Monday, March 09, 2009

Movie review: Watchmen

You've got to hand it to director Zack Snyder: it takes chutzpah to try to translate a cherished literary work like Alan Moore's Watchmen to the celluloid. Hollywood's archives are chock full of failed and forgettable efforts. (Mike Newell's Love in the Time of Cholera comes to mind). But, then again, judging from the --er --machismo on display in Snyder's preceding effort, the ultra-masculine (and blatantly homoerotic) 300, perhaps one should not be surprised that he made the attempt.

As an enthusiastic fan of the ground-breaking graphic novel, first published as a series for DC Comics in 1986-87, I tried to maintain a healthy skepticism as the cinematic release loomed. After all, I need look back only a few short years to remember the empty disappointment that descended upon me after watching the bastardization of JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings by ham-handed Peter Jackson. But, by the time my friends and I were waiting outside the cinema and I'd had a good look at all the promotional posters, the cardboard stand-ups of the main characters ("A world at peace... there had to be a sacrifice" explains Ozymandias), by the time I had heard rumor of befuddled reviews wherein the critics could not fit the film into any convenient category (action flick? murder mystery?) I could no longer subdue my excitement. I found that I was daring to believe that Snyder would succeed.

The story is set in a world that is on the brink of thermonuclear war. The Soviet Union and the United States are locked in a deadly Cold War dance where the slightest miscalculation will result in humanity's extinction. At the center of it all is a being that was created by an accident in a federal nuclear research facility, Dr. Manhattan, formerly known as Jon Osterman (played by Billy Crudup). Dr. Manhattan's abilities (he can instantaneously transform matter, he perceives time non-linearly) are such that so long as he is in the equation belligerents in the Soviet Union dare not challenge the United States. The problem is that since his transformation into a super-being, Dr. Manhattan is becoming less and less human and more and more a detached, impartial observer of the Universe, indifferent to humanity's fate.

Meanwhile, an American operative, Edward Blake (played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan) or "The Comedian" as he is sometimes called, is murdered by an unknown assailant in New York City. The murder attracts the attention of Rorschach (superbly played by Jackie Earle Haley), a vigilante assassin of the city's dark underground. Rorshach suspects that there is more to the murder than simple burglary, that there is a conspiracy to perhaps eliminate "masks" (costumed heroes). He undertakes to warn all his former masked crime-fighting associates of their peril.

As Rorshach's investigation progresses, he and his friend and partner Dan Dreiberg, the Night Owl (Patrick Wilson), discover a plot with earth-shaking implications. Along the way, Dr. Manhattan's concubine, Laurie Jupiter, the Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman) is increasingly frightened by Dr. Manhattan's detachment and turns to Dreiberg for comfort. And the "World's Smartest Man," Adrian Veidt, also known as Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), continues his own efforts to save humanity by bringing about a progressive evolution of society.

Although the action sequences in the film are quite good, and the visual rendering, the sets, costumes, muted light and extended shadow convey the darkness that has come to define so-called "comic book movies," it is a mistake to view Watchmen expecting another action-hero movie along the lines of the Spiderman series, or even Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight. Those expecting such will probably be disappointed. Watchmen is really a study of contrasting world views. And, as such, the story progresses mostly through dialog and character development.

The acting is good all around, especially Morgan's Comedian, and Haley's Rorshach. But also, the minor parts, the actors who portrayed current media pundits like Pat Buchanan, Eleanor Clift, John McLaughlin, Ted Koppel were excellent.

As with all high art, Watchmen poses questions, but offers no definitive answers. Does evil truly exist? How is it defined? Is humanity inherently endowed with some perverted characteristic that will cause it to destroy itself?

In recent interviews, Alan Moore has already panned the movie, saying famously that he will be "spitting venom all over it for months to come." Well, Watchmen is his concept, arguably his masterwork, so one is obliged to respect his opinion on the matter. On the other hand, is there not a point at which an artist's work is no longer his alone? Do not those of us who have come to love the graphic novel (and by all accounts that includes Snyder) now share in its ownership? After all, it is we who interpret the work, appreciate it, revere it and therefore, make it worthy of recognition.

So, yes, I admire Alan Moore, and I'm grateful to him for his creation. And if I felt that Snyder's effort had even the least taint of simplification for convenience's sake, or some cheesy chicanery to broaden its appeal to the mindless teenage movie-goer set, I would join in Moore's scorn. (I doubt I will ever fully forgive Peter Jackson for what he did to Tolkien.) But Watchmen, the film, is as true to the novel upon which it is based as the cinematic medium will allow. Yes, there are some significant changes to the plot. Yes, Snyder has omitted some of the subplots and story lines that make Moore's novel a wonder of complexity and reflection. But the essentials of the story, which is largely an examination of the world views of its principle characters, are there; they are true; and like the story's narrator, Rorshach, the sociopath vigilante, they are not compromised.

So, for me, Watchmen can take its place alongside such timeless classics as Dr. Zhivago, Apocalypse Now, and the Godfather as a film that has successfully achieved the translation from book to movie.

I highly recommend this film.


Anonymous said...

(Dade asked me to drop these reactions into the comments, so here they are)

I went to see Watchmen a second time last night. Some observations the second time around:
1. Matthew Goode is being called out as the weak link of the cast by forum-posting geeks, but I think he was excellent. Snyder, however, mis-directed the Veidt character in the first 3/4 of the film - he foreshadowed too much, telegraphing that Adrian was the bad guy. In the final scenes, though, I think Veidt was portrayed well.

2. Speaking of those final scenes: your theory that Veidt used an easy password just so Dan and Rorschach would discover his plan is bolstered by the fact that Adrian dons his crimefighting uniform for the implementation of his plan. He knew Dan and Rorschach were on their way, so he dressed for a fight.

3. Where does Laurie get her Silk Spectre costume when she and Dan go out at 3:00 am? For that matter, where does she get a revolver to shoot at Veidt? (In the book, she picks it up off a dead cop in NYC; in the film we don't get that scene).

4. Two semantic nitpicks that bother me: that they refer to "The Watchmen" as an actual crimefighting team (there wasn't one), and that they refer to Laurie as "Laurie Jupiter" (s/b Juspescyk). Both are understandable with respect to translating graphic novel to film, but they bug me nonetheless. But they are only nitpicks.

5. I found Rorschach's death to be very moving, which is weird. I think Rorschach is Moore's practical joke on the comic readership; the character is Moore's response to all the "amoral angsty loner" hero-worship prevalent in the 80s. I know you're not much of a comic reader, but there were a whole stable of "dark" comic characters - Wolverine, The Punisher, Miller's Batman (aka The Dark Knight) - whose borderline morals were celebrated by comic geekdom. With Rorschach, Moore is saying "here - I dare you to celebrate THIS guy". Getting the audience to cheer for Rorschach is probably the biggest joke's-on-you moment that Snyder pulls, and secretly Moore is probably happy about that.

6. Patrick Wilson is every bit as good as Jackie Earle Haley or Jeffrey Dean Morgan in this film - maybe better. It's just that Dan Dreiberg is less "sexy" than Rorschach or The Comedian. The guy was Dan Dreiberg - especially his body language, which was spot-on.

7. Malin Ackerman is hot.

Just had to share. [hrrrm]

Anonymous said...

Watchmen is a visual and psychological cornucopia -- definitely worth watching