Friday, March 06, 2009

Watchmen - Watched.

Moore and Gibbon's Watchmen is among the best graphic novels of all time. Published in the mid-80's during the height of not only the Cold War but also the Reagan years, Moore's story of an alternate timeline where costumed heroes not only were real, but had significant effects on history (Nixon is still in office, for starters) takes on the America of that time in a very similar way to how he took on Margaret Thatcher's UK with V for Vendetta. Of all of the comic books I own, this is the one I will go back and reread every few years.

So it was, some months ago, that when my wife and I saw the first preview for the film version of Watchmen, I knew that this would be a Major Cultural Event for me. When my daughter's SO suggested we go see it at one of the midnight showings, I grudgingly went along for the ride, knowing that I hadn't stayed up until 2am (other than the occasional New Year's Eve) in years, and this puppy was going to take me to close to 4am after the drive home. 

Warning: I'm gonna spoil a few things in this review. If you haven't seen the movie, haven't read the graphic novel, or want to be surprised by what's in the movie (if you can after the constant media commentary on what's the same and what's different), stop reading now. 

Second warning: I'm coming at this as not only a fan of the book, and thus predisposed to liking the film, but also as someone who owns several thousand comic books in eleven "long" boxes, despite not having collected for 13 years. My tastes ran from the standard super-hero stuff in the mid-80's into the launch and success of the Vertigo line from DC, which included some very cutting edge stuff (it's where Neil Gaiman got his start doing Sandman). I will try to give my wife's perspective (who never did read the book), but for the most part my POV is that of someone who had good familiarity with the book. 

I won't go over the plot, as that's why you go see the film or read the book, right? I will deal with the look of the film, the use of music, the acting, and how closely the producer stuck to the original story.

First up, the look. Part of the problem with comic books is that it's very difficult to get a three-dimensional look with pen and ink drawings with color fills and a bit of shading. While the artists for comics have done an amazing job over the years of exceeding the medium, the core problem remains that if you want to do a film treatment of a comic-book property, you need to take care. It's a bit ironic, as films are storyboarded in the early part of the process, which look pretty much like comic books. 

What that leaves is the opportunity for artists to play with perspective, something that was a hallmark of the graphic novel. Originally presented in 12 issues as a "maxi-series," a novel concept back in the day (although not for Watchmen, as there had been many four or six issue "mini-series" out by the time it was published), each issue started with an image that you weren't going to understand at first, but as the perspective pulled back, both literally and figuratively, the core theme of each issue became clear. The other wonderful thing about graphic novels is that there are no technological limitations other than the medium itself - there are certainly graphic novels out there that used painted images (or other media), although the release schedule more than anything dictates the quick and dirty approach I mention above. As such, every filmmaker who wants to achieve a comic book feel has to find ways to evoke a rather different approach to storytelling, and will be challenged by some of the visual effects in a graphic novel if they choose a literalist approach.

At some point in developing this property, a decision was made: why produce a storyboard when they already *had* one? For those familiar with the book, you can see the various panels in the mind's eye reproduced almost verbatim. Remember when van Sant redid Psycho, shot for shot? It was a bit like that, with the exception that Zack Snyder wasn't reproducing a movie, but rather the early parts of the movie. The result is a film that evokes the same feeling as the graphic novel as no film I've ever seen. I understand that 300 did this to a large extent, although I had not seen the graphic novel in that case. 

The other decision, again used in 300 (overused in my opinion) was the use of slow motion fight scenes. Snyder extends some of the fight scenes from the comic book into the movie, and uses the slow-quick-quick-slow style that he's famous for. Personally, short of having onomatopoeic bubbles appear over the footage ("Pow!" "Bam!"), I think this is an admirable way of giving a graphic novel frame separation, and I felt that the scenes were all just as long as they needed to be. There have been a lot of complaints in the press that the movie would have been shorter (it's nearly 3 hours) without all of the slo-mo, but I disagree. There's maybe 10 minutes of fighting in the entire film. Compare with 300, where the fighting was a good quarter of the film and got old fast. 

Several years ago, there was an excellent example of what happens when you try to be too faithful to a property when translating it to film. The first was Fellowship of the Ring, which took a very long and complex story (and only the first third of it!) and adapted it marvelously. I would argue that FotR was more successful in this endeavor than the other two movies, especially in the 4 hour extended version on DVD. The counterexample was the first of the Harry Potter films, which we found so poorly paced and dull that we left an hour into the movie - something I haven't done in decades. There, the problem was that a book has no limits on how the story arc progresses, and as an "origins" book that was more episodic than plot-driven (the intent being to introduce us to the world of Harry Potter), the movie was terrible.

In this case, I think that because the original property, because of it's form, lent itself to direct imitation, the result was much more successful. Why mess with what is already a very good story in a very good form? Much of what made Watchmen such a great book was Gibbon's art and perspective, and to merely evoke it would have resulted in a lesser product. 

And here's the thing: when you take a beloved franchise like Watchmen and put it into a new form, you are going to anger some people, you are going to thrill some people, and no matter what you do that's going to be the situation. Some will say that Snyder was lazy, but again, I think that when you already have a great vision in place, why mess with it? I personally enjoyed recognizing frames from the book. Almost every character looked astonishingly like their graphic counterpart to a loving level of detail. 

That isn't so say that many parts of the novel weren't cut, they were. The change in the ending, for example, was necessitated by the original requiring several mentions of actors on an island, cloning efforts, all sorts of things that were needed to make people think that there had been a botched invasion by giant squids from space. There's even a scene (whether homage or due to changed plans) where you see Adrian Veidt standing in front of a device with the acronym SQUID, which completely led me astray. I felt that the change to make the manufactured villain Manhattan was a good choice and was actually an improvement on the graphic novel in some ways (it would certainly be a lot easier to pull off, that's for sure). 

There were two other elements that needed to be dealt with: the ECC-ish Pirate Comic parallel story, and the backstory, told largely through book excerpts, magazine articles, and other non-graphic devices in the back pages of the series. The first was ignored completely, aside from a couple of "cameos" by the news vendor and the kid reading the comic. It was both a simile to the main story and a tribute to the horror comics of the 50's, and leaving it out was an obvious and good choice. The core message of the book, that we are all essentially savages that are incapable of long-term good without someone watching us, but then who will watch *them*, came across very strongly for me in the film without things getting preachy, and I felt it wasn't necessary here, especially as the homage wouldn't have worked as well in translation. The flipside of that core message, of course, is that good things do come out of bad, even terrible acts. The struggle between moral certainty driving an ethos of the ends justifying the means and a more liberal sensibility trying desperately not to become that which you despise is wonderfully presented, and in the end it's the latter that seems to win out. Rorschach doesn't commit suicide in forcing Jon to kill him because he wants to, it's because he has no other choice. He knows deep down that he *must* stay with his mission because he knows no other way, and that he himself must be killed to keep him from telling the world about what he knows. In that sense, it is Rorschach's approach that wins. 

It's a timely topic, seeing as we've gone through eight years of an American Presidency that felt the ends justified the means on an increasingly less critical set of problems. The result, at least according the American electorate, seems to have swung the other way, but there is always a situation on the horizon where massive destruction and death is the best-case scenario and we can't afford to refuse the hard solution when it is also the best one. In the meantime, however, we need to realize that the hard solution needs to be considered very carefully and undertaken for the right reasons, assuming you have the objectivity to see all of that clearly. I hope I never find myself in that position.

The backstory was dealt with in large part through a brilliant series of scenes and images from the history of costumed crimefighters, giving just enough back-story to why the current heroes aren't active, as well as the craziness of the various people who were attracted to the vocation. Most of these characters are given very short shrift in the book, and the same goes here. You have little information on most of them other than the handful that are involved in the current story, such as mention of the Moth Man guy (whatever his name was) ending up in a mental institution. I was quite satisfied with this part of the story as well, as the critical parts of the backstory are presented as they were in the book, as part of the graphic novel front story through various recollections at appropriate times. There aren't many other ways this complex story could have been presented, another good reason to stick religiously to the story as originally presented.

As I mentioned above, the look of the actors was pretty much perfect, other than Sally Jupiter (she looked great in the "old" scenes, not so much in the "present day"). I would have preferred that Jon's voice was deeper - Billy Crudup did a fantastic job, mind you, but someone with that much power needed a more powerful voice. Laurie Jupiter's portrayer (sorry, I don't have a cast list handy) was the weakest of the cast, although she looked great in the slo-mo scenes. The guy playing Daniel captured his character down to the individual gesture, not easy when it's such a complex role in a complex story with a large cast. Adrian Veidt felt a bit Andy Warhol-ish (and there's a great nod to him during the credits), and my wife felt that he struggled with his accent (he's a native German), and he wasn't as much the Golden Boy as in the book, at least in terms of looks, although both characters were very slim and had strength that belied their appearance. 

The Oscar, however, goes to Rorschach, both the actor playing him when in costume (again, it was like seeing the comic brought to life), and the one playing him "without his face". Hrm. Was this the same guy who played the coonskin-capped bully in A Christmas Story? While it's arguable that he didn't look as much like the original book's character, at least as an adult, both his voice and his acting caught the character completely. I did find the constantly shifting mask a little on the distracting side, preferring to have it shift as he moved rather than just shift for the sake of shifting (in the book, the mask is made of a novelty fabric and is nothing particularly high-tech). There were also a handful of scenes with Jon where I felt that his image was a little too two-dimensional, especially in his first scene where he's in the background. 

This is a good time to mention the various "cameos" of famous people from the era - Lee Iacocca (not in the book), Nixon (in the book), Kissinger, Kennedy, Ted Koppel, etc. As in the novel, there's a lot going on in the background, and this movie will reward repeated viewings as you see all of the various twists on commercial products, locations, and services. 

The final element to be added to the film was, of course, a soundtrack. For the most part, I found the music to be extremely fitting, often adding commentary (as one would expect from a Greek chorus). Music in film is intended to both set the emotional mood as well as reinforce and cue events. Much will be made of the choice to use Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" during the (admittedly too long) sex scene aboard Archie, but I disagree with the critics who say that it was misused throughout the film. As someone with an advanced music degree, I like to think I may have a better appreciation for this aspect of film over most critics, and indeed Hollywood tends to bear me out, especially in their use of non-period keyboard instruments in every Jane Austin adaptation out there. And don't get me started on "The Piano," the music for which completely ruined this film for me. No, Watchmen, for the most part, did just fine with the music with few exceptions. OK, the Requiem Aeterna from the Mozart setting of the Requiem Mass at the end was a little over the top. At the time, it seemed OK, though.

My wife enjoyed the film almost as much as I did, although her drama degree gives her some insights into acting that I don't always catch, and she was correct in saying that Laurie Jupiter's portrayer was a poor choice (just about anyone would look right in that wig and costume), and that Adrian Veidt's accent got in the way from time to time (and he was slightly less believable that the rest of the exceptional cast). These are fine points, however, and the *really* tough stuff to adapt to film went as it should have - Jon's minute facial expression changes, Daniel's mild-manneredness out of his costume (not a cover, as with Superman, but rather his real personality), Rorschach's power, passion, and awareness of the limits and freedom through a simplified morality. In the end, these are the major characters, the one Moore put time, love, and pieces of himself into, and they came off magnificently. 

There was a note in the review in the Oregonian today that said that Zack Snyder had trouble directing women, using 300 as evidence. I would instead say simply that he hasn't had a property that gives the women anything to *do*, much less a cast that would do much with it. In both films, appearance trumped acting (not surprising given the faithfulness to the original story form), and when he *does* get a movie that has strong women characters, we'll see how he does then. The critique strikes me as telling me I'm not a great singer because I don't sound like a soprano (the range, not the crime family). 

I'll end by giving a shout out to Cinetopia, the venue we drove 45 minutes to see the film in. The place was hopping, showing the movie on pretty much every screen they had. It was nice to have an alternative to the virtual Regal Cinema monopoly they enjoy in Portland, and having someone take a food and drink order? Very cool, even if two burgers, a wrap, nachos, and three drinks ended up costing $80. Before the tip. I took two sips of Mel's small coke at what I figure was about a dollar worth of pop. I've learned not to drink anything at a movie as my bladder slowly shrinks to the size of a quarter, but I've also learned that if I was going to stay awake long enough for the drive home I was gonna need some carbs. I did smell the damned pasta salad through the whole movie. 

The best part of the theater was that you had reclining chairs, plenty of room (think first class seating on an airplane as opposed to coach at most theaters), and ottomans to put your feet on. For me, that made the high cost of the food worthwhile, although I don't know if I could have spent $7 on a slice of pizza. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I think that Jake and I will go see the new Star Trek movie at a midnight showing at Cinetopia when it comes out.

I'd also like to thank my espresso machine, which produced a single shot of espresso (leaded) consumed at 10:30pm that saw me through to 4am. I could not have driven home without you, much less stayed awake through the entire movie. Or woken up at 9am this morning. I'm gonna need a nap.

I think The Incredibles (and maybe also The Dark Knight) just got bumped off of the pedestal for Best Superhero Movie Ever. I'm definitely going to wait and get the six-disc Super Deluxe Happy Face Edition of the DVD once it comes out. 


HazMatt said...

Doug - Great review. I am with you on this movie. Great adaptation, great visuals, excellent music choices. I'm a fan of the book and really enjoyed this film. However, having read the book, I knew a lot of what to expect. I have talked to other people who saw it 'cold'. They were distracted by some of the (blue) visuals and didn't seem to appreciate the drawn out storyline. Oh well.

Mike said...

Just watched this last night at Bridgeport iMax. I haven't read the books, or any of the discussion, I'd just seen the trailers on tv. I enjoyed it thoroughly, good pacing, interesting ending; good use of music to evoke the era, except for the 'Hallelujah' thing that Doug mentioned (but that may have been more due to its use in Shrek (I think it was), where it was used to evoke a different feeling from this movie and so had a cerain amount of 'bleed'). I especially liked that they didn't try to give the whole history up front, and confuse the viewer with tmi, but introduced the history as required and I never found myself confused with the temporal switches. I do wish Jon could have invented some sort of loin cloth, however. :)