Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Reflections on Watchmen

So, Grell has graciously allowed me to post my thoughts on the Watchmen movie on his blog. Spoiler warning: this post is intended for those already familiar with the plot and ideas graphic novel, as well as the movie adaptation. If you're interested in reading what I have to say and haven't read the book/seen the movie, check them out first, this post will be waiting. Let's start with where I think Watchmen really succeeded as a film.

Visually, Watchmen is a triumph. Over the past few years comic book movies have seen an immense leap in quality, but no one is able to translate the world contained in the source material onto the screen like Zack Snyder. The opening credits montage is sheer brilliance. It sets up the history behind a world so different from ours, yet despite the radioactive blue men and hovercrafts flying around, it's a world that feels relevant, a world that reflects some of the darker images contained in ours we often try not to think about. Watchmen doesn't have the luxury of iconic character designs or slick suits of armor to rely on to draw in the viewer; it has men in moth costumes and bondage masks. Yet somehow it works. Coupled with the Herculean feat accomplished by David Hayter and Alex Tse of compressing Moore's complex prose into a coherent script, Watchmen contains shot after shot that nails both the appearance and intent of the original comic book panels.

Not only does Watchmen succeed in replicating its source material, but actually transcends it and pushes the images to new extremes; where before a prisoner Rorschach has trapped had his throat cut, now his arms are lopped off with a power saw. This intensification and stylization occasionally falls short. Dan and Laurie's sex scene in the Owlship is ugly, difficult to watch, and if you bring yourself to watch it, it's hard to do so without bursting out into laughter. It sometimes feels like Watchmen is trying to be two things at once; a movie, and a film. The "movie" part caters to the mainstream, the viewers drawn in by the promise of seeing the Comedian lighting a cigar with flamethrower before torching Vietnamese rebels. It's violent, gory, adult, but very Hollywood. The "film" is the faithful reproduction of the graphic novel, transferring all the ideas and feelings contained in the pages of Watchmen onto the screen. While less shallow and more thought-provoking, I don't believe a perfect translation of the book to film could have succeeded.

For one, the very nature of Watchmen makes it an impossible task. "There are things that we did with Watchmen that could only work in a comic, and were indeed designed to show off things that other media can't," said Alan Moore in 2008. The Black Freighter, the exerpts from "Under the Hood", and simply being able to flip back a few pages and reread a page to clarify a point; all these things are incapable of being executed in a film. Beyond that, a completely faithful film would be boring. Watchmen contains a handful of panels depicting action scenes; it takes 5 1/2 hours to read the book out loud at normal speed. Were the film structured as such, audiences would leave the film in droves. So the blending of movie/film elements was neccessary to a large degree. That said, my biggest issues with the film are intellectual issues.

Most of the problems emerge for me towards the end. I'm not going to get into the squid debacle. Ultimately I believe nixing it was at least a fair call; "Giant Psychic Squid" is a tough sell to audiences who just sat through 3 hours of buildup to nuclear armageddon. But while Dr. Manhattan being blamed for the attacks makes sense on the surface, the idea doesn't hold up to a deeper analysis. The entire point of an alien invasion is that the threat is completely and utterly foreign; it represents a threat outside the bounds of human knowledge and experience. Dr. Manhattan however, was created by the United States in the 50's. For 30 years, Manhattan has been the face of American hegemony. After a creation of the U.S. apparently goes rogue and kills 15 million people, would the rest of the world be so eager to join hands and sing "Kumbaya" with the nation responsible, the same nation who used Manhattan as a giant blue gun to hold to their heads? The emotional impact of the ending is diluted considerably as well. Instead of seeing Laurie and Manhattan wander through a blood-drenched NYC, a city filled with people who died screaming, who died in agony, all we see is a smoldering crater. The sense of human loss is anesthetized, moreso by our familiarity with seeing bloodless New York craters on the big screen.

After such consistency to the themes of the book throughout the film, it's such a let-down for the themes to be diluted at the moment when they should be at their strongest. Rorschach fittingly remains consistent to the end (and Haley's performance truly deserves commendation). But Manhattan's final line to Veidt, the three words that manage to finally break his conviction and show him ultimately to still be human, are robbed and stuck in a scene where they lack anywhere close to the original impact. Laurie and Dan no longer show the very human urge to retreat when confronted with incomprehendible evil; instead of shacking up together, Dan beats up Veidt a bit, then goes off to start a new life with Laurie. It's not a bad ending. But it's a lesser ending. The "movie" eclipses the "film".

Ultimately, despite the issues I have with it, I think Watchmen is overall a success. I've seen it twice now, and picked up on so much more the second time around. It's a film to be viewed multiple times, that can be appreciated on multiple levels. It's far from perfect. We've seen from Iron Man and Dark Knight that the comic book adaptions that are the most successful are the ones that take the core elements of the stories and adapt them in a way that modern filmmaking can enhance them, such as Stark's disgust at the possibility of his weapons being used by terrorists or a reimagining of the Joker to fit Christopher Nolan's Batman and world. The fact that Watchmen remains so faithful to the book, any missteps made come across as especially jarring, and knock the viewer out of the film. I'm eagerly waiting to see the director's cut, but as it stands now, Watchmen is a powerful, complex film.

1 comment:

  1. Some time when I haven't resolved to stop procrastinating by reading blogs, I may stop back through and offer some thoughts here.

    Suffice it to say, I have a disagreement or three.


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