Wednesday, July 29, 2009

My terrifyingly long Watchmen review that's completely irrelevantly late

Before I subject you to this, let me but apologize for having been away from the site for so long only to come out of my hole to post this long, vitriolic, intensely late review of a movie that's long since slid from the movie theatres. Since Leonard and Jon have been posting Watchmen stuff, and Brodie's rocking the Spider-Man posts, I got to feeling guilty. I have been busy (trying to get a new job, pray for me) but that's no excuse.

Anyway, here's my crazy long angry Watchmen piece.

In 1998, Gus Van Sant decided the world needed a remake of Psycho, the by-then world famous movie by Alfred Hitchcock. He assembled a cast (including Viggo Mortensen, Julianne Moore, Vince Vaughn and Anne Heche) and proceeded to make a film so rigidly derivative of its inspiration (which was not, by the way, the novel Psycho by Robert Bloch, the source of the original movie - Van Sant went so far as to bring a DVD of the original film to the set and recreate continuity errors from the first film) that it failed to provide any real energy or tension of any kind. In attempting to slavishly homage the first movie, Van Sant created sterile, lifeless film rather than art.

In watching Zach Snyder's version of Watchmen, several scenes in particular were so thoroughly and blatantly intended to be reconstructions of panels from the various issues of the original limited series that they may well have been simply lifted from the book and displayed on screen in the original Gibbons art. Yet, much as Van Sant failed to provide anything the source he was adapting did not already say and in the process made a film that fell to the floor of the theatre with a wet thud, Snyder's Watchmen crashes through the screen as dead as the dogs it so lovingly hurls through windows, their skulls split open. Worse still, not only does Snyder often fail to take any real time to adapt the original source in any way aside from using it as a storyboard, when he does decide to make changes he almost universally detracts from the story.

Watchmen is a twitching ruin of a film wrapped up in the most colorful tinsel Snyder could find, a movie which not only insults the intelligence of the viewer no matter his or her relationship to the source material - my wife, who has not read the comics nor has any intention of doing so, found the movie so tedious and the violence so pointless and lacking in narrative weight that she
almost fell asleep, kept awake only by a particularly bad job of balancing the sound in the theatre and some scenes that took the gore a touch over her comfort level, while I was grinding my teeth any time Matthew Goode opened his mouth. Seriously, what the hell was he doing? - but manages to be plodding and tedious despite constant hyper-kinetic scenes of violence and sex.

Honestly, part of the reason I hated the movie so much is that it's boring, once you get past the eye candy.

It's not bad in a MST3K sort of way. It's competently shot, most of the actors range from good to
very good (Malin Ackerman seems to be on heavy horse tranquilizers for much of the film and I've already mentioned Matthew Goode as Adrian Veidt, a performance made possible by the Snidley Whiplash Foundation) with particular praise being due to Patrick Wilson's performance as Dan Dreiberg.

Billy Crudup's Manhattan was serviceable, although it was somewhat marred for me by his choice to deliver his lines in a voice not entirely dissimilar to that of an ATM machine. Still, the flashback sequence gave him more of a chance to turn in a nuanced performance in a very few lines and he did an excellent job making John Osterman seem like someone real and human in
that time. Matt Frewer turns in a delightful small performance as Moloch, Stephen McHattie does good work as Hollis Mason even if Hollis himself feels completely out of place in the film, a gun on the mantle that never gets fired.

Again, my wife turned to me at one point and said "Whatever happened to that old guy?" and I
had to explain that he was supposed to end up dead. I was even pleasantly surprised by Jackie Earle Haley and Jeffrey Dean Morgan in their roles as Rorschach and the Comedian, respectively. There were scenes that, taken out of the context of the greater film, worked very
well. I thought the credits as a means of establishing the world weinhabit in the film was inspired, music choices helped reinforce the period, and the visual effects were often inspired or purely gorgeous.

Unfortunately, a lot of people (including director Snyder and screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse) spend an awful lot of time and effort desperately constructing a meticulously exploded world detail by detail, only to forget to provide this elaborate construction of almost breathtakingly stylized violence, elaborate grotesqueries, exquisite images and fetishization with anything to say.

Considering that the original source that was so thoroughly dissected and pinned to the screen for us by these people was so fraught with ideas, the effort that must have gone into avoiding them to the degree that Watchmen does as a film is rather staggering. You have to have real talent and work very, very hard to manage to take the original comics, reproduce much of them so faithfully that it's like walking into a gallery of photographs of the pages taken at odd angles and yet prevent all but the most broad strokes of the original story's themes and ideas from coming through.

In a way, it's a triumph, a masterpiece of style beating substance brutally and throwing it out of a window so we can lovingly watch each shard of glass float suspended before plummeting to the ground below.

Paradoxically in a 'adaptation' that fails on many levels to adapt anything, a film where the director and writers seem resistant if not outright horrified at the idea of trying to make the story inhabit the new artistic medium it's being created in, rather taking the original text as a kind of animatic or storyboard, the film also manages to fail when the screenplay or director feels compelled to deviate from the source. The reason Ozymandias' plan had a chance of succeeding in the comic is because, in a world on the brink of nuclear armaggedon, a gigantic squid monster appearing in New York and killing half a million people with a psionic death scream was so alien that it would not immediately cause the calamity it was intended to prevent.

But having Dr. Manhattan appear to have blown up several cities across the world presumes that the hostile nuclear armed powers of the time would wait to launch their missles and not simply let everything fly the second a big explosion took place in a major city. I'm sorry, but
it doesn't make any sense at all. The second Moscow went up, missiles would be headed for the USA, especially when the movie clearly shows us that Moscow is already under attack by Adrian's device before it moves on to New York.

Sure, the explosions are keyed to Dr. Manhattan's energy signature. Why would that keep the Russians from nuking the US? The Russians expect Dr. Manhattan to do things to them. They know he's American. They're afraid of him. The movie spends two hours pointing out that they're willing to go to the brink of war in the face of him. In order for the plan to have worked, New York would have had to have been hit first. So in just this one example of the film deviating from the original story it manages to butcher it and makes itself insipid even if you don't remember the original story at all. You're trying to prevent nuclear apocalypse?

You don't nuke people! The giant squid works precisely because it is absurd, ludicrous, so completely out of the pale that its sheer implausibility forces people to stop before unleashing their own destruction while also providing an enemy that is unfathomable, alien and yet still
possible to defeat (since clearly the body in the New York City aftermath is dead) while Dr. Manhattan as global annihilation is familiar, as nuclear as the other warheads, and provides at once no more threat than the stockpile of warheads we've already had mentioned several times in the film, while also being totally unstoppable.

Why should his act unite the world? They can't do anything about it. There's no 'alien corpse' to give the world a rallying sign, nothing that can be stood up to and fought. There's just a blue god who wipes cities off the face of the earth for the terrible crime of being populated by a species that... was about to wipe those cities off the face of the earth.

Similarly, the film manages to steal the great impact of the final encounter between its protagonists while still striving to reproduce it panel by panel: it's awesome to see Dr. Manhattan punch through the glass roof of Adrian's redoubt, but not only does the story fail to deliver any of the real tension (we never have to consider Adrian as possibly being right thanks to Goode's performance channeling Vincent Price's later years on mescaline) but when Rorschach dies, we get Nite-Owl watching it happen, which changes his complicity in events and makes the romantic movie ending almost obscene. You know, the one where he and Laurie make out in his living room while talking about the omnipotent blue boogeyman keeping the world in line and Laurie delivers Dr. Manhattan's best line (the one that rebuts pretty much everything Adrian has ever done or worked to do) gutting the last chance for the film to make a point like a trout in the process.

Every creative decision made in the last third of this movie to deviate from the source ruins it, while every creative decision to hew blindly to the source in the first two thirds leaves it devoid of any real identity or message. Like I said, it manages an almost impossible feat, you really almost have to admire its sheer craft. It's like watching a team of masons painstakingly craft an outhouse out of Belgian Marble.

I could go on. The scene where Rorschach reveals the reason for his violence and brutality is weakened by elision: removing the scene with the gas can, hacksaw and handcuffs makes a simple, brutal explosion of violence out of what had been a far more complex turning-in, a murder that is also an act of violence by Rorschach against who he had been.

The sex scene between Laurie and Dan managed to be rather faithful to the comic while at the same time totally missing the point (and being quite frankly a lot more like a bad Cinemax film than I was expecting). And Rorschach's narration, which works fine in the comic, actually could have benefited from some pruning in scenes where we have tools like music to help set a mood.

In the end, if I had never seen the comic book, I would have dismissed Watchmen the movie as a
visually interesting, ambitious failure on the level of Ang Lee's failed Hulk movie. But because I know how much better it could have been, I end up totally disgusted with it. It abandons the heart and mind of the original in an attempt to stuff and mount the body after pulling them out.

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