Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A few minutes short of midnight (Watchmen Review)

I would love to give you a completely unbiased and educated opinion about how Watchmen worked solely as a movie, uninformed by the staggering work of brilliance that is the graphic novel. But I just can't. I discovered Watchmen about a decade ago, after a period of shying away from some of my geekier tendencies, and fell in love. Way back in the day, I was a true comic connoisseur. I read scores of titles from DC, Marvel and even Charlton (whose old school characters, acquired by DC, were originally to be used by Alan Moore in Watchmen). I wrote and illustrated my own comics. I read up on the history of the comics as an art form, entity of commerce and reflection of society. So when I paged through Watchmen that very first time, I was amazed at how perfectly every little detail captured not only politics and fears of the cold war era, but also how incisively the book folded the whole medium of comic books in on itself through plot, character, dialogue, color style and layout. Since that first reading, I've pulled the book out about once a year and reread it cover to cover, and each time, I notice something I didn't see before. Or it gives me something to think about in a new way that I didn't consider on a previous analysis. It's that rich, and there's a reason TIME put it on their list of 100 Greatest Novels.

As we all know, the book was deemed "unfilmable" because of the dense narrative, interwoven plotlines, period setting, multiple flashbacks and references to "additional materials" like the "comic within the comic," the police reports, the memoranda, the excerpts from fictional books and such. As excited as I was to finally see this masterpiece reach the screens, I always doubted it could be done, especially in a motion picture. In a 12 part HBO or Showtime miniseries, perhaps. But to condense all that into something under 4 hours, while losing the meta-implications of reading a comic about comic book heroes in real world that didn't have comics about "masked adventurers, well, I had my doubts.

So did I like the Zack Snyder's movie? The short answer is "yes," I did, but with some reservations.

Just like the book, I think I'll need to see this a couple of more times to absorb the full impact of everything that's going on in the movie (though it's not, and couldn't be, as intricately and precisely constructed as the book), and preferably, I'd like to see the full director's cut with the animated "Tales of the Black Freighter" woven in. However, as a 2 hour and 40 minute theatrical journey into the world of Watchmen, I'll say that Snyder aimed the bar extraordinarily high and fell just short, delivering an unflinching and respectful motion picture that immersed me in that world and at times, took my breath away.

One of the trickiest things to pull off in this is the setting, an alternative 80s where cold war tensions have never been higher. The book definitely captured that vibe, and the first time I read it, it reminded me of the way everyone felt after watching that landmark ABC miniseries The Day After. One jittery trigger finger, and the world and all that we knew, would be gone. The Watchmen movie did an admirable job capturing the time and feel of a world on the brink of a nuclear holocaust, though due to time constraints, we seldom got to see the impact of that on characters outside our primary "heroes." The sense of urgency to stop the doomsday clock from ticking down, and when it comes right down to it, the impetus and rationale for the entire story's master plan, hinges on looking into that abyss of mutually assured destruction and feeling a sense of helplessness and despair (or, for one character, a sense of obligation and action). Given more time, I would have wanted to see more about the lives and struggles of the peripheral characters such as the psychiatrist or the news stand guy and his customer or the two cops. It would have help establish more of the national mood in that era, and of course, created a more acute sense of loss at the movie's conclusion. But I understand why those moments were excised, even if it they would have gone a long way to creating a greater emotional resonance outside the travails of Rorschach and the gang.

Speaking of Rorschach, the success of the movie falls squarely on how well the central 6 (well, 7) characters were cast, played and written. Here's my take (in order of how well they were executed):

Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley). Good god, was he born to play this part. Rorschach is the engine that drives the movie's central investigation, and Haley was spectacular. A damaged, take no prisoners reactionary, Rorschach was everything I had imagined when I read the book. His was the voice I heard in my head, right down the slightly disgusted "hurm." And that voice was the important thing, since Rorschach only has a few moments to emote and act without the full face mask (though when he did get his chance without it in the prison scenes, the performance was equally stellar. His "give me back my face!" sent chills). A+

The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). I know it sounds counter-intuitive to say that a swaggering, murdering, raping psychopath that shoots a Vietnamese woman pregnant with his child was the most "charming" performance in the movie, but damned if that's not true. Morgan brought a metric fuckton of charisma to the role, and added layers to the character of Edward Blake that I didn't get from the book's pages. In fact, because of Morgan, I understood more of the backstory with Sally Jupiter than I ever did previously. It's a fine line to walk, making this character who does so many loathsome things even the littlest bit sympathetic, but Morgan did so with a bravura take on The Comedian. A+

Doctor Manhattan (Billy Crudup). While we only saw him "in the flesh" in flashbacks as Jon Osterman, Crudup was there the whole time, giving a motion capture performance and providing the voice of the only true superpowered being in the world. Crudup's voice work was outstanding, growing more detached throughout the narrative, and sounding like someone who at once understood everything, except the human condition he had lost. A

Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson). Wilson ably captured the ennui and impotence of a middle aged and paunchy Dan Drieberg, who had gotten into the hero game for all the right reasons and then had a little bit of his soul stripped away when the Keane Act forced all the masked adventurers to hang up their capes (with the exception of vigilante Rorschach and government tools Blake and Manhattan). He also hit all the right notes as an enthused and energized Nite Owl once the costume came out of the closet, taking pride in all his Batman-like gizmos and entering into a romance with Laurie. A

Sally Jupiter (Carla Gugino). Gugino was outstanding as former pin up girl and crime fighter Sally Jupiter, the original Silk Spectre and mother of Laurie. She was vivacious in flashbacks to her younger days, when she knowingly used her sexuality and desire for attention to her advantage. She was equally good (with the exception of the makeup) as an older Sally, still clinging to the fond memories of the old days, when she was adored and admired. Her portrayal, along with Morgan's, was another reason I completely bought the Comedian/Sally storyline, even more so than in the comic. A

Ozymandias (Matthew Goode). I've seen Goode in other things, and liked him, but there was something just "off" in this performance. Ozymandias, aka Adrian Veidt, is the smartest man in the world and supposed embodiment of all the perfection man can achieve both mentally and physically. Goode did put forth a cool superiority, but too often came across like a petulant dick rather than as a pinnacle of towering intellectual might. His accent (or accents, as there seemed to be both Brit and German in there) wavered from scene to scene, and a combination of his performance and Snyder's framing/editing made it all too clear all too soon who was behind everything. C+

Laurie Juspeczyk (Malin Ackerman). I liked her bangs. She looked good in tight latex and thigh high fuck me boots. Other than that, I didn't buy it for a second. In the comic, Laurie is written to be flighty and confused (evidenced by her continued attempts to quit smoking, which sadly, can't be shown on film. Oh, we can hack a guy's arms off, shoot a pregnant chick dead and show the most brutal rape scene this side of Irreversible, but have someone smoke a cigarette? Heavens no!), caught up in circumstances she can't begin to emotionally process, like being the lover of a giant blue god figure with unlimited power but devastating detachment, or being the child of an illicit, secret and violent union. It's her "heart" and emotionality that helps pull Dan out of his stupor, and eventually, helps reach the last vestiges of Jon's humanity on Mars. But other than looking great, Ackerman totally fails in bringing any emotional subcurrent to the character. While Laurie is often passive, there are many colors to be played, and frankly, she was a blank sheet, that almost took me out of the movie every time she was on the screen. Amy Acker would have been brilliant in this role. D-

So for the most part, the characters and actors worked exceptionally well, though to be an unqualified success and effective illumination of the book, they ALL had to work.

The special effects, costuming, scoring and fighting were tremendous, and the opening credits, compacting a lot of backstory into a six minute Dylan song, were an astonishing piece of art.

Other than Goode and Ackerman, what didn't work for me?

It's a nitpick, but the group called themselves "Watchmen." Maybe that was a directive from the marketing suits, so people would understand, but that's just stupid. What group would call themselves that, knowing the quote from which the name is derived? Would anyone have been lost if they stuck to "Crimebusters" and put the full quote about "Watchmen" on screen? No.

The music. Yes, some was actually referenced in the novel, but the pop culture songs chosen were too literal, too obvious and too painful. ("99 Luftballons?" Really? "Ride of the Valkyries" for Vietnam? And can we please, please, please have a TV and movie moratorium on Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah?" I did enjoy "Boogie Man" as The Comedian kicked some hippie ass, though).

Bubastis looked exactly like he should, but how about 10 seconds of a throwaway line to explain that?

The makeup was awful. I mean fucking AWFUL. I think we'd see better old age makeup in a high school production of Cocoon. Morgan and Gugino gave it a valiant try with their voices and actions, but it was through flesh colored spackling put on with all the subtlety of a trowel. And Nixon and Kissinger and other well known and recognized figures? Ugh.

I mentioned previously the lack of attention paid to the secondary characters from the book. Maybe they will be there in the final cut, but their absence took away some of the flavor and diminished the end game stakes.

Still, with plenty of things going against him, I think Snyder delivered as good a picture as he could have for the property. In the motion picture format, I don't think perfection (even recognizing that nothing on film will ever quite capture the full impact of the novel) was attainable. It's a mesmerizing work that I can't wait to see again. A- (that could have easily been an A+ with two, or perhaps even one, casting redo, some better makeup and more insightful music choices).

But what about the SQUID?!!
Okay, I haven't touched on the one defining and game changing difference from the novel, which was substituting attacks all over the world mimicking Manhattan's energy signature instead of a giant, interdimensional squid that attacks (only) New York. Personally, I think that the squid works best in the format it which it appeared. In a comic book, even one with such lofty ideals and complex storytelling as Watchmen, you can juxtapose the surface level silliness of a giant psychic squid attacking the planet from another dimension with the pages and pages of bloody, brutal human carnage and make your point. In a movie, something that fantastical (without many preceding scenes to carefully set it up) would feel out of place, and tonally jarring. The solution the movie offers is one that's more elegant and more believable in the reality of all that we've seen before, and pays off many of the elements and plot strands from the film. My only quibble is that why wouldn't the Soviets launch their bombs anyway, knowing full well that Manhattan was effectively an instrument of the US government? Perhaps another couple of minutes could have been inserted, with New York being attacked first, and Nixon frantically on the phone with the Kremlin assuring the Soviets that Doctor Manhattan is out of control and bent on wiping out humanity unless everyone pulls together.

In the end, a very, very good film. But if you haven't read the book, get yourself to a bookstore NOW.

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