Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Watchmen

Dir. Zack Snyder

Viewed: From the Balcony

I wasn't planning on adding to the internet din of bloggers and message board enthusiasts who have been doing quite fine on their own going in circles ad nauseam about the merits or lack thereof regarding Zack Snyder's Watchmen adaptation. So forgive the lack of a plot description (which can fill a blog all its own) and the normal gettin' to know ya formalities and let's get straight to the reach around. For starters I believe there hasn't been enough focus and perspective on what made Watchmen great in the first place and how this should keep everyone's expectations for the movie in check. Yes, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons told us a great, darkly ambiguous story and we should expect that story to come across in the film more or less thematically intact. But what made that story the legend it is today is that it was told over a series of comic books in a way that had never before been achieved in that medium. There's been a slew of comic books and even a couple of good Batman movies that get into similar territory but none can touch level of craftsmanship and depth of detail that went into those books. It isn't the story so much as how it was told that made Watchmen the book the masterpiece it is. So, do you really expect the Watchmen movie to reinvent film making? Can you honestly expect to be as amazed all over again in a completely different medium? It's next to impossible and especially so when you're dealing with a film that's hoping to recoup millions of dollars from the movie going public. What you can hope is that the movie opens people's eyes to what a movie about a group of costumed crime fighters can accomplish. And in that regard, and in brazen, joyful disregard of coherence and accessibilty, I think it succeeds, mostly.

I've gone on before about why a lot of people are foolish when it comes to criticizing an adaptation for leaving out this precious thing or that, but it feels like it can't be said enough. A question I ask people at my day job is, What do you expect to happen? Going into any movie you can immediately put some things into place. (Bear with me for a moment.) There's all kinds of possibilities here but if you're seeing a movie at your local multi-screen theater chances are you're watching a movie that has some level of general accessibility. Most chain theaters still won't show a movie that hasn't been screened for the MPAA or given an NC-17 rating. And most likely the movie you're watching required investors that were given some hope that this film would attract a certain kind of audience that would allow them to at least make their money back. Now an adaptation is generally seen as a good idea, a good investment because usually you're making an adaptation of something that has proven to have admirers, fans, an audience that might be interested in seeing a film version of whatever it is. Part of the reason Watchmen the book has so many fans is because it is unlike anything else (see above paragraph). This raises problems right off the bat. It's dark, bleak and pretty much all around nasty in its disposition. It's a seriously dense story with numerous indispensable characters and complex relationships. The glowing blue guy and flying owl shaped vehicle and the destruction of a major city, amoung many other things, are going to add up to a hefty price tag. So, again, what do you expect to happen? Do you expect the movie to represent the experimental storytelling that you loved about the comic? Do you expect the payoff to be as rewarding? No. You know why? It's a Zack Snyder movie and not the meticulous twelve issues of comic books that still stands today as unsurpassed in its achievements. But you know what -- that dark, bleak, dense story with numerous important characters and complex relationships -- it's all there in this movie and that's an accomplishment in and of itself. I have to give the filmmakers credit for giving us a movie that still tries to comment on the major themes of the book, even if they don't fully connect on all of them due to the constraints inherent in the project and yes, the numerous missteps they made along the way.

It certainly has its problems, some of which honestly would be there in any unless you got the greenlight on a twelve hour, perfectly cast and directed HBO miniseries. And some of the questionable choices are almost excusable because their sheer audacity makes them entertaining. For the most part the song choice in Watchmen is set exclusively to the most iconic songs of the past 30-40 years. Maybe not the wizest of choices in general but early on there is a simply amazing montage/credits sequence that establishes the world our "heroes" inhabit set to the tune of Bob Dylan's "Times They Are A'Changing". That this works at all is amazing but it actually soars and sets a high water mark that the film never quite reaches again. Other songs like "Sounds of Silence" and "99 Luftballoons" are used far less successfully but keep with the film's wrongheadedness in terms of picking songs that are so on the nose it's embarrassing. A song choice should help coax the mood, not slap you across the face. Did the movie really just crib "The Ride of the Valkyries" for its Vietnam war sequence? Seriously? But we really go off the deep end with the marriage of Dan and Laurie making sweet sweet love (complete with Archie ejaculation) while we listen to Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah". Yeah. This scene gets to the point of the most confounding thing about the movie -- in some cases it's faithful to a fault (we really didn't need to see Archie shooting its flaming load across the night's sky even though it is in the book) and in others it makes seemingly arbitrary, pointless changes (why not use the Billie Holiday song the book uses to spark the love scene rather than Cohen's awkwardness?). These are annoying and distracting problems, some of which may only exist for the comic fans but I'm sure will leave many non-fanboys scratching their head, or in the case of this scene, laughing.

The more obvious problems come from the casting of Malin Ackerman as Laurie Jupiter/Silk Spectre II and Matthew Goode as Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias. Going back to the inherent problems you'll face in adapting Watchmen, you can't really excise any of the major characters and you can't drop the ball with any of them either. And the ball is dropped whenever we're dealing with Silk Spectre II and Ozymandias who are both crucial characters and come off as one-note and paper-thin. The problem with Goode as Veidt leads to a problem the movie has with the main plot and story of Watchmen as well. At its core we're dealing with a mystery -- complete with pulpy narration and lots of your basic hard-nosed detective work -- and if anyone watching this movie gets caught up in the mystery behind what's going on up on the screen, I'd be honestly amazed. I would imagine most newbies to be spending most of their time just trying to keep up and get a grasp on what the hell this whole thing is supposed to be about. Again, this is an inherent problem with this adaptation, even at 3 hours long, so I can't lay all the blame on the filmmakers here. But they don't cut themselves any favors by presenting a version of the movie (I understand that we can expect an extra hour in the Director's Cut) that's muddled in its storytelling abilities at best. The book is an immersive thing that gradually unfolds a complex mythology. The movie, at close to three hours, is whisking you to an ending that will either resonate or fall flat and I can accept both answers from any given viewer but I can't call it a complete failure or get lost in nitpicking the variations between the book and movie because it does have its pleasures.

What Zack Snyder lacks in storytelling agility, he makes up for with a sometimes awe inspiring eye. While nothing quite hits you like the opening titles montage, there's sequences in the film that are downright beautiful. Particularly anything involving Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan, our glowing blue god-like entity. In a hurricane that at times seems pointless he's the subtle, nuanced calm at the center of the storm. This movie could have been a masterpiece if we were just to focus our story on the arc of Dr. Manhattan. I was transfixed every minute we spent with him and my deep respect for Billy Crudup's skills only grew with his performance. I would say the same for Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach but he was pretty much an unknown quantity for me going in. That these two characters, and to a lesser extent even Nite Owl II and The Comedian, are so perfectly realized, I can't say the movie is unwatchable or without merit. Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan are the heart and soul of the story, respectively, and they nailed them both perfectly in the movie. There's an undeniable thrill in seeing these characters up there being true to themselves and the story. You can flip to almost any page in the book and find a panel that ended up on the screen. As in the Archie fire spooge, that's not necessarily a good thing, but imagine the geek furor that would be raining down on this movie if it went the other way into some sort of re-imagining or actually did attempt some sort of experimental deconstruction of the story. For all its faults I can applaud it for capturing what it does capture with obvious admiration and a great eye for detail.

For the most part, when Warner Brothers took Paul Greengrass off the project and replaced him with Zach Snyder, the die was cast. The world of Watchmen wasn't going to strive for any realism, instead the grimy surroundings were going to have a glossy sheen. Warners obviously choose him for these reasons and his trademark slo-mo moments to make the violence more comic booky and theoretically attractive to all those fans of things that go boom and crunch. But to his credit, Snyder kept the story in 1985 and kept it more or less as it was told twenty years ago and not the modern day 9/11 influenced tale that Greengrass was going to shoot. I wouldn't say this is the best Watchmen movie we could have gotten -- simply changing the music cues and re-casting some characters could have made it a whole lot better, but I admire the few compromises that Snyder allowed for. Under his watch, Warner Bros released a complicated, hard R rated movie that is probably destined to loose money because they didn't fuck with it and make it PG-13 and come in at under two hours so that it could play more times a day and appeal to a wider audience. I don't want to come across as "It should never have been made as a movie in the first place, but since they were going to make it eventually, it could have been a lot worse, so thumbs up!" but I don't think it's impossible to balance taking the film on its own merits and in terms of the source material.

I have a soft spot for this kind of movie too. And no, I'm not talking about superhero or comic book based movies, but movies that shoot for the moon but rattle and break apart before they get there. Like last year's Southland Tales, Watchmen's ambition outshines clumsy storytelling, uneven performances and incoherent plot. In both these cases the movies are so gloriously bizarre that I can't wait to see the extra hour the directors had to cut just to get the thing inside a movie theater. The audiences for these kinds of head trips are so small that I find happiness in the fact that they get released at all. Don't kid yourself, Watchmen is one weirdo movie -- there's next to nothing about it besides a few brief scenes of stylized violence that's designed to be easily consumed by the average movie goer. Despite their best efforts, this is not a story the majority of people will want to pay money to sit through 3 hours to see. But a few months from now I'll watch the film again with the extra hour because I think it will improve the film, at least form a storytelling perspective. And so I can't really recommend the film, all I can say is that overall I had a good time watching the Watchmen.

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