08 March 2009

phil watches the watchmen

I've said it before, and I have no qualms about saying it again: Watchmen is, in my opinion (for whatever that's worth), easily among the crowning literary acheivements of the last 30 years. I don't care what piece of prose you're putting Moore & Gibbon's book up against, Watchmen'll fight it to the bitter, bloody end, and, more often than not, come out on top. I read it for the first time about five years ago (thank goodness for that graphic fiction scripting class), and I've read it at least ten time since then. At the end of every single reading, I come away with a new understanding and appreciation for the work. I can't say that about many of the other things I've encountered in my life, no matter the medium or the message. It certainly works in the book's favor that it almost single-handedly dragged an art form universally considered to be the purview of adolescent boys kicking and screaming into maturity, but so what? Watchmen is sinister, hysterical, cynical, brilliant, and completely, utterly unwilling to submit to what most everyone in 1986 thought a “comic book” should be.

Enough people have and can recount the story's stormy journey to the silver screen that I won't waste time doing it here. The point is, Watchmen (from the “visionary” director of 300 and the Dawn of the Dead remake – Zack Snyder) has arrived in theaters, and I have experienced it. I've thought about it long enough that I think I can form coherent thoughts about it, and I'll attempt to archive them here.

Principally, I was and still am astounded. Watchmen is such a complex book, with so many branches, roots and vines, interconnected and disparate all at once, weaving in and out, over and under, that I long ago agreed with the popular conception that it was, to borrow a phrase, “unfilmable.” I didn't really see a problem with that, because it's so good as a book, I didn't see a reason to make it into what could only be a lesser movie. I couldn't have figured out a way to make it work in my wildest dreams, so thank goodness Zack Snyder and the writers of the script didn't listen to me. Watchmen is at least as good as V for Vendetta, a film I seriously respect for its ability to recognize, understand, and speak to its audience (post-11th of September, 2001, America, as opposed to Britons who'd lived under Margaret Thatcher's time as Prime Minister), and could well be superior, by virtue of the fact that its source material is better.

Just like Moore and Gibbons' book, Synder's film doesn't compromise (serious congratulations should be given to everyone involved who contributed to its eventual R rating – if they'd allowed the sex, the violence, or the thoughtfulness to get watered down enough to the point that it had become a PG-13 movie, Watchmen would have become a terrible casualty of the all-ighty -ollar, and not something that might well be an actual artistic acheivement. But, more on that later). From Dan Dreiberg's schoolboy-ish costume fetish, to the Comedian's cold-blooded murder of the Vietnamese woman he knocked up, to the giant blue wang (which was never actually “giant,” which is something I appreciate, not because of any latent homophobia, but because I've never had much interest in seeing a penis that's larger than a grown man. Or a vagina, either, but that's something for a later paragraph, as well), Watchmen the film remains just as true to human nature as Watchmen the book; losing the reverse correlation between Dr. Manhattan's humanity and his modesty is impossible to do. For a work whose principal concern is human nature, that's a good thing.

In every way, the film succeeds in bringing the world of the comic to life. All of the iconic imagery (save one thing) from the book makes its way into the film, as far as I could remember. Sure, a lot of the side stories had to give in order to keep the [initial] running time down, but everything that makes its way onscreen is inarguably essential. This is the essence of Watchmen, and it would be the perfect introduction to the world of the book if there were such a thing as a primer on Watchmen. It's great fan service, though.

Speaking of bringing the book to life, the acting in the film sets another new bar for what we can hope to see in a superhero movie (is this the only time I'll subtly indicate that it might be better than The Dark Knight, a film I might've married had it been human? We'll see). Billy Crudup's next-step-up-from-Gollum performance as Dr. Manhattan is supremely praise-worthy – he humanizes a man who becomes so powerful that he's no longer a man, which should shut up anyone who wants to complain about his acting chops for the rest of forever – and Jackie Earle Haley, him of Maniac Cop 3 and Bad News Bears fame, turns in the performance of a lifetime as everybody's favorite character, Rorschach – the fact that he's even scarier when his “face” (his mask – what do you want, he's a sociopath) gets taken away from him and he's left with his prison jumpsuit astounds me. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is magnetic as the Comedian – he made me genuinely like a facist, murdering rapist.

The real story, though, is Patrick Wilson as Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl II – my favorite character from Watchmen. The man jumps off the fucking page of the comic, dear reader – a tribute to makeup and performance alike. I'd heard at one point that John Cusack was in talks to play Dreiberg, and as a huge John Cusack fan, I had high hopes it'd come through. When it didn't, I felt I'd be automatically biased against the asshole that had the audacity to steal a part that was rightfully Rob Gordon's. I was wrong; when I say Wilson's portrayal was perfect, I mean that it was absolutely flawless, and above reproach. It's a case study in understated acting, and, I think, in committing to a character (but in a different way from Heath. Heath owned the role of the Joker – he redefined it – but Patrick Wilson in Watchmen is Dan Dreiberg). Wilson may as well not be present; they could've made some sort of evil scientist-type ray to shine on the book to make Dreiberg come to life, and I seriously doubt the character from the book could've done a better job.

I'd be remiss in my praise if I didn't mention Malin Akerman's job as Laurie Jupiter/Silk Spectre II. She was the one on whom I was least sold from the trailer, but she's stellar (a bad pun, seeing as how she and Dr. Manhattan find themselves on Mars for a good chunk of the film), riding the fence between hard and vulnerable exactly the way she needed to. Matthew Goode was, well, precisely that as Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias (the “slight German accent” I've read about was rarely noticable to me, and therefore a non-issue). I couldn't stop myself from comparing him to Tom Cruise the entire time; I still haven't quite figured out what that means. Ozymandias, as the character that's the least complicated (in that he articulates his motivations best), is the least interesting in the book, as far as I'm concerned. I have no issue with Goode's performance, regardless.

The big change (and the way in which I'll directly compare this to V for Vendetta, beyond the obvious “Alan Moore wrote both of them, dickwad”) from book to screen (again availing myself of my small reader base, I'm just going to write about it) is the replacement of the giant asshole/vagina monster that's dropped on NYC with a fradulent attack by Dr. Manhattan on more than a few of the world's major cities. In order to talk about this, I'm going to refer to the other major alteration that I noticed – Ozymandias' desire to bring an unlimited supply of clean energy to the world, to wean us off fossil fuels, because, as he puts it, once the resources become limitless, the need for war goes away. In the book, electric cars are everywhere, and recharging stations – which look almost exactly like fire hydrants – are just as pervasive. These don't appear until the end of the movie, and with good, obvious reason. Manhattan and Ozymandias are working on this clean, limitless energy generation system throught the film, until it turns out that it's a smokescreen (kind of) to allow Veidt to play a huge “practical joke” on humanity – get us all united against a singular threat, and keep us thinking that threat is imminent, so that we don't go around killing each other anymore. Kind of a reverse-Star Trek ploy, but with more or less the same result.

These changes update the movie for a post-11th of September, 2001, post-An Inconvienent Truth, world, in the same way the Wachowskis and James McTiegue updated V. While it still remains true to the original spirit of the work (far more than that, in Watchmen's case – despite these changes, the movie tells the same story), it renews that work's relevance. I never felt much affection for the asshole/vagina monster from the book – there wasn't much scatalogical humor in Watchmen. It would've worked well in Preacher, but I always felt it cheapened Watchmen a bit. What's the only thing better than a great work? A great work with a tiny flaw you can pick at – so Veidt's perversion of Manhattan's abilities (Manhattan = ultimate nuclear deterrent, right? Now, he really is) sits pretty well with me. It adds a new wrinkle to him (which I appreciate – he's still the least interesting, but less so now), and makes his moral position a little more precarious. Plus, in this tear-down-our-heroes culture we're living in, it (again) renews the relevance of the story.

I still don't think Snyder's going to qualify as anyone remotely on the cutting edge of American film directors until he makes something that's his own (Dawn being a remake – a 28 Days Later-ified remake, nevertheless – of one of the five most important American horror films ever made, and 300 and Watchmen extraordinarily faithful adaptations of comic books), something that springs out of his fervent visual imagination. However, I'm much more a Zack Snyder fan after Watchmen than I was after 300 (I thought 300 was obnoxious, frankly, both in its adherence to its source material and in its overuse of slow-motion). It's a much more thoughful movie, one that appeals better to the brain than to the balls (interesting word choice there, Phil, given the virtually all-male cast of 300 and the sexual dynamics that drive Watchmen). Plus, there's far less slow-mo (it's still there, and I still don't like it, but it's like Paul Greengrass' shakycam from Supremacy-United 93-Ultimatum, in that I believe he'll get better and more judicious with it as time goes on).

I'm going to do my level best to get my complaints (such as they are) out of the way here at the end. Mostly, it's the fact that the movie, with few exceptions, is basically the comic book slapped onscreen (“slapped” conveys a carelessness that I don't really mean to imply – this was a well and carefully crafted movie. I don't think that's even up for discussion). [ASIDE: I've said before that the (apparently) most universally disliked of the Harry Potter films – Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban – is my favorite of those films, because Cuaron didn't just slap the book onscreen the way Chris Columbus did with the first two. He made an actual movie adaptation from the book. I think Azkaban really was, and remains, the only Harry Potter movie made for fans of the books, because it took the framework provided by book – a book that virtually everyone in the audience for the film knows well – and plays around with it. There are gaps in the story that can only be filled with a knowledge of the source material. The movie doesn't unfold in the painfully obvious way that the other movies do. It takes advantage of its medium – film, in case we've all forgotten – in the telling of its story, a medium which is different from its source. That's why I like it best. END ASIDE] Watchmen doesn't really break free of the confines of the book except in the opening credits sequence (which, I'll say again, was absolutely beautiful), and I think that hurts it somewhat. The book is, well, I'll say languidly paced at times, and that's part of the reason I thought it'd never get made into a good film, because, given the sort of movie Watchmen'd have to be, it could never embrace that pacing, have the confidence to let the story unfold as it is wont to.

Clearly, I have underestimated Zack Snyder (and the screenwriters) in this regard, for his film has (though I am loath to repeat myself, here we go again) nothing if not fearless fealty to its source material. But, therein lies the Achilles' heel. I wrote before about my initial reaction to the teaser trailer, and about how I asked Matt for his reaction (thought it looked cool, but didn't know what was going on, and he didn't really care as a result), and I don't think there's much that I took away from the movie that'd give me cause to work to change his opinion. Because the film is so carefully wedded to the book, it unfolds the way a fan of the book (like me) knows it will. I wasn't confused from the start about who each of the weird costumed people were; I knew we weren't going to uncover the “Secret Origin of Dr. Manhattan” until, well, a lot later. I knew we were going to get attached to the Comedian only to have him disappear because, well, he gets killed at the outset. I bring no neuroses about the way in which the story unfolds to the screening, because I already know. The same can not be said for people that don't know Watchmen already. I spoke to plenty of people who could only say that the initial trailer “looked cool,” because they didn't have a reason to be excited about seeing Nite Owl, Silk Spectre and Rorschach in action.

To put it another way, I don't think the movie does a Watchmen neophyte any favors. It doesn't hold your hand. Though, that's not really a complaint. If anything, it's a compliment, for far too few films these days have any sort of confidence in their audience. Snyder's made a film that's ruthlessly loyal to its source material, but in doing so, he may have done exactly what I wanted as a fan of the original material, and as a filmgoer (and -maker): he's made a coherent movie out of Watchmen. And, in all fairness to him, it was likely far too great a task for any filmmaker to distill that monster of a story into something that zips along for 100-120 minutes and drags everyone in the theater, experienced and virgin alike, along for a spellbinding ride.

I honestly think the director's cut might be able to do that, even if it is 4 hours long (oh, and before I forget, let me reiterate something: this is a seriously R-rated movie. Which it should've been. But, by virtue of the fact that it's limited its audience, well, there's a reason for that. Which is worth keeping in mind). Here's to hoping it gets released in theaters.

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