Sunday, March 08, 2009

In Theaters: Watchmen

Watchmen poster from
The film version of WATCHMEN is gaining reactions ranging from “revelation” to “overblown crap”, which puts me in a comfortable albeit less-than-scintillating position as someone who thinks it was pretty good. I read and loved the original comic miniseries turned graphic novel, was aware that author Alan Moore is opposed to adaptations of his work but is in no legal position to contest them (though his name is removed from the credits), knew about what I will enigmatically call the “squid situation”, etc.

To be sure, director Zack Snyder is still a little green to be taking on one of the most complex and subtly designed works in the comics medium, and some of the delicate nuance is lost in the translation. But the story is preserved, and reasonably well told. It’s a strong (albeit occasionally episodic) plotline mixed with workmanlike dedication and fidelity, an above average drama about costumed heroes and their very human failings.

The film is set in an alternate mid-80s, one where the US, with superhuman assistance, won Vietnam, kept Nixon in office for over a decade, and is now at the brink of nuclear war with the Soviets. It begins with the murder of the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a semiretired masked crimefighter working for the CIA. The half-sane vigilante Rorshach (Jackie Earle Haley) is convinced that a killer is targeting “masks”, the heroes or superheroes driven into retirement when the government outlawed their activities. He alerts the other members of his old crimefighting team that they may be next. Dan Dreiberg, once the Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), is a modest and geeky retiree; Adrian Veidt, aka. Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), aka. “The World’s Smartest Man”, is a corporate tycoon working on clean energy; Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) is a formerly-human entity who can rearrange matter with a thought and is increasingly detached from mankind (as evidenced by his near-constant nudism); Laurie Jupiter, alias the Silk Spectre (Malin Ackerman), inherited the role from her mother (Carla Gugino) and is doing her best to enjoy retirement and try to maintain a relationship with Dr. Manhattan. For the most part they all write off Rorshach as paranoid, which he is, but for once he’s on to something, and the film combines several flashbacks to reveal the multiple grim secrets of all their respective pasts and how they may tie into a conspiracy that threatens their lives, all while nuclear armageddon looms ever nearer.

When WATCHMEN was first published it was a brutal deconstruction of a genre whose tropes comic readers had taken for granted. It’s actually hard to appreciate just how radical it was since superhero comics have appropriated as much of the gritty, mature-audiences surface as they can without undermining established corporate icons. But audiences who haven’t read the book will still probably be shocked by the brutal violence, attempted rapes, moral ambiguity, and bizarre sexual fetishism on display.

Fortunately, Snyder’s not just interested in the shock aspect- this is a mostly faithful adaptation of the comic (with most concessions being for time) which incorporates the political and personal elements of the narrative as well as the metafictional. There’s something slightly dystopic about the America of this film, unhumbled by defeat or scandal, with a twisted status quo maintained for decades by powerful men. And as much as the story is about revealing the dark secrets behind our idols, there’s also a tint of nostalgia to it- everyone, even people without reason to, remembers better days. Even though not all of the thematic complexity of the book could possibly be retained in a film adaptation, enough of it is here to make the story absorbing.

Film adaptations of popular or cult media always seem to come across as “the big prize” for fans, even if they end up disappointed in the results. There’s something about the way film brings characters to a larger-than form of life, and superheroes, defined as they are by voiceless text and colorful uniforms, are particularly interesting to see fleshed out in such a way. WATCHMEN’s characters already have more depth than most superheroes out there, but finally putting actors behind the masks has some interesting results. The acting is variable- Matthew Goode has a weird European accent (which can’t be his native British) that comes and goes for no good reason, and Malin Ackerman is mostly nondescript, but Patrick Wilson and Jackie Earle Harley are both pretty damn close to what you’d expect the characters to look and sound like, and Morgan is utterly brilliant. Providing the voice and motion reference for Dr. Manhattan (though, ladies, it’s not ALL him if you know what I mean), Crudup is sometimes too distant even for an emotionally distant character, but occasionally his approach works brilliantly.

As faithful as the adaptation is, Snyder does miss the mark occasionally. The action in this film is very stylized and often shown in loving slow-motion closeup. It’s a welcome change from the jittery over-cut style of action that’s popular at present (and that Snyder himself fell prey to in his DAWN OF THE DEAD remake), and at times works to demonstrate how powerful and well-trained the heroes are, but through overuse it becomes distancing (particularly in the Comedian’s murder, which isn’t half as brutal as it should be.) Snyder clearly knows how to choreograph an action scene, now if he could just do it at normal speed. Similarly, though the visuals are impressive as a whole, it doesn’t seem quite like they’ve decided between gritty realism and a more overt “comic book” feel; the actor playing Nixon has a distractingly phallic nosepiece (obvious joke, but c’mon), and some scenes have an overly posed and stiff quality, as though the film is going out of its way to replicate images from the comic instead of letting them occur on their own. The music incorporates a lot of very good songs put in interesting places, but we also get the unbelievably overused “Hallelujah” (at least the Leonard Cohen version this time) and a horrendous cover of “Desolation Row” by My Chemical Romance that seems designed to drive people out of the theater as soon as the end credits start.

Overall, the feeling is that the film should be slightly more affecting than it is. There’s a bit less atmosphere, less intimacy than there should be. It’s an uneven experience; the romance between Nite Owl and Silk Spectre is as charming and sweet as it was in the comic, but the climax has a few too many conventional superhero moments. And the screenplay is perhaps too reverent when it comes to the original’s dialogue- a lot of great lines are retained, but so are a lot of lines that really only work on the page and not when spoken.

To make the best possible film version of WATCHMEN would, ironically, probably require much more butchery of the original work, reshaping it into specifically filmic at the expense of fidelity. The filmmakers here obviously didn’t want to risk that, so what we get is a more literal translation, and something is inevitably lost between media. That said, it’s still well above the average for a superhero film, giving us strong characters, a complex story, and some remarkable visuals. Snyder may not be the visionary Warner Bros. is claiming in advertising, but he’s done right by the book and created a unique cinematic experience. It’ll do.

From the graphic novel by Alan Moore (not credited) and Dave Gibbons
Screenplay by Alex Tse and David Hayter
Directed by Zack Snyder

Grade: B+

No comments: