Saturday, March 7, 2009

Movie #23: Watchmen (2009)

After 20+ years of back and forth between studios, writers, and directors we finally, for better or for worse, have our WATCHMEN movie. Forget the "could have beens" of a Terry Gilliam or Darren Aronovsky version of the film, forget the 5+ hour HBO miniseries (which was never really a consideration). Zach Snyder and the team behind 300 have gone and made the "unfilmable" Holy Grail of graphic novels into a finished film.

And a surprisingly faithful one, at that.

Almost too faithful, and if I have a minor quibble with WATCHMEN, the issue of being "too faithful" is an odd one, in light of the various fanboy uproars over major departures like the lack of the "squid" ending to more minor liberties like using "Desolation Row" over the closing credits when it is, in fact, used as the opening quote to the book.

So before jumping into the review, it's probably best to explain the mindset I used going into the movie: it has to work as a film. We're talking two very different mediums here, and the logic, structures and storytelling techniques that work in comics, and specifically in Watchmen the graphic novel, don't necessarily translate when adapted to film. That's always been Alan Moore's main reason for the disdain he has of all his filmed works, and it's a valid one. But (of course there's a "but") there's a lot that film can do that comics can't, and provided the hand that does the adapting does it with reverence and keeps their eye on the message within the work (which was always "filmable"), you can do things like LORD OF THE RINGS. THE GODFATHER.

And now, WATCHMEN.

Zach Snyder should be proud of himself. WATCHMEN is an audacious, unapologetically R-rated film that revels in taking its costumed avengers and placing them in a very real (albeit weird) world, a world where the discovery of the first "super-powered" man is heralded as "an American" and consequently sets up a society where people don capes and masks to both commit crime and fight it. WATCHMEN is largely about the deconstruction of the superhero archetype, but by committing to the book's 80's time frame lock, stock, and barrel and running the action against the nation's growing paranoia over Soviet aggression and nuclear holocaust, Snyder draws parallels to our own current global scenario. It's a beautifully realized world; not the "real word" of something like THE DARK KNIGHT, but like that film, total in its commitment to a reality that governs the actions of its characters.

Most everything is here: after a brilliant opening to the strains of Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changing" that brings us up to speed on the world since the "birth" of Doctor Manhattan and costumed heroes to the 1977 Keane Act that banned vigilantism, we're immediately in the present, and witness to the murder of the Comedian. Snyder stays very close to the panels drawn by Dave Gibbons in the book, but amps everything up by showing us the action that occurs in between the panels to open things up and make the fight that much more visceral. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is incredible in the short amount of time he gets to play the Comedian - it's a bastard of a role, because the Comedian's so repulsive, but Morgan really brings out a lot of the underlying pain and anguish that haunts him in his final days. He very nearly steals the show in every scene he's in.

Nearly. I could go one about the other actors, all of who pull out fine performances, but that would take up too space before I could get to how unbelievable Jackie Earle Haley is as Rorschach. He's the drive of the film, the narrator and the one person who never once compromised or gave in when everyone else took government jobs (Comedian, Manhattan), went to seed (Nite Owl, Silk Spectre), or cashed in (Ozymandias, who gets the short end of the stick in the theatrical version, but hopefully gets some more to do in the director's cut in a few months). Rorschach is the heart of the film and, like Billy Crudup's Doctor Manhattan, Haley has to do most of his acting in actions and voice, since for the most part he's covered by the now famous ink blot mask. Snyder wisely keeps most of Rorschach's scenes from the book intact, and when the mask finally does come off, Snyder's camera gets in close, studying every worn line and whisker on his face. The single best scene of WATCHMEN comes not from the result of make-up, special effect or fight choreography - it is a close-up of Haley's face at the end of the film, in the bitter cold, shaking from the freezing air and bitter sadness of what's about to happen. The entire screen is filled with his face, and it's impossible to turn away.

I mentioned before how much restraint Snyder shows in refraining from the speed changes that covered every second of 300; it's a credit that this feels almost like a different director. The fact that so much of what was on the page he manages to pull off in incredible. Another fantastic scene I never would have thought would work on film involves a dream Dan Dreiberg (Nite Owl) has after a failed attempt to make love to Laurie (Silk Spectre): naked in a barren landscape, each person rips the other person's skin off, revealing each other in their crime fighting costumes as a gigantic mushroom cloud erupts on the horizon. It's a surreal image straight out of Dali, but Snyder films it and makes it work. Another terrific section from the book that works beautifully on the screen is Doctor Manhattan's exodus to Mars, and his meditation on his life and the multifaceted nature of time, and how it appears to him. Again, I would have thought this would never work on the screen: Snyder proves me wrong. His fight choreography, also very different from the novel, is top-notch; I couldn't help but think that this was how I wanted to see my superheros fight. Christoper Nolan: take note for the next Batman movie - you can have dressed up people move with a fluid grace.

And the love scene? I guarantee you've never seen anything this, uh, hardcore in a big-budget superhero film again. It's tacky, it's explicit, and it's a fantastic pressure release valve from all the heavy stuff that has gone on before. You'll laugh out loud, and you'll probably never listen to Leonard Cohen or "Hallelujah" the same way again.

So where did I have any problems? By sticking so close to the book, and being so faithful to the words spoken, some of the dialog comes off a little wooden, and takes you out of the film a bit. It's at those moments that you're reminded you're watching an adaptation instead of immersing yourself in a film. There's one weird instance, however, where Snyder opts to removes a crucial bit of dialog that also makes the film suffer a bit. Early in the film after the Comedian's murder Rorschach makes his rounds to the rest of the Watchmen (they were called the Crime Busters in the book - the term "Watchmen" really was a catch-all referring to all costumed heroes) informing them of his death and his suspicions that someone is out to kill heroes. This news of the Comedian's death has implications for Laurie, aka Silk Spectre, having to do with a violent episode between the Comedian and her mother, the original Silk Spectre back in the 40s and 50s. So in the book Laurie lashes out at Rorschach about the Comedian, and when Rorschach says something about it, her anger is what causes Doctor Manhattan to teleport him out of their compound. Here that doesn't happen - the conflict is glossed over and, although it's accentuated elsewhere, I couldn't help but feel that initial moment of Laurie's hatred would have the revelations that come later on the film more weighty. It's a small grievance, but it's there.

Some scenes also suffer a little from such careful dedication to the book. There are a few moments where WATCHMEN feels like you're viewing the book instead of living the film (something the motion comics DVD purposefully achieves). The moments feel a bit dry, especially when they're matched against sequences that jump off the screen. We all have the book, we can all read it again, so taking a few more liberties (I know, blasphemy) and making each minute of the visual version of WATCHMEN completely engage the viewer instead of pay homage to the book might have made the difference between "great" and "nigh perfect".

My final, tiny issue is admittedly a personal quibble and, surprisingly, comes after the movie ends. I'm perfectly fine with the "squidless" ending. In fact, I'm fine with practically (see above) every moment of WATCHMEN. Once the credits roll, we're treated to a cover of "Desolation Row" performed by My Chemical Romance. Song's not bad, I like My Chemical Romance, and I get the reference (again, a line from the song actually opens the novel), but the tone in the cover is much more upbeat that the original version, and doesn't jibe with the essentially bleak "it never ends" ending. MInor and more than a bit "fanboy-ish" perhaps, but when my ending is downbeat, I don't want major chord punk playing over the credits.

Those pieces aside, in the end WATCHMEN comes off as a kind of great film, one I think is destined to be influential and talked about for years to come. Drew McWeeny compared it to BLADE RUNNER, and I don't think he's too far off the mark. It might not do a lot of box office, it requires more than simple passive viewing (in fact, I'm 100% this is going to get better and better over multiple viewings), but in the end it's an impressive achievement, does nothing to shame the graphic novel, and proves that nothing is "unfilmable" when you commit yourself to it.

Although, come to think of it, wouldn't it have been cool to see that giant squid now?