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Thursday, 12 March 2009
Who Watched the Watchmen? I did.
Topic: Cinema
After many years of a mixture of anticipation and dread on my part, a film version of Watchmen has finally been released and I have seen it. What did I think? As the character Rorschach might say, "hrrm".

In general, I liked it. I didn't love it. I haven't quite sorted out if I liked it because it's, by and large, the Watchmen story I know, or if it's the film itself. I suspect it might take a second viewing to sort that out.

On the plus side, Watchmen, like Blade Runner and a few other films succeeds in creating an alternate reality that's absolutely dripping with detail. This is a world where costumed adventurers appeared for real in the 1940s, and what follows is a different history. This is brilliantly conveyed in the film's title sequence, which starts by showing the first of these adventurers and their popular impact (the first super heroine appears as nose art on a B-29 in WW II), and continues into cold war times where some of these first heroes suffer nasty fates (killed, gone insane), and a new generation follows, only to be overshadowed when the appearance of the first being with real superpowers changes everything. JFK's assassin is by one of the "heroes", 60s peace marches end like Kent State, America wins the war in Vietnam and gains a 51st state, and Nixon repeals the 22nd amendment. By the time of the film's main story, it's 1986, Nixon's serving 5th term, the Soviets have been pushed into a corner, and the Doomsday Clock stands at six minutes to armageddon. Many's the film that's wielded Dylan's  "The Times They Are A-Changin", but Watchmen means it in spades.

The performances are generally good, with the standouts being Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the vile Comedian, who yet manages to have moments of sympathy, and Jackie Earle Haley as the uncompromising sociopath Rorschach, who gets the best line in the film. Billy Crudup has the unenviable task of playing a being bored with and increasingly disconnected with humanity, a task made even more thankless since he is replaced in every frame by a glowing blue CGI creation, yet he still manages to come through with the most understated performance in the film.

I have to give the filmmakers credit for being uncompromising in their portrayal of the superhuman character of Dr. Manhattan: he of the power to manipulate matter at the atomic level, he who acts as the U.S.'s main means of defense, he who can see events so tiny and so fast as to scarcely have happened, and he who as a result has no human sense of decorum and walks around in full frontal bluedity. This simple lack of modesty, portrayed utterly nonsexually, makes him instantly alien, and the fact that the filmmakers dared do this in a mainstream film is surprising. I half expected them to pull the Austin Powers gag of having his Little Manhattan hidden behind various objects, but nope. There it is.

Where the film doesn't work so well is in its pacing and in  emotional connection. The first hour of the 2:42 film is a bit leaden. There's a lot of exposition, and it's generally handled well, but the director cuts away too fast from things that need a longer look, and spends too much time obsessing over things that don't matter. Did you see that guy with the "The end is nigh" sign? No? He's someone we'll meet later, but you never get that from the film. Did you see the Comedian being assassinated? How could you miss went on and on, when all we really needed was that iconic shot of him being thrown out the window. You can read an audience in a movie, and in the first hour of this film it was mostly silent. Few laughs, few gasps, few audible reactions at all; that in a packed IMAX screening. That's a problem. Even when the actors are nailing their scenes emotionally, the editing cuts away from them too fast. There are moments when you need to linger, and the film just doesn't let it happen when it needs to.

The second half of the film works better. With the bulk of the exposition out of the way the plot gets moving and it becomes more engaging. But there's something not right about the rhythm and the flow.

And there are things I quibble with. For one thing, key plot points get skated past or get insufficient weight, with the result that some events of the story would seem unmotivated if you blinked. A key point of the story is that the heroes are just costumed adventurers without super powers, except for one, and the presence of that all-powerful entity has changed the world in ways major and minor. But the film doesn't make this difference explicit, and the over-the-top action sequences featuring the mortal heroes makes some of them seem superhuman when they're not, which confuses the issue. Furthermore, these costumed adventurers were outlawed in the past, and yet the reason for that is skipped past so much so that it begs the question of why.

I know I'm in the minority, but I'm no big fan of violence, and this film pushes it over the top too many times, sometimes at the expense of the characters.  The cavalier cruelty of the Comedian and the self righteous brutality of the uncompromising Rorschach are valid as story points, but when the action reaches bone-crunching extremes with relatively benign characters like Nite Owl and Silk Specter it renders them less sympathetic: excess for the sake of excess.

So, in the end, I'm left where I was when I saw the original edit of Blade Runner in 1982. I liked Watchmen, but partly in spite of itself. It's visually stunning, the plot is clever, and the performances good, but something about it rings a little hollow.

Which leads me to this parallel.

I didn't really get to like Blade Runner until I saw The Director's Cut (and then the subsequent Final Cut). I suspect my opinion of Watchmen will change, for better or for worse, when I see the inevitable Director's Cut of it: inevitable because I know that Director Zack Snyder's cut is supposedly over three hours, and the film as released is 2:42. And when I watched the film on the theater screen I couldn't help but suspect that some of my complaints about pacing and rhythm are directly related to trying to cram the story down to fit into that 2:42, leaving an additional 8th of it on the cutting room floor. Will this extra material fill in some gaps, add some needed pauses, and give some characters some additional insight, or will it be more action and fury?  Only DVD and Blu-Ray will answer that question.

Finally, the thing I've avoided talking about thus far is how the film compares to the comic book/graphic novel that spawned it. When watching the film I tried to take it for what it was, and to divorce myself from what the comic did. Difficult, since I knew all the subtext, even when it was poorly implied in the film, but I did try.

So, how does it compare to the comic? If there's one thing you can't damn the film for its fidelity to the source material. The director did something even I thought was nigh unlikely: he managed to cram most of the story into one film that isn't as long as any single Lord of the Rings movie, and managed to make it relatively coherent. Many of the scenes are right out of the comic with few changes or abridgements. That fidelity is both a blessing and a curse. The film jumps forward and backward in time for flashbacks from many POVs, just like in the comic, but it doesn't always work here. The narrative interrupts itself. Some speeches are just right for the comic page, but too long for a film.

The one big change was the mechanism of the story's climax, which, while different in detail, allows the plot to resolve in the same way as before. In fact, in many ways it's an improvement on the comic, buttoning off something set up in the first act at the climax in a way that the source material didn't. Bravo for that.

So, as to fidelity, Watchmen is, without a doubt, the most accurate translation from page to screen I've ever seen. It remains to be seen if that decision was for the best.

Posted by molyneaux at 2:29 AM PDT
Updated: Friday, 20 March 2009 1:57 PM PDT
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