Sunday, March 08, 2009

Zaki's Review: Watchmen

 This is no crowd-pleaser. And proudly so. Unabashedly, even.

Whatever enthusiasm the opening night audience may have had for director Zack Snyder’s mammoth epic Watchmen when the film began, it was barely palpable as the credits rolled. The throng quietly filed out of the screening room, attempting, no doubt, to puzzle together their own reactions. Certainly that was the case for me. I knew right away that I admired it. It was impossible not to. But I needed to sleep on it before I could figure out whether I liked it.

Well, I did. And I do.

Like The Dark Knight before it, Watchmen is the superhero movie in full flower. And like that film, Watchmen takes a stubborn, insistent pride in its genre roots. Though it fails to surpass or even match Christopher Nolan’s opus from last summer, and it has its fair share of creative and narrative missteps, the mere fact that we’re here talking about its very existence, much less the many things it does right is a miracle worthy of Dr. Manhattan himself.

Under Snyder’s helm, and in his most confident work yet, this is a movie that ferociously demands to be accepted on its own terms, even if those terms mean sacrificing the mainstream audience, rendering this as essentially an art-house movie wearing the molded rubber and latex cape of a summer blockbuster.

When the Watchmen comic series first hit spinner racks in the mid-‘80s, two facts hardened into the cement of conventional wisdom almost instantly: first, this was a revolutionary, unprecedented work of art that could (and did) fundamentally change its medium, and second, this thing could never be made into a film.

Set in an alternate version of (the then-present day) 1985, the dystopic world of Watchmen hinges on the conceit that costumed crimefighters have operated since the 1930s, and their continued presence has fundamentally altered the progression of history.

Here, Richard Nixon remained in office into a third (!) term. Costumed crimefighters have been forced into retirement by a government wracked by the Cold War. And the Doomsday Clock’s inexorable march towards midnight is slowed only by the existence of the nuclear-charged Dr. Manhattan, who wields the power of a god and is under the exclusive employ of the US military. Of course, all this is mere window-dressing for a complex, multi-faceted story festooned with symbolic and literary weight.

The series, as conceived by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons, was as much about stretching the bounds of the superhero genre as it was about critiquing it, delving into the real world ramifications of the existence of these human gods, as well as the hidden neuroses that might prompt one to traverse rooftops in colored spandex.

This was heady, subversive stuff even then. And while the comic series’ enduring influence has only become more profoundly felt in the ensuing quarter-century, a Watchmen feature has been the white whale of comic book movies for the bulk of that time, bouncing from studio to studio, director to director, and screenwriter to screenwriter. All of them folded under the weight of trying to encapsulate Moore’s layered, intricate narrative into something palatable for a mass audience whose concept of superhero mythologies hewed closer to Adam West than Ayn Rand.

As in the comic, Watchmen the movie begins with a murder and a mystery: The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is hurled by a mysterious assailant from his penthouse suite to the pavement below. This is followed by a brilliant opening credits sequence, with Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changing” playing over scenes depicting the impact of costumed heroes on this world’s timeline, all the way through to Nixon’s re-re-re-election.

From there we are introduced to the film’s most memorable character, the enigmatic Rorschach (played behind a full face mask and rumpled trench coat by Academy Award-nominee Jackie Earle Haley as if the character was created with him in mind).

A Randian nightmare come to hard-boiled life, Rorschach is the only vigilante still active after the government ban, and his investigation soon widens to his former colleagues: the paunchy, impotent Nite-Owl (Patrick Wilson); the self-styled “smartest man in the world,” Ozymandias (the horribly miscast Matthew Goode), who has parlayed his crimefighting retirement into a vast multinational corporate empire; Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman), who donned tights as a form of teenage rebellion against her former-crimefighter mother (Carla Gugino), and who now lives with the omnipotent, blue-skinned Dr. Manhattan (performed by Billy Crudup with the help of an army of CGI artists), whose connection to humanity grows more tenuous as he grows more powerful.

Soon, the full scope of the plot at work becomes clear, widening like ripples in a pool, from a single murder to an impending globe-spanning threat, all while the Cold War plays out against the backdrop. With so much narrative ground to cover, one can be forgiven for feeling like the movie hopscotches over some of the details in the name of brevity. "Brevity" notwithstanding, Watchmen still clocks in at nearly three hours, and is packed tight with equal parts meditative dialogue and bone-crunching gore. This is real “inside” stuff, hard enough for a comic-fluent audience to digest, much less one conditioned to expect far less nuance and far more fireworks from its superhero spectacles.

This difficulty becomes especially pronounced in the third act, where the various dangling plot threads threaten to coalesce into one impenetrable Gordian Knot. This includes the movie’s controversial alteration of the book’s climax, which, while I really didn’t have a problem with it, nevertheless fails to achieve the emotional impact it might otherwise have had.

Despite this, and even while Watchmen's reach sometimes exceeds its grasp, the mere fact that Snyder was passionate enough about the source material to mortgage every last bit of credibility from his Dawn of the Dead remake and from his 300 in support of a meticulous, even laborious, vision of Moore and Gibbons’ seminal work, steadfastly holding to the belief that it could work despite all evidence to the contary, is something that deserves to be applauded, and certainly it deserves to be watched. B+


IrfanR said...

Good Review. I guess because I never read the graphic novels, I didnt like the movie that much. I liked Rorshach's character, but was disappointed in the way the movie ended - it was like something was missing. Anyways I also didnt like seeing Dr. Manhattan's little blue thing through out half the movie as well:)!

Ian Sokoliwski said...

Excellent review!

I probably like the film more than you, but I fundamentally agree with everything you've said. Although, for me, the biggest reason I'd prefer the space squid ending is because it looked cooler :)

Brian H said...

My random musings on Watchmen:

What I didn't like:

The movie never really achieved an emotional spark. It was everything happening in the order it should but I never felt any emotion toward anybody, nor did I believe anybody's emotions in the film. Nite Owl going off on Rorschach, only to apologize immediately and have Rorschach tell him he's a good friend is what made me realize this. It was a nice moment and the first time I felt anything about these people about two hours into the movie already.

I thought the gore was not only out distracting and needlessly pornographic, but it also flattened characters and moments in the film. I totally blame Snyder for this. It feels like he has some sort of "beautiful violence" fetish and wanted to show how cool it looks when a woman's calf blows up or someone's elbow bends the wrong way and breaks through the skin. Impressive special effect? Sure. But I felt that scene in the alley with Laurie and Dan was about the both of them feeling the thrill of exacting justice, propelling them back into the only roles that make sense to them, NOT making them blood-thirsty maniacs who maim street thugs to get off. Also, I hate how this scene was inter cut with Dr. Manhattan on the interview program as that was one of my favorite moments in the book and I thought all emotional resonance was lost because instead of people thinking, "Damn, Manhattan is giving people cancer/he's really losing touch/the man with no emotion is becoming overwhelmed and needs to be apart from us for a while," all they could think about was, "Yuck! That guy's elbow just went through his arm!

I know a lot of people have complained about the sex scene and while it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be, it just further proved my point to myself that Snyder isn't interested in showing two developed characters driven to making love after carrying out actions that complete who they are, he's simply interested in an over-the-top visual that would make a great still capture. All aesthetic at the sacrifice of character.

Those things are, for me, what kept this "impressive film" from being a "great" film.

Things I did like: Rorschach was awesome (though the head butchering scene seemed a bit extreme compared to the more clever actions he carries out in the book.)

I liked Patrick Wilson a lot. Knowing he's a handsome guy in real life, I thought he did well playing a shlub getting his confidence back.

As with the book, all of Dr. Manhattan's stuff were my favorite moments. I think I had a ear to ear grin during his back-story as he narrated it from Mars to the strains of Phillip Glass. I was most looking forward to this moment and it didn't disappoint. Additionally, the moment where he realizes what a miracle life really is thanks to Laurie actually made me emotional when I read it so I was glad to see that remained intact.

The film looked amazing and the new ending was appropriate and similar in theme so it didn't bother me. I don't know. It certainly was an achievement, I just wish Snyder would have focused on a few more important things rather than being a slave to his visual compulsions so often. I'm definitely going to watch it again but I'm not sure it'll become the re-watchable classic I was hoping it would be.

Omar A. said...

I am on the same page as you Z. The movie is sticking in my head, which is a sign of a good flick. More than anything, the movie was a great advertisement for the graphic novel, which I now want to read.