Saturday, March 21, 2009

REVIEW: Watchmen

This review contains massive spoilers, but if the box office is any indication, anyone who will see the movie already has.

Watchmen is a bad film with a lot of good elements and its heart in the right place.

That took me a week and a half to figure out. I’ve got to speed up my thought process.

Its heart is set on creating an intelligent examination and deconstruction of superheroes and crimefighters – how they relate to the world, what makes them dress up in outlandish costumes, and why we look up to them. The comic did this beautifully, of course; that goes without saying at this point. The movie works in some of the same respects. It brings up things like power fantasy, sexual gratification, corruption of power, but doesn’t seem invested in them.

First, though, Snyder’s no slouch behind the camera. His frames are elegantly composed, even when he deviates from the comic (which I wish he’d done more). The action scenes, as any smart viewer of 300 would know, are inventive and exciting, though not to the extent that they were there (the prison break comes close, but it was too similar to the hallway fight scene in OLDBOY to not make me remember that particular bit of genius). But Snyder’s too close to the material, too devoted to recreating something rather than adapting it (that said, he should have left the sex scene alone).

I recognize that in the adaptation process, things have to be lost. The problems with this adaptation arise because they cut out a lot of scenes, but don’t adjust, in the slightest, the scenes they keep. So you end up with a lot of Greatest Hits moments with no dramatic build to justify them.

When the film is at its best is when it adapts Watchmen to the medium, bringing in media elements like The McLaughlin Group or the stunning credit sequence, an absolute masterpiece of image, sound, and editing that had me convinced I was about to witness a masterpiece. It’s at its worst when it is absolutely intent on recreating the comic aesthetically, in everything from set design to dialogue.

I hate to rag on Alex McDowell’s production design, first because he’s done so much fantastic work in the past (Fight Club and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas should be good graces enough for a lifetime*, never mind Minority Report), and second because I suppose he did a great job insofar as his instructions went, which seemed to be basically to build some stuff that looked like the comic. Somehow this didn’t bother me in the prerelease stage, as the giddiness for seeing the comic come to life completely blocked basic common sense. Maybe I just had to see it in motion to realize that this world simply did not look real. And for a movie so intent on integrating superheroes in the real world, that’s a big, big problem.

(*incidentally, I’m convinced that the only two people who would be fit to tackle this material would be David Fincher or Terry Gilliam, with heavy preference for Fincher)

The design works in the comic purely for that reason – it’s a comic book. The world can be stylized so long as we accept them as real. In film it’s different. Bending reality in a set allows for greater expression of the way a character perceives his or her world, or just for transporting us to another world. While you could argue Watchmen is supposed to transport us to another world, I don’t buy that the times have a-changed that much.

I don’t buy a lot of other things in the film. I don’t buy Dr. Manhattan’s decision to leave Earth (escape from the TV studio, sure, but there is no build-up there that makes me believe he needed to leave completely). I don’t totally buy Laurie and Dan’s romance, but I didn’t totally buy it in the comic (I certainly don’t buy their sex scene, the new example of the complete destruction of a great idea). I don’t buy any of the makeup or most of the special effects (Manhattan aside). I don’t buy Laurie or Sally as characters.

I sure as shit don’t buy the conclusion.

Don’t chalk it up to fanboy dedication either. When I heard they were getting rid of the squid, I thought it was the smartest decision I’d heard on the film yet (aside from casting Billy Crudup). The squid works tremendously in the comic because it’s the kind of thing that happens in comic books all the time, especially coming out of the Silver Age, but so far the most threatening villain in the modern superhero film has been a guy with clown makeup on. Audiences expect their threats from more human levels.

And on that level, the conclusion is a pretty nifty idea, but it doesn’t make any sense in terms of Veidt’s overall goal to unite humanity. If the idea with Dr. Manhattan is that he was America’s defense against pretty much everything, and that he was always the thing America could just show and be like “hey, don’t screw with us,” there is no way the rest of the world would rally alongside them. Even in a case where parts of America get destroyed, this was a man America built – partly through accident, partly through grooming – and he would absolutely be held as America’s responsibility, even if they bore part of the fallout. There would be months ahead of debating that responsibility, and MAYBE after that the world would find its common thread. But not immediately, not in a world where the Doomsday Clock is set five minutes to twelve. No way.

Billy Crudup and Jackie Earle Haley are incredible in their roles of Manhattan and Rorschach, respectively. Haley was doing a fine job before the prison sequence, but it wasn’t until that sequence that his performance became iconic. There’s a shot when he’s first being introduced to prison where he’s glowering just off-camera and his cheek twitches ever so slightly. It’s a tiny detail, but completely exemplary of the commitment Haley has to this role, particularly when he’s allowed to act with more than his voice and body.

Crudup, on the other hand, is absolutely perfect from his first moment onscreen to his last, and in without a doubt the toughest role in the film. He has to communicate a sense of humanity with dialogue that allows for none. Illustrating the isolation created by being the most powerful man on Earth, all the while being fascinated with the way it fits together, all the while being genuinely in love with a woman, all the while being able to genuinely recognize that she doesn’t belong with him…if the comic is, as TIME Magazine would have it, one of the greatest American novels of the modern era, Dr. Manhattan is without a doubt one of American literature’s greatest characters. And for all my bad feelings about the film, I will rewatch it many times over to take in Crudup’s performance.

Patrick Wilson and Jeffery Dean Morgan do really fine work as Dan Dreiberg and Edward Blake, respectively, hitting many of their notes consistently (Dan’s geeky excitement for adventuring and commitment to his ideals; Eddie’s charm), but falling behind on others. Dan doesn’t really feel as castrated as he did in the comic, and Eddie’s not nearly as much of a bastard, even when committing many of the same actions.

And that’s something I can say about a lot of Watchmen as an adaptation – same actions with so much less behind them. I’m interested to see Snyder’s cut, the full three-and-a-half hour bonanza with the Black Freighter stuff and forty additional minutes of the principle story. There is a lot that could be massively improved by being fleshed-out (Laurie, for example; not the strongest character in the comic, but here relegated to a footnote), but there is so much here that cannot be fixed, mainly the way the world feels much like Carla Gugino’s makeup – fake, a little cartoony, and unconvincing.

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