealistic and Snyder didn’t think audiences would relate to a giant squid. But was the change necessary? I’m not so certain. I think those who insist it *had* to be a giant squid miss the point – the important thing is that there is an alien threat, not what type of alien threat. The unintended consequence of the new ending is that by using Jon, instead of alien, it drains the moment of it’s impact, because instead of some extra-terrestrial danger that makes man see how much they have in common with one another, instead we have Jon, who is (or was) human. Using Jon instead of the squid also creates a dynamic that didn’t exist in the comic – now Doc Manhattan betrays his home country – and I don’t think it’s ever explained why he would do that. The more I think about it, they never really explain why those explosions are automatically assumed to be from Doc Manhattan or why they are immediately taken as malicious or punitively intended.

And for a film that certainly did not shy away from being graphic, I think the final scene without the mounds of dead bodies removes some of the human element from the finale that strikes the reader of the comic book so emotionally.

Part of this is due to our being so involved in the lives of the secondary characters in the book. Really, I didn’t have a problem generally with eliminating a lot of the secondary characters and subplots – I understand they would have made the film too unwieldy – but getting to know these other characters lends a weight and poignancy to the finale that is missing from the film. We have no connection to real people in the movie and so the finale has no human face to sympathize with, especially since we only see the destruction of New York City (more “New York destruction porn”. Interesting tho - they leave the Twin Towers standing, evidently in the fervent desire to avoid allusions to 9/11).

One last thought on the ending: by cutting that last scene with Adrian and Jon, where Adrian admits to Jon he’s not sure if he did the right thing, we are robbed of the guilt and uncertainty Adrian feels, which is so important to the book that they weave in the largely “unnecessary” pirate story just to drive the point home. Without that final scene, we are left with no possibility that his decision haunted him, just some evil scientist cackling in purple robes.


Warning: here there be nitpicks. C’mon, you know I have some. If you don’t like them, skip to the next paragraph. As a general comment, in light of how faithful to the original work Snyder strived to be (even using the comic as an actual storyboard) I was a little confused about some of the minor changes he made. Like, why not have an older Captain Metropolis at the original Crimebusters meeting? Why leave the futuristic developments that Jon had brought about (smokeless tobacco, electric cars, etc. And the lack of electric cars makes the sign outside of Hollis’ shop a bit anachronistic). Why not have a dome for Karnak instead of the rectangular greenhouses that replaced it? Why not have Dan and Rorschach approach Karnak on those hover segways (or whatever they were)? The sugar cubes? The Nostalgia bottle? Why not put Jon’s picture at Gila Flats, rather than in a picture frame by Janey’s bed? If Snyder had such devotion to casting, why not get an older, beardless little person to play Big Picture? Why, in such an insanely (blissfully) faithful recreation of the first scene, leave out the Policeman’s great tag-on to Rorschach’s voiceover “and they have nothing to say….” – “That’s quite a drop”? Why change Adrian’s dialogue at the climax from “Do it?… I did it 25 minutes ago” to “Do it?…I triggered it 25 minutes ago” (see, I told you these were nitpicks) – that one minor change bled a lot of the impact out of what should be the biggest plot twist in the story. These little details seem like they would not have detracted at all from the casual viewer’s experience, but would have enhanced the viewing experience of the hard core fan. Are these minor deviations Snyder’s way of putting his own spin on things? Seems sort of a meager auteurial flourish.

One of the film's strengths is its thrilling frame-by-frame faithfulness. There were many moments of fan-boy joy. The downside of this devotion to the original work is that sometimes that faithfulness left me a little bit cold, like it lacked soul or something. On the one hand, it’s amazing to see some of these static images come to life – even little details like the blood splotch on the smiley face, which I loved. But as my friend Jake put it, this “slavish” devotion to imitation leaves one asking, “Is this just redundant?” Adaptations are supposed to evoke the source material, but they should also transcend them in their own media (think LOTR, Godfather, etc.), otherwise that “slavish” devotion to imitation ends up being solely a novelty, and lacks emotion (especially under Snyder’s not-so-subtle hand).

The big take-away is that Zack Snyder does have a great eye for image and action. But his strengths seem to end with respect to directing actors. For example, the timing and dialogue of Adrian’s “reveal” scene and also of Rorschach’s “face reveal” scenes were off and lacked impact. (A big problem for me, as these are two of the biggest emotional turning points or “big moments” in the book – and in the movie they fell flat.) I also think he could have directed both Rorschach and Doc M to be a bit more “normal” in their flashbacks” to highlight the detachment that both of them suffer over the course of the story. Nuance is one of the notable things that is lost by the removal of the secondary characters and a lot of the visual motifs that dominate the book. It was this nuance – not the plot, which, when broken down to its simplest forms is a pretty generic superhero/sci-fi fabula (which was part of the point) – that made Watchmen noteworthy.

In my wildest dreams, the movie Watchmen would have revolutionized film-making in ways similar to what Moore and Gibbons did with comic book story-telling; the potential was there to use film techniques to say something about film itself, and superhero movies in general. So, in that light, I thought there was a real missed opportunity. I thought there could have been a lot more use of over-lapping audio and images, like during Laurie and Dan’s fight (narrated partly by the television studio scene with Doc Manhattan in the book), or even using match cuts during the transition from present to past (and back) during the funeral scene or during Rorschach’s interview with the prison psychologist.

This missed opportunity is most evident in Doc Manhattan’s scene on Mars, talking about the past, which could have used inter-cutting between past and present scenes and voice-over dialogue to much, much greater effect. (Just on a dialogue level, I really missed the exposition of Einsteinian theory of time, i.e. the multi-faceted jewel that humans are only able to see one side at a time.) I also lamented the absence of the intertwining of Laurie’s flashbacks that lead to the gradual but (literally) shattering realization about Eddie Blake.

I was also a little bothered by what appear to be the character’s super-human strength and fighting ability. Sure, it lends itself to more exciting action, but what is interesting about the book (and part of what it explores), is that these are just real people doing these things. By making Adrian able to throw Dan across an entire room, or break granite with Blake’s head, or the Matrix-style martial arts expertise of all them seems to diminish that. Also, the fights were a bit more drawn out than was necessary. The excessive violence really did not add to the story, and seemed out of place most of the time – not just in its visceral and graphic presentation, but even vis-à-vis the characters who, with the exception of Rorschach, do not in the comic seem to be quite as sadistic, brutal or unforgiving. My problem with this is that the gratuity was not used to improve the story (in contrast, think: the ear in Reservoir Dogs, or the battle scenes in Braveheart and LOTR). And we all have the Wachowski brothers to thank for the extreme slo-mo, but seriously Zack – less is more. Ease up on that shit.

In general, the music choices were mostly poor and in the sex scene in the Owlship, downright laughable. I can’t really imagine any sex scene set to Leonard Cohen’s original version of “Hallelujah” not being something I would howl out loud at.

So, I’ve spent most of this time crapping all over the movie. But really, I did like it and so I’ll spend some space to talk about those things that worked. The opening credits were fantastic. They packed in a lot of background information into a short space in a fun way and to good effect. I thought it was a clever and well-executed way to establish the parallel alternate reality the characters needed to inhabit for the story to make sense.

And the special effects really were pretty stunning. The list is long: the Owlship was great. Rorschach’s mask was even better than I expected it would be (making it into cloth rather than two layers of latex was a great change for the better – but why no origin story for the mask?!) And the rendering of Doc Manhattan’s Mars Palace was magnificent.

The bottom line: flawed, not as good as the comic, fun, entertaining, visually innovative. Pretty much exactly what I expected. I would say that it is clearly the best adaptation of an Alan Moore book to date, but then again, that’s really not saying much.


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