Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Who Watches...

...movies they know will disappoint them?

I do!

(Say hello to this year's most annoyingly ubiquitous Halloween costume.)

Actually, with my expectations being sufficiently low, I enjoyed the Watchmen movie for what it was: a moderately dumbed-down, cliff notes version of the comic. I've read the comic I-don't-know-how-many-times and there was delight to be had in seeing key scenes spring to life on screen. It's certainly the most faithful Alan Moore adaptation ever committed to celluloid. Of course, I had the ability to fill in backstory as necessary, which would be impossible for someone who hasn't read the book.

Still, I had some problems with the film. (You really didn't think I wasn't going to complain, did you?) As a film, Watchmen kind of falls apart in its second half. Unsurprisingly, this is when the graphic novel most deviates from straight narrative storytelling, i.e. lots of Tales of the Black Freighter, information given in the supplemental sections, etc. This is one of the reasons the book had been categorized as "unfilmable" for so long. In my opinion, there were three key elements that could have improved the second half and the film as a whole. (Lots of SPOILERS here. Consider yourself warned.)

1. The characterization of Ozymandias/Adrian Veidt felt completely wrong. Matthew Goode's choice to play him as fey and smug didn't jibe with the Veidt from the book, who I saw as charming and likable. Also, his backstory was underdeveloped and thus the viewer never really got that the intention of his actions was, in his mind, completely noble. He just seems like a weaselly super-villian and I can't imagine that someone coming to the film with fresh eyes would be surprised that he's the story's antagonist. One of the key elements of Watchmen is the contrast between the passive Dr. Manhattan and the activist Ozymandias, an element the film misses completely, even ignoring their final conversation.

2. The revelation of Laurie's true parentage was ham-fisted and came off as unimportant. I didn't really have an issue with giving Dr. Manhattan a "magic touch" as it's sort of implied in the book that he may have been aiding Laurie's mind but it still felt rather rushed and sort of inconsequential. The conversation on Mars is given a full chapter in the book and the slow build up made the end result all the more affecting. In the film, one really never gets the sense of Laurie's hatred for the Comedian and why the realization that she's been hiding facts from herself would be so devastating. Subsequently, that this revelation would move Dr. Manhattan to save mankind felt forced.

3. None of the comic's many non-superhero characters are given any substantial amount of screen time. We see little to none of the two Bernies, the detectives, the lesbian couple, or Dr. and Mrs. Long. When Veidt's "masterstroke" kills all these people, we've been following their lives for most of the book. Their deaths give a resonance to the story's denouement that the film is sorely lacking. I understand that time constraints meant ignoring these characters but by excising them the filmmakers have also excised much of the book's humanity. Perhaps at least including Bernard the news vendor, who more or less functions as the comic's Greek chorus, would have been a smart move.

When Watchmen is released on DVD it will contain an extra hour of footage so perhaps these issues will be rectified. Some of the other issues the film's critics raised didn't bother me that much. Yes, Malin Akerman's performance was a little flat but wasn't Hayden Christensen-level distracting/embarrassing. Yes, they changed the ending a bit but devoting extra time to explaining where a giant squid with psychic powers came from might have been a bit much for any film to bear. One thing that did bug me was the Forrest Gump-style soundtrack. "The Times They Are A Changin" during the opening credit montage was effective but can we get a referendum on never using Hendrix's version of "All Along the Watchtower" in a film again? I'm aware that Chapter 10 of the book is titled after a quote from the song but they didn't use Iggy Pop's "Neighborhood Threat," did they?

However, for all my (and others) niggling, most of the film works. Jackie Earl Haley's Rorschach is particularly potent. While Zack Synder and company deserve full credit for sticking close to the original vision, it may have turned out that Watchmen was unfilmable after all. The comic's greatness comes not just from its story but also that it was formally brilliant and that aspect, by nature, cannot be translated into another medium. Watchmen, the movie, is an entertaining if flawed film. Watchmen, the comic, is one of the greatest achievements in the history of its medium. The adaptation surely won't have the lasting import of its source material but it more or less succeeds on its own terms. At very least, we should be thankful it wasn't another League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Yeah, but didn't you like 'Cloverfield"?

PB said...

I liked "Cloverfield" well enough.

Does that mean that all my future opinions about any film are meaningless?

Ms. Francis said...

my students say it sucked but they really like Glory and The Patriot.

dola said...

The clumsiness of the soundtrack really makes you appreciate what people like Scorsese do. Hendrix was the first rock and roll i ever got into but at this point I can go the rest of my life without hearing him cover AAtW.

I haven't read the comic, and I wouldn't have gone to this on my own account. However I have to think that longtime fans would be hip to Moore's very articulate feelings on the subject - it would make me more than a little ambivalent if Neil Gaiman came out and said he'll be "spitting venom all over" any Sandman movie that came out. Obviously not that the man is infallible, but I think he has a point.

"I find film in its modern form to be quite bullying," Moore told me during an hour-long phone call from his home in England. "It spoon-feeds us, which has the effect of watering down our collective cultural imagination. It is as if we are freshly hatched birds looking up with our mouths open waiting for Hollywood to feed us more regurgitated worms. The 'Watchmen' film sounds like more regurgitated worms. I for one am sick of worms.

PB said...

I think Alan Moore fans are well aware of his feelings on Hollywood. However, one could make the case that Moore is expressing sour grapes. Pretty much every film based on one of his creations has been terrible: From Hell, Constantine, V For Vendetta, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Honestly, Watchmen is the best of the lot thus far.

Plus, Moore was put through ringer over the League adaptation. Apparently, there was a screenplay with a similar concept floating around Hollywood for years. Its writers sued Moore and the film company, their case being that Moore had stolen their idea so he could turn it into a comic book and then sell the rights to be made into a film. They lost the case but Moore didn't like having to take the stand to defend a movie he thought was awful. That was pretty much when he decided he could do without dealing with Tinseltown for the rest of his life.

As much as Moore's fan love his work, the guy is a bit of a crackpot. It would be one thing if he said "This particular movie is terrible and you shouldn't see it." He seems to say "All films are terrible and we should be using that money to feed starving children." You can't say he's wrong but, you know, sometimes you want to go to the movies.

dola said...

Let the Right One In is a good movie. He might express a liking toward it if put under duress.