Friday, March 06, 2009

Film: All Along the Watchtowers

Watchmen, Directed by Zack Snyder, Screenplay by David Hayter and Alex Tse, based on the comic book by Alan Moore (uncredited, at his request) and Dave Gibbons.

So the office all went to Watchmen in the middle of the day today, and we pretty much outnumbered everyone else in the theater(pretty full for the 11:30 show, but most of it was us). And I like it, and will recommend it, with a few major caveats, in particular the fact that it is what we used to call a "hard" R-rating. But there are parts that bother me as well.

Now, the movie-going universe divides into two groups - those who who have read the original comics and those who have not. I'm in that first group - hey, I'm one of the old guys who read the comics when they were still a (mostly) monthly book, which is a different experience that reading them in collection. Let me just state right here that SPOILERS ABOUND, because it is very, very hard to go into a movie these days without someone or something giving you hints and expectations (and yeah, I hate friends who say "You'll never guess the twist", which of course points out that there IS a twist). So just so you know, I will be talking about the giant psychic squid

Watchmen is set in 1985 in an alternate universe where costumed vigilantes exist. The opening credits are not going to be read, since it is all overwhelmed by the images of how the superheroes screwed around with history as we know it. The original costumed heroes of the forties, things going bad in the fifties, the arrival of a true superman in the sixties. We get superheroines posing for bomber nose-art and stealing the famous VJ Day kiss in Times Square, influencing the Kennedy assassination and taking pictures of Neil Armstrong on the moon. All to the tune of Dylan's "Times They Are A'Changing". And you know that this is a different America.

And the alternate America is a conservative's utopia. The USA has the ultimate weapon in the form of the superpowered Dr. Manhattan, who wins the Vietnam War in a week. Nixon is still in office after five terms. The Cold War is still on, as the Soviets are building massive stockpiles and testing America's resolve in Afghanistan. We move closer to atomic armageddon that seems so much more comfortable in these terroristic times. And we're a little more violent and little more blase about shooting civilians at home, whether they are hippies or protesters demanding the return of police protection. Eventually the masks are outlawed and go into retirement or start working for the government.

Then one of them is killed - the Comedian, who's been doing a lot of wetwork for the government. On the trail of his killer is Rorshach, an unwavering and brutal investigator with an ever-shifting mask. En route we get to know the rest of the modern retired heroes, Silk Spectre, who went into the business because her mother was the original Silk Spectre. Nite Owl, another second generation hero, who keeps his old technological toys in the basement. Ozymandias, the world's smartest man. And Dr. Manhattan, the only truly superpowered hero in the world.

Rorshach is a violent, paranoid man, but he's right. Something IS going on with the superheroic community, and it plays out against increasing east/west tensions. And the ultimate question becomes - what would you really do to change the world?

The film succeeds, generally. The comic it is based upon is texturally dense and extremely metatextural. There are wheels within wheels, motifs swallowing their own tails, and continual hints and red herrings. In a more visual media such as film, it is difficult to bring all of that across. And the movie succeeds, using the original comic almost as storyboard, to the point that major panels are recreated verbatim.

The order of the story is smoothed out, a lot of loops are removed, and a great deal of the secondary story is jettisoned. It does have an effect. Within the comic, we continually return to a corner news stand in Manhattan, which is seen only in the final scene. And entire substory involving a pirate comic book (there are real super-heroes, why have comics about them?) which reflects the main themes of the book are jettisoned, Nite Owl's mentor is introduced and never touched upon again (with the result that new Nite Owl loses a lot of his own personal growth). All changes needed to get it down to a still overlong 2 1/2 hour movie.

Yet it does hit the major points and does a better job of honoring the original than most other popular culture-to-movie translations. Let me put it this way - there were no Legolas-shield-surfing-the-steps scenes here.

And it gets to the end and it changes. The wheels don't exactly fall off, but they do wobble just a bit. The original ending was a bit hard to swallow (go ahead, old fans - use the term 'giant psychic squid' without giggling). What replaces that actually makes more sense and fits with the MO we've established so far for the villain of the piece.

What wobbles is what they retain (here comes the big spoilers, folks). As in the original, a huge (and murderous) hoax apparently threatens the world, causing all the nations within to pull together. That's a big sell, made even tougher in the film by what they replaced the giant psychic squid with.

But that's not my problem with the ending. More importantly, they deviate in the "villain's" final joy in him triumph (in the comic, he wasn't sure it would work, in the film he remains cool as ice). Also, they jigger around the various characters coming to terms with the new reality. This is the payoff sequence for everyone. In the comic, they spend a lot more time slowly realizing that the "villain" got it right. Yes, its been two hours already, but cutting down those scenes actually did more damage to the film than the, um, giant psychic squid.

And when you hear "we changed the ending because of 9/11", it is not the, um, giant psychic squid they are talking about. They keep a very 9/11 vibe, but spread it out more. And unfortunately weakening the strength of the argument itself.

On actors, the Comedian (absolute bastard) and Rorshach (psychotic) nailed their parts, and Dr. Manhattan, working through glowy blue special effects and nudity, conveyed a detached humanity to his role. Nite Owl had the heart of his story removed, and is left as supermensch to Manhattan's Uberman. Ozymandias, one of the most enigmatic characters in the comic, feels weak on the screen.

But it is the young Silk Spectre character that has the hardest time. She's the only one of the bunch that the story ultimately demands growth of (Nite Owl does in the comic, but again, much of his story was jettisoned). She proves to be too slender a reed to carry everything she has to go through. I think that is one of the movie's weak spots as well.

And there is such a thing as following the book too closely. And by that I don't mean going shot-for-shot. In the original comic, the story was broken up into a regulated grid 3 panels by 3 panels per page, which made larger panels pop more. Problem is that these panels are mostly vertical, and the movie screen is mostly horizontal. So in following too tightly, we are losing a lot of the versatility of the camera itself. I cause myself tracking on when the director shook loose and made a movie as opposed to bringing a comic to life. It was noticeable.

And finally the sex and violence. A lot of people point to the original as being a hallmark for moving into unfamiliar territory, and it was - this was a post-code book and had cursing and blood and naked blue men. But the director pushes the R as far as he can go. In comics, you can fill in a lot into the gutters between the panels. Here, we went with a lot more direct and blatant violence. (the comic stresses the mortality of the characters, but in the opening fight and throughout, it is clear that the collateral damages are turned up to 11, and you can punch through walls and use and opponent' face to engage in major home renovations). Be warned, this is not a film for kids.

Final summary? Good. I honestly liked Iron Man better, which carried through more on spirit of the original source than on plot. in Watchmen they filmed the unfilmable, and did a better job that I would ever expect. And while the ending feels rushed (and the problem is NOT insufficient giant psychic squids), it stands up well.

And yeah, I've gone on long, and have yet more to say. But as we say around here, more later.