March 7, 2009

Watchmen

The unfilmable graphic novel WATCHMEN has been filmed, and all my questions have been answered. If my main question is "how do you make a feature film out of such a big, dense, multilayered story", the answer is: you make it by stripping out everything which makes it worth watching.
A novel which would have made a brilliant 4 or 6 hour miniseries has been stripped down to a breakneck 2 hours and 45 minutes. Screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse have accomplished the thankless task of crafting a feature film whose plot makes sense. It's New York City 1985, and costumed heroes are real, in a loose confederacy called The Watchmen. When The Comedian is murdered, his fellow crime fighter Rorschach suspects a conspiracy: is someone targeting superheroes? Is there a plot to trigger World War III? Making a movie script out of this brilliant novel is thankless because they've managed to retain the plot and characterizations, while losing the heart and soul. The ending has been changed, it's true, but I didn't have a huge problem with this. Some compromises had to be made to make a comprehensible movie, and the essence of the finale remains the same.
I am more disappointed how the movie totally misses the point of the story. The major theme of the novel is to explore what masked heroes would really be like as people. What kind of person dresses up and fights crime? What would they look like in tights? The answer is- sociopaths, psychopaths put on masks and fight crime. Bruce Wayne was probably impotent when he wasn't dressing up and saving lives. Wonder Woman and her ridiculous clothes would be the laughingstock of every criminal fraternity. Even the most talented acrobat or martial artist can't fly through the air or throw a man across the room. Watchmen set out to illustrate this reality. The Watchmen movie amps up the action and fight sequences from the novel and obliterates this distinction. Every fistfight in the novel is now twice as long and twice as impossible. The masked adventurers, who have no special powers, can now crash through rooftops without a scratch, kick and punch people across a room, and by the way, look totally cool in their costumes, with no tights in sight. We're supposed to be watching ordinary people and their aberrant behavior, not actual superheroes.
Director Zack Snyder must have seemed like a perfect choice to direct this project. He certainly was in the right place at the right time- Snyder successfully made a hit action movie out of the graphic novel 300. In the wake of that success, the suits who controlled the fate of Watchmen must have figured this red-hot director has the right sensibility to make a successful movie out of another graphic novel. As for Snyder's motivation, you can't blame him for leveraging his momentum at the right moment. After 300, Snyder could write his own ticket. If he wanted to make an all-CGI feature of James Joyce's Ulysses starring meerkats, we'd be knee-deep in a meerkat burrow right now.
When Snyder was announced as the director ("the visionary behind 300"), fans of the graphic novel were concerned and excited at the same time. Clearly Snyder is a fanboy like the rest of us (I have read Watchmen maybe 5 or 10 times since 1988), but some were worried his slo-mo action sequences were less of a style choice and more of a crutch. We asked, did Snyder have the finesse this project required?
Unfortunately, what we should have been worried about was his pornographic obsession with ultraviolence. Watchmen is a violent novel, no doubt, but every scene of violence has been amplified to unnecessary extremes. I'm not talking about the action sequences (although those are disappointing for other reasons)- I am talking about the guns, knives, and rotary saws.
In one scene in the novel, a convict has his throat slit, but we don't even see it on the page. In the movie, the convict's arms are sawed off, in explicit detail.
In another scene in the novel, one person gets shot in the gut during an assassination attempt. In the movie, six people get shot, including one directly in the face.
And finally, in the novel, Rorschach kills a kidnapper/murderer by cuffing him to a stove and setting his house on fire. In the movie, Rorschach hacks his head in two with a meat cleaver.
The point I am trying to make is, Snyder has deliberately amped up the gore for its own sake. I am not normally squeamish when it comes to violence in movies- I love the chopping, hacking, and decapitating in Lord of the Rings and Braveheart, but the violence in Watchmen was unwatchable even for me. Who did Snyder think would enjoy this? Was he making this movie for the Hostel/Saw V crowd? Does he have a "tin ear" for style?
The Characters
  • The Comedian looks, sounds, and acts just the way I had hoped. Nice work!
  • Dr. Manhattan looks perfect, but is a little too whispering Buddha- he needs more of the lecturing pedant. Also, the totally-naked Dr. Manhattan prompted giggles every time his glowing blue penis appeared onscreen- our friend Scott counted "12 or 15 times" we saw it onscreen. Including the blue penis is faithful to the book, but I think the distraction was too much. I would have kept him in his thong throughout the movie.
  • Rorschach is perfect. Jackie Earl Haley is the perfect mug, the voice is spot on. The mask isn't quite right, but I didn't mind it too much.
  • Nite Owl: Patrick Wilson is just the right balance of pudgy, over-the-hill, with enough of the old muscle to make his fights plausible.
  • Silk Spectre II: Poor Malin Ackerman can't act at all. She looks the part, but she's supposed to be about 35, and she looks 25.
  • Ozymandias: I was imagining a blonde Spock- logical, unemotional, self-involved genius. Instead I get a sinister egomaniac who's also ten years too young for the part.
  • Silk Spectre I: Carla Gugino is perfect as the young Silk Spectre in the 1940s and 1950s. She has that real old-fashioned beauty and the balls to play this role. Her old age makeup doesn't work too well.
(Regal Stadium Cinema 13, screen 11, with Emily, Jon, Bobbi, Adam, George, Mandy, Scott, Jess)
My brother and I at the screening March 7