Friday, March 13, 2009

For whom the clock ticks

Directed by Zack Snyder
Starring Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Jackie Earle Haley, and Patrick Wilson
162 minutes

Review by Scott Johnson

In spite of proclamations that the classic graphic novel Watchmen is unfilmable, I always thought that so long as the screenplay did not go too far astray from the source material the film ought to succeed. This is not the ravings of a purist fanboy--I did notice some differences, including an improvement in the final weapon of mass distruction--but just an observation that the material has more than enough to keep an audience engaged. Zack Snyder's new movie does remain fairly close to the original story and so it cannot help but maintain our interest.

In fact, the movie kept so close to the book that most of the lead characters look astonishingly close to their drawn versions. At the very least, the film is a good companion to the graphic novel, in many ways comparable to the filmed version of a play (although one with different actors in the roles). But Snyder does more than just copy Alan Moore's story--he has an effective sense of style that helps move the story along. This was the main thing--in fact, the only thing--that was interesting in Snyder's 300. With an interesting story to go along with the visuals, Snyder this time has found himself actually making a decent movie.

The film does well in introducing us to a series of troubled heroes, each of whom has a problematic relationship with the world. Most significantly is Dr. Manhattan, a god-like figure who is nearly all-powerful and is, of course, a tool of the US government. His long-ignored lover is Laurie, the second hero know as Silk Spectre, pushed by her mother (who should have known better) to take up the mantle she originated. Laurie eventually hooks up with Dan Dreiberg, another second generation superhero (Nite Owl) who spends his days reminiscing with the originator of his identity about the good old days--before masked vigilantes were outlawed. Except for Dr. Manhattan, the only heroes who refuse to give up are the Comedian, who becomes a mercenary for the US government, and Rorschach, a mysterious and extremely violent vigilante in the old fashioned sense. That is, Rorschach is less like Spider-Man and Batman than he is like the guy with a shotgun who lives down the street and nobody bothers anymore.

This is a rich tapestry of characters whose mere existence in the story--not to mention the mystery that develops--adds richness to the world they occupy and maintains our interest. In fact, it is surprising to consider that Watchmen is almost exactly the same length as the beautifully filmed but dramatically flat and uninspired The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. But I could not help but notice some serious drawbacks to the film. None of these ruin the movie as an experience, but both find a way to keep it from being more than simply a decent entertainment.

The first problem is the stylization of the movie, which is not all bad and in fact adds something new. This occurs not only in the visuals but also in a series of extended songs by Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan, among others. There is no way that I could possibly be bored listening to this music, and if the purpose is to keep the audience entertained through the nearly 3 hour duration of the movie, it succeeds. However, there is a serious drawback here, which is that the movie often feels like a series of disjointed dramatic scenes cut in between several music videos and fight scenes.

This is compounded by the fact that there simply is not much chemistry between the characters. We never really feel like Dan (Nite Owl) and Laurie (Silk Spectre II) really have a deep connection with each other, which is only compounded by the fact that Laurie still seems like she is 25 rather than the more world-weary and regretful 38-year-old she is in the book. A sex scene between the two characters is so stylized by Snyder that it seems more like a cool movie moment than a real passionate embrace between the two characters. The same goes with the troubled relationship between Laurie and Dr. Manhattan, whose detachment from the world seems much more real and sad in the book than simply a series of clever--if superficial--movie moments.

What is also lost is much of the nuance of the graphic novel. Dr. Manhattan, for example, was a game-changer for the Cold War in the original, not just helping the US win the Vietnam War but becoming a real scourge to the Soviet Union. There is an off-hand remark in the graphic novel where somebody comments that the USSR wants to talk about Dr. Manhattan as a part of an arms treaty--after all, he gives the US far more power than any hydrogen bomb. There is also more clarity about the Keane Act which outlawed masked vigilantes than we get in the movie.

It is quite clear in the film version of Watchmen that the heroes are flawed and not necessarily up to the task of heroism. What is not always so clear is that the world they are living in is even more flawed. For example, Dr. Manhattan's seemingly unlimited power and its cynical manipulation by the US exposes the myth of Superman, who fought for Truth, Justice, and the American Way. But would that be such a good thing in our world? Author Alan Moore certainly didn't think so and that is made fairly clear in his graphic novel. And while there are hints of this view in the movie, much of the nuance that shaped this perspective are lost.

Even more, there are times when the literal adaptation of the source material seems strangely anachronistic. The threat of a Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, for example, gives us little concern at a time when the US is in the midst of a disastrous occupation of the country. What perfectly captured the zeitgeist 20 years ago is reduced to merely an unusual plot point in the movie to bring our heroes together for a final battle--a deus ex machina with Dr. Manhattan almost literally in the role of the Greek God.

I am not sure that this is a whitewash--a sanitized version of the story made acceptable for corporate Hollywood. The screenplay relies so closely on the source material for nearly three hours that this level of nuance might not have been feasibly added without extending the running time even further. So it is difficult to say definitively that the movie is purposefully dumbed down with all of its sharp edges removed.

But it is not difficult to say that this lack of nuance is unfortunate. The movie makes a fine companion piece to a great book, but viewers will need to go to the original to get the full story with all of its iconoclastic insights into our world and its supposed heroes.


Anonymous said...

Sorry Scott but you're no better critic than Ben Lyons either.

Anonymous said...

How do you reconcile writing a blog about mediocrity and then writing a somewhat favorable review of Watchmen? How does that work?