Friday, September 18, 2009

So i finally saw Watchmen...

I wasn't entirely sure what to expect from Watchmen, and having gone straight to the Director's Cut DVD means that I'll never be able to weigh-in on the same film that came out half a year ago. So bear that in mind. And I also tried to avoid reviews in the meantime. I read the Rotten Tomatoes 'consensus' and overheard a few details - like the replacement of the faux alien with a faux Dr. Manhattan - but otherwise went into it with no idea of what to expect outside the trailers. So here are my thoughts, scattered as they are, repetitive as they may be:
  • Two scenes stand out to me as the best: The opening credits which, while long, are particularly effective in setting the stakes and establishing the tradition within which the rest of the film works (both with and against), and the death scene of the first Owl, which revisits the aesthetic of that credits scene and brings some closure to it, albeit not the sort of closure that we're looking for. (And so it anticipates the penultimate scene, in which Adrian makes clear that the failure of heroes-as-heroes requires that heroes act villainous.) I liked that Snyder played up the movie-star quality of those old Minutemen by giving the scenes a decidedly Old Hollywood feel. (A touch, no doubt, that also owes something to the particularly effective vocal affectation that Carla Gugino brought to her Silk Spectre.) I subsequently learned that the Owl I vs. the knot-heads was cut out of the theatrical release, which is a travesty.
  • Acting wise: Dr. Manhattan and Dan were great; the Comedian and Rorschach were okay; Laurie (and Laurie's wig) and Adrian were awful.
  • Script wise: I think that Adrian was badly bungled. There's a certain element of mystery surrounding the identity of the killer in the comic, but the script and Goode make it impossible for us to not realize that it's Adrian. (Victoria, having never read the comic, figured it out about a minute after he was introduced.) We're also not really given a chance to root for him - we have to take him at his word that he's doing this for the good of the world. It was clear in the comic, at least, that he genuinely thought he was doing this for the good of the planet. Not so much in the movie. It would have helped if they had cast the movie's ostensible villain against type. (And by that I mean they should have appeared to type-cast him: someone pretty and/or typically heroic, a Jude Law kind of guy.)
  • CGI-wise: Dr. Manhattan looked great when it was obvious that they were touching-up Billy Crudup himself. When it was a computer-generated Crudup - especially when he was talking - he looked distractingly awkward and awful.
  • The lack of a consistent narrative focus bugged the hell out of me. In the comic, you can get away with having Rorschach narrate entire issues because you only have to maintain that perspective for the duration of a single issue. In the movie, it's distracting to be guided by Rorschach for one scene and then lose him entirely for the next 20 minutes. Either the film is being filtered through his diary or it isn't; either you're explicitly focusing each scene/episode through the perpective of one character (as Moore did, more or less, in the comic) or you're not - make up your mind and stick with it.
  • The violence. I have no strong objection to how much more violent the movie is than the comic - the fights look appropriately cool, certainly. (The scene with the cleaver made me a bit queasy, though. But it had a practical purpose - if everyone is excessively violent, why would we ever question the lengths to which Rorschach goes? It would appear that the only option is to make Rorschach even more violent.) But it did confuse me - are we supposed to understand that the Watchmen do have super-strength?
  • The pacing. I needed a break and I felt like I never got one. This is both a good and a bad thing - it felt shorter than it was, and it kep things exciting, but it felt rushed. Was there ever more than 5 seconds of silence in the film? It felt like Snyder couldn't possibly allow us time to decompress. And this applies in-scene as well as in the (non-existent) space in-between them. Adrian's reveal that the attack had happened 35 minutes earlier requires a certain dramatic pause in order to sink in, for it to register as truly horrific. Instead, it becomes a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment. Have the screenwriters ever heard of a 'beat'?
  • The decision to replace alien with Dr. Manhattan had me skeptical, initially. But seeing how compressed the story was even without that incredibly complicated element has me thinking that it was for the best.
So what did I think, on the whole? That it was merely okay, perhaps a bit closer to 'good' than 'bad', though I don't know how much of that is filtered through my inability to separate it from the source material. There was plenty to like and plenty to dislike, and I think it hit the extremes at both ends of that spectrum more often than most films.

Next up: Another superhero film from earlier this year that I wasn't able to see, X-Men Origins: Wolverine.


James said...

I haven't seen Watchmen, and yet I continue to commit the cardinal sin (the guiltiest displeasure?) of having opinions about it. Me and Alan 4eva.

I'm reading the Absolute Edition at the moment, and man that is enough of a transformative presentation to sate any desire I had to see the movie. I flicked through the softcover reissue (with the Absolute recolouring) in a store the other day, and the difference made by the paper/print quality and the SIZE of the proper Absolute Edition is jaw-dropping. So: recommended.

But back to my awful, awful hypocrisy.

The violence. One thing that has surprised me on this re-read is how violent the book actually is. I had nodded scornfully along with Jog's review in regard to Snyder's treatment of gore - and while I've no doubt he's spot on in the specific examples he cites, Gibbons is certainly not shy of splashing some blood about himself. The book often has improbable gouts of claret erupting from fairly tame blows. I have to agree with Jog about the coolification of the movie's fights though - the beatings in the comic are invariably quick, claustrophobic and mundane, with the important exception of Adrian's spectacular assassin/dupe-takedown that forms the centerpiece of "Fearful Symmetry". It sounds like the Watchmen-fu contributes heavily to the oft-cited problem of presenting these "mere mortals" as confusingly-powered. Adrian still does the bullet-catch, right? Surely the impact of that is deadened when you've already seen folk flip around and shatter masonry?

I'll never buy the Manhattan solution vs. the alien, a reaction people always presume is based on a desire for adherence, but I just don't see how it works with the politics of the universe, or basic human psychology. Adrian's plan should always be flawed and doomed to eventual failure, but it shouldn't make you immediately say "...and why wouldn't the world blame America for this?"

Oh, except Manhattan goes along with it, doesn't he? He lets the world believe he's holding them to ransom, enforcing peace? I guess that solves the logic problem, but by god it gives him and Adrian completely different arcs to the book. And it strips the ending of much of its ambiguity - utopia based on mass murder and a lie is one thing, but the movie just has big, blue, circumcised totalitarianism. Or so I hear.

neilshyminsky said...

It's true, Gibbons actually does draw some shockingly violent stuff. But you're also right when you note that it's generally pretty quick and unsexy - the fights in the movie have that bullet-time-like slowing and speeding up effect, and felt a lot longer than the fights in the comic. The effect is quite different.

And you're right - the bullet-catching effect is muted considerably. Especially since it's not even clear that the bullet would have pierced Matt Goode's armor.

I felt the same way about the movie's ending when I read about it. Its execution is better than I had imagined - they don't blame America because Snyder does a pretty decent job of playing up how everyone knows that the USA has lost its handle on him, which is why the USSR isn't afraid to invade Afghanistan. And maybe there's an implicit big-blue totalitarianism, but I didn't get that feeling. It felt rather like the comic - there's a threat out there and we don't really know what it's capable of or what it wants from us, but we know that we have to be prepared.

The people you've talked to and the stuff that you've read, though, is right about the ambiguity of the ending being sapped. Adrian doesn't ask John if he's saved the world and John doesn't imply that 'things never end' - they don't exchange any words at all once John becomes convinced of the need to keep the secret. Instead, Sally gets that line and delivers it in a much less important context and in a much more offhanded way. That was a big mistake and much more fundamental change, in its way, than the alien-John switcheroo.