Monday, March 16, 2009

Monday Movie Review: The Watchmen

Watchmen (2009) 6/10
In an alternative timeline, it is 1985. Richard Nixon is in the fifth term of his presidency, the world is at the brink of nuclear war, and masked heroes have been made illegal. Most heroes retired, but Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) has refused, and continues to function as a vigilante. When The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is killed, Rorschach suspects that someone may be going after "masks;" his efforts to contact other retired heroes sets off a chain of events. Directed by Zack Snyder.

Full disclosure: I've read the graphic novel Watchmen maybe four times. Maybe five. I can't review the movie as-is, I can't un-read the novel I've read, or remove the knowledge of it from my brain. I'm not one of those geeked-out people who can't abide any deviation from the original: Movies are their own medium, and slavish recreations of books in movie form tend to be soulless and flat. Nonetheless, there's no way to refrain from comparison, and I won't try.

It's possible that Zack Snyder wanted to make a unique movie, using the graphic novel as a jumping-off point, sort of Hitchcock to DuMaurier, but that doesn't explain his absolute visual commitment to the original, down to specific frames, which makes every change seem deliberate and glaring.

The visual styles, despite this commitment, are very different. Snyder is a slick, pretty storyteller with a lot of whiz-bang. Moore's story and Gibbons' illustrations are gritty and hyper-realistic. In the book, the costumes look (as costumes will) a little goofy, and that's part of the point. In the movie they look gorgeous.

The original is a deeply violent and unsettling work. The film ups the ante on all the violence. In a film struggling to fit in a complex story, where a lot had to be cut out, you have to wonder why every fight is so extended, why the camera lingers (as the comic did not) on dripping gore in scene after scene. I think it's counter-productive, for example, for Rorschach to tell his "origin" story, which is horrifically violent, after so much film violence that (a) Snyder has to make it even more violent, and (b) its impact is reduced after an hour of numbing horror.

The fights are more "super" as well. A scene where Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson) and Silk Spectre II (Malin Ackerman) are are attacked by, and defeat, four gang members, becomes a scene where they defeat, nay decimate, about a dozen. The filmmakers forgot that these are ordinary people, not mutants or aliens.

You can look at it, as I said, as a different animal. Snyder wanted to make a super-cool movie about ultra-violent costumed heroes who kick ass and hang it on a Watchmen frame. I'm not into that movie. The book had a point; lots of points, about why it is that someone might become a "hero," and what that might mean about them. That there is no such thing as a hero and even if there were, it wouldn't help. If they can kick ass and then happily flex, that meaning is lost.

I'm reminded a little of The Right Stuff (bear with me, here). I was a big fan of that book. When news of the film production first appeared, it was said the entire opening third, about test pilots, was going to be ditched, and only the astronauts' story would be told. But the meaning of the astronauts in the book is built on the foundation of their predecessors, the test pilots.

Likewise, the meaning of the 1985 Watchmen is built on the foundation of their 1940s predecessors, the Minutemen. We see them in an opening flashback montage, and two of them are main characters: The Comedian and Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino), but we never really get to know them. Silk Spectre in particular is utterly dumbed down.

Both Sally, the original Silk Spectre, and Laurie, her daughter, are stupider and less interesting in the film, and there is something vaguely misogynist about the whole thing. There's an extremely touchy and important scene, involving an attempted rape, which I want to address as a separate post. Suffice it to say it is problematic in both the book and the movie, but the movie is way worse in terms of things like misogyny and rape apology.

The acting is very uneven. Malin Ackerman is flat out awful, and Jackie Earle Halley is stunning. Jeffery Dean Morgan proves he's more than a sexy ghost. Billy Crudup has the hardest job, playing a man transformed into something inhuman, losing touch with his humanity. He has to be absolutely cold while still showing glimmers of confusion and grief. Crudup nails it in the one role I thought would be impossible to play. Matthew Goode, meanwhile, has an apparently more straightforward character, but he doesn't have the heart for it.

The soundtrack was utterly awful. I mean bad. Clichéd to the point of being like a high school kid's basement project. Ride of the Valkyries, 99 Luftballoons, Sounds of Silence: Really? Really??? And the orchestral soundtrack was even worse, overblown and self-important.

You may have heard the ending was changed from the novel, and here is where Change Is Good. It was smart to change the ending, it was done with integrity, and it worked.

There are a lot of great, thoughtful reviews of Watchmen out there. This is perhaps my favorite so far.

Snyder hits us over the head with loud crashes, slo-mo revolving camera actions shots, and accentuated violence, most of which was unnecessary. There is violence in the graphic novel, of course, and it does play an important role, but it is more concerned with the philosophy and psychology of violence rather than showing guts splattered against the ceiling. There does need to be some visualization of the violence in order for it to have an impact within the film, but I feel like Snyder stepped over the line in order to satisfy some sort of fetishistic fascination with gore. The raw, organic images of graphic violence also don't seem to fit in the slick, distanced world Snyder created -- it always feels a little forced, never a natural occurence [sic] within a convincingly-created world.

This one too:
Not since John Woo has this much mo been slowed. Run it all at full speed, and this is a 90 minute film.

I actually think the slo-mo is part of Snyder's obsessive and unfortunate commitment to portraying specific frames of the comic book. When the slo-mo briefly stops, I feel like I'm looking at a panel in a comic. And what's the point of that, really? I've already read the comic, I'm here to see a movie.

So again I'm back to, why make this movie? Because you think it's cool and the material is available to be filmed? That's so sad.

(Who watches the cross-post?)