Monday, March 9, 2009

WATCHMEN


Apparently I had a very busy weekend, even though I don't feel like I actually did much. I attended the Watchmen screening at midnight Thursday night, then had the review all but done by Friday afternoon. Then I went away from the computer...and failed to return until today. So sorry for my procrastination. And sorry, too, that I didn't get to use my quip about staying up until past 4am Thursday and having to take a nap Friday afternoon...oh well...anyway, here's a big, long commentary on the year's first gargantuan release.


I will be very up-front about this simple fact: I am not a Fanboy. I am not a Watchmen devotee. I haven't even read all of the damn graphic novel. I came into this highly-anticipated spectacle with a knowledge of the legend of the book, but not a ton of knowledge of the book itself. I am, for the most part, a Movie Guy. My reading skews toward humor, politics, and social issues...not men and women traipsing around in fancy suits and fighting crime.

I will admit, however, that this superhero film genre has created a very specific and interesting niche. Most of the filmmakers who attempt these big comic book adaptations have the right combination of love and skill to pull them off with gusto. I enjoy big-budget comic adaptations. I guess that makes me a Comic Movie Geek Fanboy.

All that, however, is merely set-up for my review. And, to be fair, a film like Watchmen, which is so dense and ambitious, and is based on such a legendary literary source, necessitates something more than just a simple "review." So, like the film (and the book before it), I may go off on certain tangents. But hopefully the central theme will remain the same.

That central theme is this: Watchmen is imperfect...but is nonetheless a huge, powerful, incredible achievement. Not merely an achievement of filmmaking, but an achievement of storytelling. So credit must be passed not simply to "The Visionary Director of 300," as the film's ads denote--but to Alan Moore, who created the graphic novel on which the film is (very slavishly) based. It is interesting to note that the best ideas in the film come directly from Moore's brain, and yet he so despised the notion of this film that he asked to have his name removed from the credits. But the story lives on, and speaking from the viewpoint of a person who has now experienced more of Watchmen from the film version than the original literary version, I can tell you that the ideas are still there, still vibrant, still unsettling, still powerfully thought-provoking.

Summarizing the plot of Watchmen is a fool's errand for a variety of reasons. First, for the graphic novel's legions of fans, I need not remind them of what they know more intimately than do I. Second, for the uninitiated, any attempt to neatly describe such a complex, deliberately convoluted, heavily philosophical labyrinth of a storyline in a convenient cube of synopsis would more likely confuse than intrigue. In as bare-bones a manner as possible, here are the essentials. The film takes place in an alternate version of 1985, where Richard Nixon is in the midst of his fifth term of office, costumed heroes once roamed the streets but have now become outcasts, and an unmatched level of gloom and fear grip the citizens of the world. It is almost as if the world is on the brink of an apocalypse, and indeed, the film's Doomsday Clock rests as 4 minutes to "Midnight," or Nuclear War. The Watchmen are a group of vigilantes who dress in elaborate costumes to fight crime. All but one of them possess no superhuman abilities, and nearly all of them have dropped out of the public eye and live in some form of private, isolated turmoil. But when one of their ranks, The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), is mysteriously murdered, the shockwave reignites the buried feelings of the former heroes, and perhaps could bring about a re-emergence of the Watchmen. There--still confusing and convoluted, but somewhat easily digestible, no?

What's great about the construction of Watchmen is that its heroes are clearly, debilitatingly human. We see at least 3 superhero movies every year, but rarely do we stop to think about the fact that we are rooting for a regular person who plays dress up, goes out on the street, and kills people. Watchmen dares to reveal the tragic humanity that exists behind the curtain. The Comedian, for example, is a murderer and rapist who commits atrocities against women, children, and other various innocent souls (including, in the film's mythology, JFK). Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman) is in a dead-end relationship with a completely disconnected (literally) partner, and has unresolved conflicts with her mother, Silk Spectre I (played by Carla Gugino; and try to keep up, please), who led a very tumultuous life. Silk Spectre II's "boyfriend," Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), is the only member of Watchmen who actually possesses superhuman powers after one of those Freak Scientific Accidents permanently altered the chemical makeup of his body. Essentially, he is the most powerful superhero ever created, with the ability to destroy, rebuild, read minds, see the future and past simultaneously, exist in several places at once, copy himself endlessly, and escape to Mars whenever he wants (you'll understand when you see it). He is entirely non-human, however, which dictates one monumental weakness: the ability to empathize with humanity. Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) was once the elaborately-costumed engineer and pilot of "Archie," the land-and-air-and-sea vehicle used by the Watchmen in their heyday. Now, he has reverted into a reclusive dork who retired from superhero-dom and lives as a shell of his former self. Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) is the World's Smartest Man, and one of only two former Watchmen to reveal his true identity. He has now become a flamboyant megalomaniac of sorts. Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) wears a mask that displays a shifting set of inkblots, mainly because his deep emotional scars have left him with nothing but a predilection toward psychological symbolism. And he is brutally--dare I say "awesomely"--lethal in every way. But make no mistake: Rorschach is the beating heart of Watchmen--both the group and the film. He is fierce and determined, the only hero who truly lives by a code of truth and honor above all. His "Journal Entries" are a roadmap for the entire film, and his character is our emotional entry point into the heart of this story.

The genius of Watchmen lies in the boundless ambiguity of the title itself. "Watchmen" obviously indicates "those who watch over us" in the simplest sense. But pealing back the layers reveals further complexity. A continuing symbol that runs throughout the book and the film is that of the gears of a clock. Dr. Manhattan is the son of a clockmaker, who then gains the ability to split all matter--including human matter--into its individual parts, and reassemble them in whatever order he sees fit. Nite Owl always has his trusty watch on his wrist. And, of course, the Nuclear War clock that sits at 4 minutes to "Midnight." The symbol of clockwork--or watchwork--underlines some of the philosophical underpinnings of Moore's original work. Again, I claim to be nothing but a Watchmen novice, so this may be common knowledge to the comic book faithful, but it seems very intentional that Moore chose a title that could also relate to the "Watchmaker" interpretation of a Deity--one who sets the gears into pre-destined motion, like a clock (or a watch), but who then steps away and does not intervene in the natural life of those gears. Watchmen dares to show us a world that may just be going through the motions no matter who or what intervenes. The heroes in this film attempt to fight crime--and they do it all the right ways, like in cool costumes and with specialized weapons and fighting moves--and yet humanity sinks deeper and deeper into a hellish state. Now these "heroes" have become just as angry, depressed, and jaded as the average everyday schmuck, only they must also live in the shadow of the mythic alter-egos they once embodied. Do heroes really make a difference? That is the unabashed belief of someone like Rorschach, and is the eternal dilemma for Dr. Manhattan, who sees the inner workings of every piece of the natural and mechanical world, and can't grasp anything worth saving.

Those dichotomous points of view then prompt the film's bigger philosophical question, which the book and the film leave for the audience to answer on their own. Without giving anything significant away, the surface plot gives way to the revelation of the Uber-Villain and a much larger Evil Scheme that is, as is the case with all Evil Schemes, laborious and complicated beyond description. But it also serves to question the moral ambiguity of heroism--what is hero? What acts are truly heroic? Is the end worth the means? These are the questions Watchmen dares to ask.

Watchmen is, as I noted from the outset, imperfect. I do believe there could be a better film to be made from this material, though it would take the kind of miracle Dr. Manhattan just can't make himself believe in. And this is a staggering work--huge, sprawling, and entertaining for nearly three hours, but also deliberate, meditative, sometimes quiet, and deeply philosophical. There is a reason why many believed Watchmen could and should never be adapted, and there is validity to that argument. It is impossible to fully live up to the brilliance of the source material, and the filmmakers' faithfulness to that source material means that not every element works in a cinematic sense: certain side plots and minor characters are fuzzy and ill-defined, and the delicate balance between the towering intellectual ideas that drive the film's thematic undercurrent and the increasingly complicated superhero mythology--replete with gadgets, creatures, and world domination schemes--that drives the film's surface story never quite gels in a fully synergistic way. But this is a film about terminally flawed people who ponder unthinkable philosophical ideas in a perpetually decaying society...imperfection fits right in.

The performances are truly fabulous across the board. No doubt every last Watchmen-obsessed geek the world over has thought up their ideal casting for a film adaptation, but I have no such frame of reference. So coming from an unbiased point of view, purely from an appreciation for talented actors, the film's casting is flawless--and sort of rebellious, given the type of superstars that could have been filling many roles. The makers of Watchmen went down a more iconoclastic, indie-spirit route. Billy Crudup is a fine choice for Dr. Manhattan, though one can't quite rave about a performance of a character so leaden and straight-faced, other than to say that Crudup does everything he can do with the character. Patrick Wilson is fabulous as Nite Owl, who starts the film as a recoiled coward and ends as a reinvigorated superhero. Jeffrey Dean Morgan, of whom I have never been a fan, is better than he's ever been before as the cynical, nihilistic Comedian--he runs the full emotional gamut in his few scenes, and makes you feel the inner turmoil of such a monstrous figure. Matthew Goode finds the right note of snootiness to pull off Ozymandias, even if he is forgotten for much of the film. Going in, I was unsure about the casting of Malin Akerman as Silk Spectre II, but was proven very presumptuous...and very wrong. This is easily the most meaty, interesting, challenging role Akerman has ever played in her young career, and she exudes a combination of toughness and vulnerability that defines her character. She is a fabulous surprise, but the greatest revelation of Watchmen--and I am hardly the first person to state this--is Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach. His work is raw and rough and utterly powerful in every way. His character and his performance are the beating heart of Watchmen, and he is even more revelatory on those few occasions when he takes off the trademark mask.

And yes, I also must give many props to Zack Snyder....you know, the "Visionary Director of 300." I hated 300...yes, it looked pretty, but I thought it was so meticulously created to look pretty that I found it quite ugly and boring. I preferred Snyder's 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, but even that film wasn't all it was cracked up to be. I can say, with a lot of relief, that Watchmen represents Snyder's career-best work as a director. He clearly has more love for and understanding of the material here than he did on his previous projects. And while he uses a lot of visual gimmicks similar to those of 300, they seem more a fabric of the wild world of this story than they do simple stunts (the one that most resembles a stunt is the now-cliched use of fast motion quickly becoming slow motion in mid-action...sort of corny and distracting, but only used for two very quick moments). For the most part, Watchmen is a heavily visual experience, but it is a lot slower, more meditative, and less gaudy (in a filmic sense; obviously all this comic bookery will depict lots of garish costumes and settings, etc.) than one might expect, especially coming from Snyder. And I'll be honest--he still has lots of room to grow as a filmmaker. In many ways, he seems uncomfortable shooting anything other than pure eye-candy spectacle. And while his attempt to dial down a bit for this very serious and important film is admirable and, for the most part, successful, there are certain moments--specifically character-driven dialogue moments--when the direction is neither showy nor inept...it is simply workmanlike, and a little bland. Snyder has yet to put together the full package in a way that, say, the Wachowski brothers have. But it took a huge vision and a lot of balls to take the burden of hundreds of millions of studio dollars on his shoulders and tackle such a beloved, cherished, almost mythic work of art and turn it not only into something watchable, but something that deeply resonates intellectually...not unlike it's source material. And that's a huge compliment.

2 comments:

the WIZARD, fkap said...

My six word review can be shortened considerably this week.

Watchmen, Unwatchable.

Oh I could have added four other words like Pretentious, Boggy, Boring, Dim..... but why waste perfectly good words that I might need in a future review.

------

On an unrelated note, I was delighted to see a Blue-Ray disk of the virtually unknown 1971 cult classic, Vanishing Point.

The Blue-Ray disk is an exceptionally well done treatment of a movie I thought the world had forgotten or, at least, overlooked. I'm so pleased to see I'm not alone in recognizing this movie is a real classic.

J McKiernan said...

Cute, Wizard.

Have you read the graphic novel? As I made abundantly clear, I have not. But I am always willing to respect such a huge, sprawling work steeped in challenging ideas. Yes, it is pretentious...but that willingness to go right to the edge has produced some of our best works of art.

Regarding Vanishing Point, I know of several people who really love it. You refer to it as a "cult classic," and that is exactly what it is. It should be valued, in my estimation, precisely on those terms.

How did it look on Blu-Ray?