Sunday, March 8, 2009

A Frank Review of "Watchmen" (2009)

The Short Version? Adult Super-Heroes Face Nuclear Armageddon.
What Is It? Action-Drama.
Who's In It? Nobody you know.
Should I See It? Yes.

I always hesitate to admit this, but truth be told, I've never been impressed with Alan Moore's and Dave Gibbon's Watchmen comic book mini-series/graphic novel. A great deal of my reaction is due to having read it in 1993-- years after The Dark Knight Returns, Marshal Law, Brat Pack, and even some of Moore's own Marvel/Miracleman. There was a quote years past that proclaimed DKR the brass band playing at the funeral of super-hero comics, and Watchmen the autopsy. Moore's intricate, clinical story certainly bore that out for me, but the shock was never there, and I couldn't connect with any of the characters. I suppose it's a remarkable bit of craft, and my negative opinion has softened over time, but I expect I'll never be a fan. The text portions were too precious and pretentious, and I mostly hooked into the origin sequences, as I've always been a sucker for first person narration. Still though, a book like Watchmen felt inevitable to me. Only Frank Miller would combine Micky Spillane's hyperbolic pulp detective storytelling with '80s Walter Hill action swagger, political satire, and post-apocalyptic super-hero fantasy. Watchmen was just a typically British piss-take on the natural evolution of the melodrama originated by Stan Lee in the '60s, standing out mostly for staging and perspective comparable to Orson Welles. It was good at what it did, but someone else would have gotten around to it eventually.

Once I saw the first trailer for Watchmen, I felt confident it would improve on the graphic novel. All of Dave Gibbon's cinematic touches, which seemed to pad the story and slow its momentum in print, are quickly and cleanly effected in their proper milieu. Moore's cold characterization is enlivened by living actors imbuing his words with their emotions. All that iconic imagery and ominous tone, too native to comics, seemed revolutionary when ported to celluloid. I mean, in a world still impressed by Batman breaking legs, how much more rock and roll could you get than full frontal male nudity and dogs fighting over a little girl's remains?

I am proud to stand by my initial impression. Watchmen as a movie kicked my ass in a way the book never could. At nearly three hours, I felt no fatigue, as the film is swollen to near bursting with fine performances, clever dialogue, brilliant visuals, dynamic action, intriguing choices, and the barest hint of fat. It turns and it turns, never allowing you to take it for granted, always shining a new facet at your eyes, converting you into an entranced magpie. There is some gloriously extreme violence here, occasionally ridiculous, but wonderfully conveying the horrors of this fascistic vision. There is no glory to be found in this type of aggression, as the abilities of those most capable of inflicting damage inspire not awe but terror in their application.

One of the interesting things about the book's translation is how characters played musical chairs in terms of interest. Dan Dreiberg was very much the point of view character in Moore's original. A dumpy, middle-aged Peter Parker, this Nite Owl was past his prime in a way readers could relate to, allowing them to revel in his triumphant return. Patrick Wilson does a fine job playing Dreiberg, despite being far to young and fit, but his story arc is too weak to hold up against the competition. In the book, Dreiberg is probably the only character with a perceptible pulse, but on film there are so many more fantastic images and nuanced subjects, Nite Owl pales by comparison. Dreiberg's most interesting contribution is a bout of impotence, but this failing is communicated so clumsily it takes an assumptive leap to even determine that's what was happening. That the resolution is bothy swift and laughably glossy renders Nite Owl impotent once again, just in impact rather than text.

Dr. Manhattan was my least favorite character from the comic books, and the best example of my feeling that the author couldn't connect me to any of his character's emotions, so that I couldn't differentiate them terribly much from Manhattan's isolation. The film greatly enhances the Manhattan persona, so that the character very much dominates the film and the concern of the viewer. You're often left unsure if Billy Crudup delicate, sensitive voice is expressing the sorrow of Manhattan's existence, or if it's a patronizing fabrication from a demigod to wretched humanity. The performance is pitch-perfect, and the only way to have improved on the unearthliness of the CGI being would be to look toward stop-motion ala Harryhausen. I'm proud that a big budget American film has a computer generated cock of substantial size swinging through it for several significant scenes. However, Dr. Manhattan's overly-endowed body doesn't really jibe with the comics, where I always enjoyed the contrast between the being's nigh-omnipotence and his middling pecker. It reminds one of sculptures featuring Ancient Greek heroes that emphasized the importance of athleticism over their minor, flaccid manhood.

I feel like Malin Akerman has been unfairly judged as Silk Spectre. In the book, Laurie Jupiter was a whiny shrew, which interestingly is excised by greatly reducing the character's role in the film. However, combined with actualized stunts and sensual embodiment, Silk Spectre suddenly becomes an empowered, desirable heroine. While this betrays Moore's intention to show both Spectre's as victims of this elaborate aggressive male fantasy, I feel it's healthier to show the woman as controlling her own destiny and pivotal in the unfolding events. Akerman doesn't exactly rate an Oscar nod, but she serves the needs of the film, and presents a Silk Spectre I can actually root for. My sole nagging concern is that the subplot involving her predecessor/mother is given short-shrift, with forced revelations and a lack of true resonance. Carla Gugino is solid as the original Silk Spectre, but she's just not pathetic enough as the aged Sally Jupiter, here a slightly toasted WASP. Her old-page make-up setting practical effects back twenty years doesn't help.

Matthew Goode's miscasting as Ozymandias is where the real trouble begins. From his too-thin frame to his bad dye job and especially ze faint German accent, his portrayal fairly screams "Bond villain!" There is no mystery here, no gut-wrenching reveal-- Goode is obvious and idiotic.

I've heard complaints about Jackie Earle Haley's voice as Kovacs/Rorschach, but I think his obvious affectation suits the character perfectly. Unlike Christian Bale's Batman, Haley can enunciate, and I feel his performance in general is far superior to Heath Ledger's Paul Giamatti impersonation from The Dark Knight. If anything, the only flaw is that Haley is so effective at conveying his power and menace, the ridiculousness of Walter Kovacs never quite comes across. Kovacs is a weird extremist nerd, where Haley only enables the popular misinterpretation of Rorschach as a "bad ass." If this were another god damned franchise picture like "X-Men," Haley would have dominated the story and screen time as this film's Wolverine. Blessedly, the screenwriters made sure to tell a story about a group of characters, not craft an action vehicle for a sociopath.

The Comedian poses a similar hazard, as Jeffrey Dean Morgan is surprisingly charismatic in the role. Production photos really did a disservice to my initial reaction to Morgan, as in still he looked ridiculous, but in performance he completely sells the character. In the graphic novel, it's amazing someone didn't kill the Comedian before his demise could begin the story. Here, the audience is bound to miss Morgan once he departs the picture, and a sordid twist familiar to comic book readers is understandable when presented with Morgan's on-screen charm. The Comedian is unquestionably a piece of shit, but utterly irresistible.

There is some inexcusable confusion in the translation from comic to film, though. Who the Minutemen were and what they represented are not adequately explained, so the disparity between the original super-team and the abortive Watchmen is never illustrated. In fact, it isn't even really clear what the various leading super-beings really have to do with each other in the film. The role of Hollis Mason is not explained until well after he's introduced, so that the Nite Owl legacy is never imparted to the uninitiated. Folks seemed to enjoy the flashback imagery during the credit sequence, but connecting it to the story was made difficult by a narrative to disjointed and presumptuous to be followed upon initial exposure. I love films that are enriched by multiple viewings, but basics of the story are offered in such an obtuse manner that even diligent viewers will be left frustrated and confused without the benefit of foreknowledge. I'm reminded less of the non-linear storytelling techniques of early Tarantino, which demanded but rewarded the audience's attention, and more the cryptic arrogance of the Wachowskis' Matrix trilogy.

I'm not sure if director Zack Snyder was shooting for surrealism, but the effect was unavoidable. Some of the practical make-up, as with the prosthetics used to create Richard Nixon, are comically bad. Some of the blood sprays and the entire Vietnam sequence would have felt more at home in a video game cut scene than a serious picture. There was also a back lot feel to many of the sets, and some questionable bit casting choices, that made me think Snyder had brought sequences from the film out of an alternate dimensional 1990 where Sam Hamm's script was filmed by Tim Burton. I also appreciate the time and theme appropriate music, but I hate when source is painfully overused and obvious. With three of Dylan's biggest hits, two of Leonard Cohen's, and fucking Simon and Garfunkle, you'd be excused for thinking someone had left the oldies station on after the pre-show advertising slides. Where's Kraftwerk? Television? Grace Jones? Compared to Hendrix, even Zep would be comparatively obscure.

Finally, the changes made to the ending, while understandable, failed me. The gruesome spectacle is replaced with a phony city in dust, and there's a pat tacked-on feel to the final scenes. Rorschach's final moments feel overblown and excessively emotive, while a touch of irony from the book is lost to edits and a sad semblance of the dreaded back-door sequel. Even with as loving a tribute as this feature was, there are still bits like these to leave a bad taste in one's mouth.

Complaints dutifully lodged, I can't say I'd be the least bit surprised if I, an inveterate cheapskate who prefers vast expanses of time in between viewings of a movie, pays to see this again in IMAX. I'll maybe even brave a dollar show before it hits video. I'll wait with baited breath for the extended director's cut. Among my best liked narrative strands from the book was "Tales of the Black Freighter," so the ancillary animation will now be a must see. Despite its flaws, "Watchmen" is a feast for the senses that transports you to worlds unseen since the days of Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner" and Terry Gilliam's finest. Returning to the spirit of Stan Lee hucksterism, it's an instant classic that inspires its own tradition, the most faithful comic-to-screen adaptation of all time. I don't feel like the graphic novel was as revolutionary as its reputation, but there's never been a comic book movie like Watchmen, such a singular work that I can't reasonably expect to see its like again until the generation of filmmakers it will inspire rise to its challenge.


Anonymous said...

Rorschach was an especially well developed as a character; i hope the actor that played his role is nominated for some kind of an award (when that season comes around again)

wiec? said...

great review bro. i have been avoiding posts and reviews of the movie until i saw it myself. i liked it for what it was, a good try. For the most part.

the end was utter nonsense as far as i was concerned. well put "tacked on."

it would have been impossible to go panel for panel line for line with the book. the movie is a cliff notes version at best. The effort was good for what it was by most concerned. The prop team especially. The attention to detail did Gibbons proud i think.

i didn't love the book the 1st time i read it. after reading it a few more times i appreciated it more and more. maybe the same will hold true for the movie.


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