Monday, April 27, 2009

"Watchmen" [2009]

[Spoilers below.]

It’s been more than a month since the film adaptation of “Watchmen” came out (Mar. 6th), and I’m still thinking about it. The film, adapted from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons graphic novel of the same name, is compelling and thought-provoking in the same ways the comic was, but the movie’s still banging around inside my head for other reasons. One reason in particular, and I wasn't expecting this, is the question is raised for me: When adapting a story into film, how faithful is too faithful?


Starting out with that question might make it seem I was disappointed with the movie, but I loved this thing. I think director Zach Snyder did an incredible job adapting what a lot of people thought was not actually filmable. When he wasn’t filming the comic, panel by panel, he was expanding the scenes, letting them breathe. The first scene, where a shadowy assassin murders the Comedian, was not depicted in the comic as it happened, but visited only in glimpses of a past event. Snyder lets us see it, and he’s smart to do it. The murder of the Comedian is a grabber.


Now I loved every frame of “The Dark Knight”, but I think after “Watchmen,” we have to give credit to Snyder – he directs fight scenes exceptionally well. As a contrast, take Christopher Nolan's approach to superhero fight scenes. Where Nolan seems reticent about showing a guy in a superhero outfit fighting, Snyder films the two combatants in the first scene (and a few others) full frame, no quick mid-punch edits, with the actors placed far enough from the camera so we can see one fighter strike, and the other dodge. Snyder allows the actors to communicate something about their characters through the fight choreography. First, we see that these guys are definitely superheroes, or as much like superheroes as the "Watchmen" world allows two non-irradiated/disintegrated men to be. Their fists land like hammer strikes and move in blurs. The shadowy assassin’s moves are precise, forceful, and relentless, a bit like a gymnast’s. The Comedian fights like a guy used to winning bar brawls, but strong as he is, he’s no match. For the assassin, it seems personal somehow. Why else does he take his time so? Draw out his victim’s pain? It’s a brilliant scene and pulled me right in.


The opening credit sequence is probably the most creative thing Snyder’s done in any of his three studio movies. Period. Showing us glimpses of historic moments in superheroing past, the hyper-detailed credit sequence is not just poignant and visually arresting, it’s a marvel of efficiency. The credit sequence sets up the complicated alternate reality of real-life superheroes in two and a half minutes. A director with less talent might have taken considerably more time to lay the same foundation. And Snyder’s use of Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” works perfectly here, underscoring the feeling of sadness and loss that permeates the story.

Because Snyder’s song choices are usually so pitch perfect and unexpected, (and the use of the Dylan song here is no exception) I was surprised in a few instances at some obvious, ham-fisted music queues that pop up here and there during the rest of the film. Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” for the Comedian’s funeral? It was so on the nose emotionally, its effect was almost comic. Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” for Dr. Manhattan’s appearance in Vietnam seemed similarly lazy. Surely, there must have been a subtler way to evoke “Apocalypse Now” then to use that same damn song Coppolla used. One critic who saw the film asked for a moratorium on the use of “Hallelujah” in films indefinitely, and I second that. It was cool when I first heard it in “Shrek," but listening to Leonard Cohen's weird cover of it while Nite Owl and Silk Spectre have superhero sex made me wince.


For a good while, the film settles into the deliberate-pace set by the comic. We meet the members of the now-defunct “Watchmen” years after they’ve disbanded (by government order), and we lay out the essence of the plot: someone may or may not be killing off the old Watchmen one by one.


First, fantastic casting all around, but the best bit of casting has to be Jackie Earle Haley’s turn as the psychotic crime-fighting detective Rorschach. His despairing, defiant final moment in the Antarctic snow is one of my favorite bits of film acting I’ve seen in a long while. Patrick Wilson does great work as Nite Owl, nailing the broken schlub with some fight still left in him, and Malin Ackerman’s work as Silk Spectre was a pleasant surprise – I hadn’t expected anyone to pull off what I thought was a fairly thin character, but she does excellent work here.

The only actor I had an issue with was Carla Gugino, whose work I usually like. When she’s playing the young version of her character, Sally Jupiter, AKA the original Silk Spectre, she’s great. But when she has to play the elderly Jupiter, she comes off like a poor man’s Lea Thompson in “Back to the Future 2” – the not-quite-right make-up also does her no favors. I found her performance in these scenes distracting and was the movie’s only acting/casting misfire.


In his brief appearance as pre-Dr. Manhattan physicist Jon Ostermann, Billy Crudup does some interesting work and makes me want to see him do more movies, but his performance really takes a backseat to the groundbreaking CG work they did to create Dr. Manhattan. In my mind, he is the most convincingly human CG character created to date. Crudup's physical performance was recorded using motion capture and what you see on-screen is entirely CG. When he is blue, he is an animated character. The first time I saw it, I had no idea. I thought it was crudup in blue makeup. For me, “Watchmen” represents the first time a film has broken the CG actor/real actor barrier. We’re not traveling towards an actor-free movie future at any great rate of speed, but we’re making some incredible leaps in that direction, and Dr. Manhattan is one of the biggest yet. Seeing the film a second time, I was able to see some slightly-off, not-quite-human movements here and there, but only because I was really looking. I'm surprised I haven't seen more written about this achievement.


But getting back to my original question, "How faithful is too faithful?" I've been feeling schizophrenic thinking of an answer, at least as it applies to "Watchmen.". On one hand, I feel grateful to Zach Snyder and the crew for having such respect for the comic that they wanted to bring Moore and Gibbon’s brilliant story to life in film as faithfully as they could. Costumes, set design, make-up, lighting, FX, it was clear in every scene that everyone involved in the production of this film was working their asses off to recreate the graphic novel. The original comic is brilliant, so seeing film artists strive to re-create a work I love was exciting to watch. And, really, what did I have to complain about? In an air-conditioned IMAX theater with ice-cold Diet Coke in hand, I got to watch Dr. Manhattan fly across the surface of Mars in his crystal palace-ship. I got to see Ozymandius beat the hell out of the Comedian and then throw him out of his apartment window. I got to see a heartbroken Rorschach commit suicide-by-demigod.


On the other hand, I couldn’t help but wonder if Snyder’s overriding reverence for the original text was a form of laziness, or worse, a kind of artistic apathy. Comics are a visual, almost filmic medium, and they lend themselves to filmed adaptation pretty well. But, realistically speaking, what were the odds that every component necessary to make “Watchmen” a successful comic book was also present to create a successful film? At times as I watched the film, and saw that they’d brilliantly recreated this or that panel, the entire film began to seem less like an attempt to transfer the power and philosophical depth of the original into a new medium, than it was a show of technicianship; an act of cinematic stenography. By simply filming the comic, only interpreting it into a different medium with a minimum of adjustment, it was as though he were saying, "I don't get really get it, and I don't see what you nerds are all on about with "Watchmen", but here it is just how you want it. Now do me a solid and see it four times so I can make something I'm into."


But then the other voice interrupts this line of thought to remind me that a panel-by-panel recreation of the comic was pretty much what I wanted, and I likes whats I gots. So these two opposing ideas warred in my head and continue to do. I will concede that this film challenges my former way of thinking about adaptations which is, in short, that the harder a filmmaker works to make the film as much like the source material as he can, the better the film will be. But now I’m starting to think that what I used to think was so cut and dried, might not actually be so.


Which brings me to the one moment in the film that Snyder deviated most sharply from the original comic; a moment that also happens to be the most important in the story: the mass murder that ends the threat of nuclear Armageddon and ushers in a new era of peace. Let me briefly lay out the two endings:

In the comic, the plot Rorschach and Nite Owl uncover (famously, just 35 minutes too late), is fellow Watchman Ozymandius's plan to bring world peace by convincing the citizens of Earth they are under attack from giant, Lovecraftian, squid-like aliens. He would do this by teleporting a giant, living, man-made monster with a giant brain cloned from a powerful human psychic directly into New York City. The teleportation would kill the monster, and the resulting psychic wave would kill millions of people in the city.

In the film version, Zack Snyder and his creative collaborators changed the ending so that the plot Rorschach and Nite Owl uncover is Ozymandius' scheme to bring world peace by convincing the citizens of the world that they are under attack by Dr. Manhattan, thus bringing the nations of the world together to fight a common enemy. Ozymandius would achieve this unity by setting off a series of bombs whose blast signature would exactly match that of Dr. Manhattan. The explosions would kill many millions.

I understand why Snyder thought he had to change the ending. To a certain extent, I even agree with the choice. It would have been a major risk to take with a) one's career, and b) a $65 million dollar film already targeted fairly narrowly at comic nerds like myself, which was a risk in and of itself. It's one thing to pull off a cinematic treatment of a naked glowing blue man with white eyes, but quite another to make the above-described squid ending seem anything less than the most expensive acid-trip ever filmed. I'm not sure if I were in Snyder's shoes I'd take that bet either.

And though the film's climax is less batshit crazy than Alan Moore's squid ending, it is, to me, a less effective ending.

The reason, in my view, that the squid ending in Watchmen is so powerful, is because it was so perfectly disorienting. We've only just had Ozymandius, AKA Adrian Veigt, lay out his hyper-expositional plot for his former compatriots before we're faced with the result of that plan's execution. Nite Owl even laughs at the ridiculousness of Veigt's masterplan, telling Adrian he needs psychiatric help.


But then it happens. The ridiculous plan occurs. No matter how weird and goofy his plan may have been, the instant millions died it stops being funny. Six splash-pages of people dead everywhere. Secondary characters we've followed throughout lay in the street, felled by a giant special-effect. Reading the rest of the book went so much faster than what had come before because the squid-caused slaughter is so weird, so impossible, the carnage it wreaks so incredible, that you take in the rest of the story in a daze, working to take in the reality of what happened the same way the people of the world "Watchmen" is set in are struggling to take it in.


It's a brutally effective moment in the story, expertly arrived at and expertly executed, and I think Synder missed out on an opportunity to attempt something similarly bold. I think the mistake was that Snyder opted for a rational and comprehensible ending where something irrational and incomprehensible was called for. What Hunter S. Thompson said about life, I'd apply to the ending: "it never got weird enough." A manmade psychic squid's as good as anything else to get this effect, but if Snyder wanted a safer way out of this cinematic pool of quicksand Moore set up for the poor soul brave enough to attempt to film “Watchmen,” I wished he'd taken a different tack than the ending we got. All told, aside from some of the film's aforementioned missteps, this was a great movie and worthy of the comic it was based on. After having seen it twice in theaters, I'm excited now to see the 3-hour plus cut on Blu-Ray.


ADDENDUM:

Back when "Watchmen" has just come out and a blog post about the movie was actually relevant, Craig Moorhead posted up some questions he had about the movie after seeing it. You can go to that post here (and see some other readers answer those questions) here: Craig's "Watchmen Questions" Now that I'm finally writing my month-and-a-half-late "Watchmen" post, I'll add my answers here:

1. Which was better, the book or the movie or the animated book/movie?

The book.

2. Do you think it would’ve been better if Snyder smoked as much opium as Alan Moore?

Good question. Maybe a bit of opium would have made him decide the squid was worth fighting to keep in the movie.

3. Did Patrick Wilson make the character of Daniel even better than it was in the book?

Yes.

4. If you had cut the movie, how long would it be?

1 hour longer.

5. The ending didn’t really add up, did it?

Sadly, no.

6. Which movie had better characters: Slumdog Millionaire or Watchmen?

Watchmen. But I wasn't that big a fan of "Slumdog", so I'm biased.

7. How great / weird is it to see Kelly “Moocher” Leak making such a strong comeback? Really, there was nothing between ‘Maniac Cop 3′ and ‘Little Children’.

His is a fantastic story. Just proves that if you've got talent, you're never really out of contention to play in the big leagues. I hear he's going to be the new Freddy Krueger, which is great news.

8. How did you feel about the JFK bit in the credit sequence?

Oh yeah. It made me sad and uncomfortable. But a great addition to that credit sequence.

9. Did you find the letters from the filmmakers to be lame or spot on?

Lame only in that they were a bit on the whiny side, but I pretty much agree with everything they're saying.

10. Lee Iacocca seriously took a bullet between the eyes, didn’t he?

He sure as hell did. All two people who in the audience who knew who he was didn't know if that was even worth a titter.

I plan to beat the dead horse that is "Watchmen" a bit more in future posts. So, you know, watch for those.

3 comments:

Monolith said...

I'll wait for vhs-c

moorhead said...

Wow - that's a lot of notes. Good stuff, Crane. And good point about something being too faithful. I wondered the same thing about Sin City - it was really cool to see it like that, but there was just no deviation from the comic. Really, it brought into question the point of doing it at all. And I guess the answer to that is - well, if it's good, then there was a point.

And definitely agreed on the point about direction of action. Though I feel like maybe Nolan isn't excited by action sequences whereas Snyder loves them so much, he makes 'em all in slo-mo.

I have to disagree with you about Malin Ackerman. I feel like she was the weak link in this otherwise pretty strong chain. I never really felt like she was a part of this heightened world. I can't say, though, that that is much different from the character in the book, either, so really she may have played the character perfectly. It's hard to stick out when you're playing against Rorshach and naked blue guy, I guess.

Anyway - great stuff.

JudgeHolden said...

Yeah I went nuts with it. One day I'll write something concise.

But yeah good points. Maybe it is a good enough reason to film something if that something is good.