Monday, March 9, 2009

Movie review: Watchmen*

PhotobucketSo I've been sitting here for a couple days trying to figure out how I felt about "Watchmen," the motion picture. General thoughts: I liked it, a lot more than I thought I would. I want to see it again and absorb it more. But it's still strange, coming and watching images from a story you've held dear for 20-something years play out on screen -- you can't be surprised by the story (although there were a few changes), so instead you're watching something familiar spool out in a new medium. It's kind of a weird deja vu feeling.

Graphic novel writer Alan Moore is notorious for his disapproval of a "Watchmen" movie, which he's fully entitled to; I've held off writing anything about "Watchmen" during the making of the movie, because I wasn't sure I wanted a movie, halfway wondering if there was any need for it. Of course, a movie, after all, doesn't affect the book -- it doesn't validate its greatness, doesn't erase its impact if it sucks.

But darn it, director Zach Snyder has more or less pulled it off, condensing one of the comics mediums' greatest achievements into a zippy, yet moderately thoughtful Hollywood movie that occasionally has moments of poetic beauty. My fears Snyder would turn it into an airhead video-game like his "300" or "Dawn of the Dead" weren't met.

PhotobucketIf anything Snyder is religiously faithful; entire panels and sequences of co-creator Dave Gibbons' art play out line for line. The detail is astounding, full of Easter eggs for the "Watchmen" aficionado. He plays down his annoying directorial fast-slo motion tendencies, using them sparingly (and to extraordinary effect in the haunting opening credits montage that carries us through the rise and fall of superheroes in America, one of the best parts of the movie). Ditched, of course, are a great deal of the symbolic undercurrents of the book (no "Black Freighter" or appendices here), and many of the minor characters are demoted to bit walk-ons.

Excessive fidelity can often lead to a rather inert movie (see: most of the "Harry Potter" flicks), but "Watchmen", through sheer bombast and some stirring imagery, manages to leave a fair amount of emotional impact. It's no "Lord of the Rings," but as adaptations go, it's a decent go. Interestingly, I found the dialogue got most leaden whenever it did veer away from Moore's sacred texts, so maybe you just can't win!

Things I liked:
PhotobucketGenerally, the acting was quite good, but particularly Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach. The man is freakily like the twisted images of Walter Kovacs in the book, and he's so darned good I wish he wasn't wearing that eerie mask so much of his time on screen. I also really like Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the Comedian, who gives the character a real sinister resonance. My favorite, though, might have been Patrick Wilson, so great in "Little Children," who was an uncanny doppelganger to the Dan Dreiberg Nite Owl right down to the hairstyle. Wilson's work isn't as showy as Rorschach or the Comedian but really his is the central figure in the movie, and one of my favorite moments was how the sad-sack Dan transformed when he finally puts on the Nite Owl costume again.

You can't fault Snyder's visual eye, which magically recreates the entire book with stunning accuracy, right down to Nite Owl's winter costume and billboard advertisements. But he also really makes Dr. Manhattan's powers frightening and alien, and the interlude on Mars has a glacial beauty. I was also really pleased when they cast Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan, as I think he gave the demigod a gentle yet stern, above-it-all presence that really works. The effects for Manhattan were generally superb, especially in some of the flashbacks.

The changes to the ending, the biggest tweak from the book, worked well. It's a change more of method than of meaning, really, and y'know, that squid never really woulda worked on the big screen.

Things that I didn't like:
PhotobucketGenerally it all came across a bit rushed. Even for a 2-1/2 hour movie it seems a bit trunctated. Supposedly there'll be a 3-hour director's cut which flow a bit smoother. While I understand, of course, the time limitations made it hard to make characters like Bernie the newsman or Bubastis more than cameos, the one major impact this has is that the ending of the book lacks emotional impact when 99% of the story has been focused exclusively on the superheroes. Moore gave close to equal time to the everyday citizens of his New York, and that's what gave the final chapter of "Watchmen" its kick. Here, unless you're a devoted fan of the book much of the climax is lost on you.

Snyder also gave in to his inner zombie filmmaker a bit too often by amping up the gore to distracting levels (a slashed throat becomes a gross double-amputation, the camera fetishizes Dr. Manhattan's powers a bit too much). The violence in the fights also often merely came off as cartoony sub-"Matrix" kung fu.

Matthew Goode's Ozymanidas is capable without ever quite being as imposing as he should be. He's too young for the part (a fortysomething David Bowie would've been perfect, in my humble opinion) and seems a bit callow. Other reviewers have also faulted Malin Ackerman's Silk Spectre, but I found her decent -- she totally looked the part, but like Goode seemed a bit young and unseasoned for the character.

The attempts to portray an aged Richard Nixon don't work at all. Maybe it's because I'd just watched "Frost/Nixon" the night before, but the rubbery latex elderly Nixon of "Watchmen" looks badly out of place.

Still, it's amazing a "Watchmen" movie got made and that it didn't vomit all over Moore's book. I don't think it will be a huge "Dark Knight" style hit as it's rather inside baseball and an awful lot of people won't get past the blue glowing man's penis (which tells you more about them than it does about the movie, frankly). The reviews are all over the place, from New Yorker Anthony Lane's utterly dismissive one (he manages to completely miss the point by writing that it "marks the final demolition of the comic strip, and it leaves you wondering: where did the comedy go?") to Roger Ebert's quite thoughtful musings on the nature of Dr. Manhattan. But I'm glad it's made, and look forward to the inevitable director's cut DVD that will fill in some of the gaps. And hey, if it turns people on to reading the (still superior) graphic novel, that's not a bad consequence at all.

*No, I won't title this post "Watching Watchmen."

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