Friday, March 06, 2009

Review of Watchmen (the movie)

It is impossible to talk about this story without including spoilers. Any spoilers I give will be announced, and presented in invisible text that requires you to highlight it to read it. If you can read the words between these dashes - INVISIBLE TEXT - then this will not work for you, and you will have to keep your eyes open for SPOILERS AHEAD warnings.

First things first: if you are going to see this movie, I HIGHLY recommend purchasing and reading the Watchmen graphic novel, so that you will be able to see the similarities and differences, and judge for yourself how well Zack Snyder has translated this story to film. This is not, however, an absolute necessity. But if you plan to see this movie, it is imperative that you read this first: Good Luck, Mr. Gorsky!

That way I won't be the only person who caught that joke during the opening sequence.

I won't go through this story scene-by-scene. Trust me when I say that visually it is very faithful to the graphic novel, with a few flubs: the Minutemen-era Comedian looks too old, Hooded Justice looks too pudgy, and Nite Owl II looks too buff in his Nite Owl getup.

I can live with Rorschach having learned Parkour somewhere along the way. It's not unreasonable for someone who does the things that he does to have developed such a skill. I can accept characters like The Comedian and Ozymandias having near-superhuman fighting abilities. But for Rorschach, Nite Owl, and the Silk Spectre to also have these skills? We know that Dan and Laurie can handle themselves against a large number of assailants, and Rorschach can hold his own against a superior foe through grim determination and bloody-mindedness, but to have them delivering the same WHAM-BANG! punches and kicks as their more physically-developed compatriots stretches credulity a bit - and reduces them very nearly to the level of simple action heroes.

Action is a problem here. Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan were characters defined in the graphic novel by their sparing use of movement - when Rorschach explodes into action it's always a surprise, and Dr. Manhattan is almost always where he needs to be when he needs to be there. Their movie versions move around a bit much. Rorschach I can almost understand - without motion he might come across as little more than a mannequin. But Dr. Manhattan seems a bit too prone to reach out and grab people when he wants to make a point. Perhaps this is intentional.

One major departure from the book: when Dan and Laurie are attacked by several groups of knot-tops in an alleyway, they do not hesitate to use lethal force against their attackers: necks are broken, knives are turned back on their wielders. By comparison, when Rorschach is attacked by an overwhelming number of assailants, he responds with a non-lethal level of violence, at one point seizing an assault rifle and beating its owner with the stock. (Granted, anyone who has been blasted with a makeshift flamethrower probably isn't feeling too charitable towards his assailant for his level of restraint.)

And then, of course, there is the climax.

Yes. It's different from the book, but everyone knows that. Truth be told, the climax in the book is somewhat silly, and the reaction of warring factions to the sudden appearance of a precursor to an alien invasion is, to say the least, somewhat implausible. (Which must be taken with a grain of salt when you're accepting the presence of the big blue naked guy with god-like powers.) The reaction of warring factions to this variation on the theme is only slightly less implausible.

But that change triggers other changes. Suddenly the role of The Comedian in the whole plot becomes more difficult to fathom, the reason for his murder harder to understand. In the book he accidentally discovered the secret plot in a manner consistent with his character. In the movie no such plot exists for him to discover; there is no island full of artists and writers and scientists, all working on a top-secret "special effect" for a non-existent movie. So the discovery of a secret so enormous and a plot so inevitable that it shakes The Comedian's worldview to its roots has to come about in another way, and is explained in a throwaway line stated so quickly that it is easy to miss.

Dan Dreiberg gets a bit of salvation in the movie: instead of caving in entirely to the futility of standing against what has been done, he at least lashes out with a few moments of pointless violence. In the end, though, the scene feels as extraneous and out-of-character as Arthur Dent angrily squishing the other-dimensional mice at the end of the movie version of The Hichhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Dr. Manhattan's soliloquy upon his arrival on Mars is very much as in the book, though slightly too linear. (And, sadly, Phobos and Deimos are done wrong! Having two moons isn't the same as having two Moons!) The same can be said of Laurie's piecing together the truth of her own past. In the movie this is done in a somewhat contrived way, as Dr. Manhattan jogs her memory so she can see her past the way he sees all of his own time. In the book it is the pressure of repressed connections that will no longer be denied. If you read nothing else in the book, read this sequence. This could have been done better in the movie without too much effort.

One scene disappointed me more than the climax, and that was the penultimate one: the meeting of Laurie, her mom, and Dan. In the book this took place in Sally Jupiter's retirement resort in California; in the movie it is unclear where it takes place, though it looks like Dan's brownstone in New York City. In the book the confrontation between mother and daughter packed more of a punch, and Dan and Laurie were on the run and in disguise. In the movie the confrontation falls as flat as Dumbledore's truncated confession at the end of the movie version of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and Dan and Laurie seem to actually be planning to get back into the superhero business. (Setting the stage for what one person leaving the theater suggested could be called Watchmen 2: Electric Boogaloo.) Also, one of the key lines - "Nothing ever ends" - is transposed from Jon to Laurie, who says that it's the sort of thing Jon would say. If I could see one scene added to this movie, it would be the conversation where Jon actually says this.


This is a dark, violent, and fun movie. Fans of the book will not, I think, be too disappointed, while newcomers will not, I think, be too confused. It's definitely not for kids: there's a whole lotta big blue schlong bouncing around here, along with some less-frontal nudity. There are F-bombs a-plenty, there's a decently clear view of a hardcore cartoon from a Tijuana Bible, and there's The Comedian. There are also historical Easter Eggs thrown in, though at times it feels like a costume party. (Watch for Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, the Village People, and Lee Iacocca!) There are also outstanding performances by all of the actors major and minor, and incredibly faithful casting and costuming of secondary characters - Bernard the newsagent and Dr. Malcolm Long are immediately recognizable. (I guess Harlan Ellison was too old, and slightly too tall, to play Big Figure.)

At two hours and forty-some minutes, I didn't feel like the movie dragged at all until the very end - and even then, I didn't check my watch until the credits began to roll. Much of the music from the book appears in the movie, with the notable addition of two (!) Leonard Cohen songs.

I liked it.


Ashley said...

I'm going to see it tonight so I jumped past your post. I'll have to read it when I get back. Although, I've already read the Watchmen so maybe your spoilers wouldn't have really ruined anything.

coffee said...

I kept thinking that the guy who played the Comedian was Javier Bardem (I found out later that it's actually Jeffrey Dean Morgan), but the two actors definitely look alike