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Monday, March 09, 2009

Review of WATCHMEN

More than two hundred.

That's the number of times that I've calculated I've read Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen since 1990.

I was on the cusp of sixteen in January of that year when someone suggested Watchmen. Said it was "the greatest graphic novel ever." Amid the cultural hangover that was post-Burton Batman I took a chance, plunked down seventeen bucks for the Watchmen trade paperback and went home that cold and gray Sunday with my new book in tow. My appetite for comics as mature storytelling had been whetted the previous summer when I read Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns...

...but nothing could have possibly prepared me for Watchmen.

I read it after swim practice every afternoon that week. By Wednesday I was digging into it during free time in Spanish after I'd finished my assignments (along with Ender's Game, Watchmen was the best education I got in that class). Didn't bother me at all that I was coming across as the proverbial nerd reading comic books: Watchmen was legitimate literature of a higher form. Come Thursday night, when I reached the climax, my mind had officially become blown for the better.

I haven't been the same since Watchmen. It was the gateway drug that later got me into reading Neil Gaiman's The Sandman, Art Spiegelman's Maus and several years down the road Kingdom Come (another graphic novel that I have read more times than I care to count). Watchmen prepared my mind for the following year when I began devouring the works of Tolkien, Asimov, Herbert, Bradbury, Heinlein, Orwell, King... and many more. Some kids that age read anything and everything. I've no doubt that I would have been just as voracious without it... but had Watchmen not broken the soil, I don't know if the experience would have been as rich and rewarding.

And by the time I'd finished reading it, I had decided that Watchmen was the comic book that I most wanted to see turned into a movie.

That's probably inevitable with a story like Watchmen. Reading it, you can't help but imagine what Rorschach's voice must sound like, how the Owlship flies or the inherent challenge that would come with translating Jon's perspective of time for the big screen. To say nothing of the extremely dense and non-linear style of storytelling that Moore and Gibbons employed with Watchmen. This is, after all, a story that stretches from 1939 to 1985. And it's not even supposed to be our own world at all being depicted, but rather an "alternate history" where Nixon is still President, the United States won the Vietnam War and there really were costumed crimefighters who tried to make the world a better place and failed in that just as miserably as most of them did with their own lives.

To be succinct: I "get" Watchmen. I've probably scanned and analyzed this book more than most people have (probably not the healthiest thing to admit). And as much as I've wanted to see a Watchmen feature film, I've also been more than ready to not only understand but passionately argue about why Watchmen could never, ever work as a motion picture. Heck, this blog has been running for more than five years now, and since the very beginning I've been writing about how it's a waste of time trying to adapt Watchmen. How it had already chewed up and spit out filmmakers like Terry Gilliam, Paul Greengrass and Darren Aronofsky. And I even wrote in this space a few years ago that Zack Snyder was poised to be the latest who would inevitably throw his hands up in the air and give up.

But, here I am. Writing the movie review that for most of my life I had thought I would never be writing. About Watchmen.

And I now have to admit, that I was wrong.

Snyder and his crew pulled off what most said was impossible. The unfilmable book, has been filmed.

And what they have accomplished is nothing less than the finest cinematic adaptation of a graphic novel that I have ever seen, and one of the finest film adaptations of all time.

And I will go so far as to say that I believe Watchmen is the kind of movie that only comes about once every generation or so, that proves itself as far ahead of its time. Some are already comparing Watchmen to 1982's Blade Runner, and I don't think that's an inaccurate parallel at all. And just like Blade Runner, I also think that Watchmen will prove to be many other things that people will be debating about for decades still to come.

But let's talk about the movie itself...

Bright yellow cards show us this movie is coming from Warner Brothers, Paramount, Legendary Films and DC Comics, before pulling back and resolving as the smiley-face button on the bathrobe of 67-year old Edward Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) – AKA the Comedian - relaxing at home one evening and watching Eleanor Clift and Pat Buchanan debating something called "Dr. Manhattan" on The McLaughlin Group. That's the last we see of Blake as a living component of Watchmen's main narrative, before an intruder breaks into his apartment and subjects him to one of the most brutal murders that has ever opened a film.

And then we get the title sequence that is already being hailed as a modern classic...

This was the biggest challenge that I've thought Watchmen had to surmount: how to introduce and then persuasively sell the concept of an alternative 1985. As Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are a-Changin" plays we see how this world deviated from our own... without a single spoken word of exposition. Indeed, Watchmen's opening musical montage is as effective a setup for the rest of the film as was the yellow scrolling text of the Star Wars movies. Maybe even more so. I mean, let's face it: convincing the audience that Ozymandias really did hang out with Mick Jagger and the Village People at Studio 54 is no mean trick.

(Apart from the story itself, that might be one of the most fun things about the Watchmen movie: catching all of the personas of pop culture from the decades leading up to 1985, from Andy Warhol to Annie Leibowitz. The unaware viewer might swear he's beholding the evil cinematic stepbrother of Forrest Gump, the well-known icons come so hard.)

From there the movie tracks with the graphic novel fairly well, without the book being a literal storyboard for the film. Director Zack Snyder deserves a lot of credit and recognition for breaking out of what could have easily become a pattern. Frank Miller's 300 translates superbly as a visual guide for a motion picture... but Watchmen does not and Snyder didn't pretend that it could. The result is, I believe, a great model that future filmmakers should study for how to adapt prior work to the film medium. Yes, Snyder made some compromises to the book. But he also improved on quite a few things too (more on that later).

Visually and cinematically, Watchmen isn't setting any precedent. But as an ensemble story driven by its very flawed and very real characters, Watchmen is in entirely new territory for graphic novels-turned-film. Three characters stand out in my mind as most exemplifying this: the Comedian, Dr. Manhattan, and Rorschach. Of the three, Jeffrey Dean Morgan may have had the most difficult role. We see the Comedian "alive" only before the credits, and from then on he's a memory recollected in flashback by the various characters. He doesn't get the chance to let us see him change and grow along with the rest of the characters. And yet, as the murdered MacGuffin, Morgan's Comedian is the catalyst that forces those he left behind to face their own inadequacies and foibles as much as they must now consider that there is a "mask killer" gunning for them.

Then there is Billy Crudup's portrayal of Jon Osterman, known and feared throughout the world as Dr. Manhattan. I thought Crudup perfectly conveyed the character from the graphic novel. Dr. Manhattan: the unwilling and reluctant god. A being whose near-limitless power and abilities have gradually divorced him from the human condition, to the point that he no longer understands the concepts of life and love as mortals do. There has never been a depiction of a super-powered being in cinema before quite like this: one that compels the viewer to contemplate the consequences that unrestrained power has on the soul.

And then there is Rorschach. I'm not going to say that Jackie Earle Haley plays Rorschach. That's not right at all. Jackie Earle Haley is Rorschach. So help me, that is everything that I have ever imagined Rorschach to be. Haley absolutely nails it. He has Rorschach's paranoia, his hatred of evil and corruption, his walk, his moves... and yes, his voice. If there's any fairness in this world, Haley will be up for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor next year for his work here. Those are supposed to be awards for depiction of character. Well, Jackie Earle Haley has submerged himself into Rorschach and then come back for more. The man paid his dues during all those years between child actor and now Watchmen. I hope we see him in many more roles to come.

But that's not to say that the other portrayals are any less stellar in Watchmen. I thought that Patrick Wilson was spot-on as Dan Dreiberg, the second Nite Owl. In fact... call me crazy, but I think that if a full-length feature of The Dark Knight Returns were ever produced, Wilson would be the obvious choice to play the older Bruce Wayne. In Watchmen he brings that same sense to bear on Dreiberg: a pitiful man sitting amid the dust of his costumes and his wonderful toys, impotent in body and soul until he finally lets the thing at the core of his being break free. Malin Akerman was terrific as Laurie, but I think she will be even more appreciated when the director's cut of Watchmen comes out, because I couldn't help but get the sense that there was a lot of material with her that was left out of the theatrical release. Maybe that's just 'cuz I’ve read the book so many times though. The same with Matthew Goode as Adrian/Ozymandias. There's a ton of background about him that was only barely touched on (mostly during his scene with Lee Iacocca). Here's hoping that we'll eventually get to see him prattling on about his epic quest to emulate Alexander and the pharoahs.

Watchmen boasts one of the most colorful soundtracks of a movie in recent years. Dan and Laurie finally make love and light up the sky to "Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen, and later in the film Rorschach and Nite Owl assault Antarctica while Jimi Hendrix sings "All Along the Watchtower". Fans of the book will spot quite a few tracks that were mentioned one way or another in the graphic novel: even more evidence that great care was taken in adapting Watchmen. Tyler Bates' score is exceptionally retro: Zack Snyder asked him to make the orchestral compositions for Watchmen hearken back to the musical style of the Eighties, and that Bates has done. Some of his work in Watchmen sounds like vintage Vangelis (again, comparisons to Blade Runner crop up). But by far the most memorable selection of music in Watchmen is "Pruit Igoe & Prophecies" by the Phillip Glass Ensemble, used during a particularly haunting sequence when Jon is on Mars and simultaneously experiencing his own past and present.

Okay, let's talk about the ending.

More to the point, how Snyder and gang removed "the squid" and used something else as part of the plan...

I have no problem whatsoever with that change at all. And the more I think about it, the more I like it. And I have to wonder that if he were given the chance, would Alan Moore go back and change Watchmen the book, because what is depicted in the movie makes absolutely perfect sense.

Ponder it for just a moment: Adrian is the world's smartest man. Seriously. His is that "non-lateral thinking" that his idol Alexander demonstrated. Now, Adrian has a plan to con the nations of Earth to no longer try to kill each other. Why was the Cold War in Watchmen more precarious than it ever was in our own real world? Because of Dr. Manhattan. Because Jon's presence drove the Soviets to produce far more nukes than they ever did in our real history. And it was only a matter of time before the missiles on both sides went flying and wiped out everyone in mutually assured destruction.

So it's not the "fake alien invasion" of the book. Now that I've seen it, I think the movie did it better. It makes more sense. Adrian not only pulled off his "practical joke", but in the same master stroke he eliminated the one reason why the planet was most poised to destroy itself to begin with. And he still gets to create his boogieman to forever frighten the nations of the world into peaceful cooperation with.

Yeah, I've read Watchmen enough that I should know it all by heart. This is one of my all-time favorite books ever. And I'm not going to let this change to the story affect my opinion that Zack Snyder just did what nobody else had been able to do in twenty years of trying. There are two ways of adapting a book: absolutely literally with no deviation at all, or carefully simmering it down until you have the purest essence of the story and its message, and doing your best to convey that to your audience.

That, Zack Snyder and his bunch has done. And the ending is the same. It still winds up in the office of The New Frontiersman, with Seymour wearing his shirt, poised to read Rorschach's journal...

Now, if that's not Watchmen, I don't know what is.

For two and a half hours, the theatrical release of Watchmen does an admirable job of adapting the book. But all the same, I want more. And I'm really looking forward to that three hours-plus director's version that is said to be coming to DVD later this summer (and another a few months later that implements the Tales of the Black Freighter pirate comic story) which is rumored to include a considerable amount of material that had to be cut for this release.

Heck, I bet that if the director's cut was ever given a theatrical run, it would certainly do well. The world of Watchmen is deep and realized and colored from a large palette with big broad brushes. Exactly the kind of cinematic getaway that made people throng to see The Lord of the Rings and the Star Wars saga.

I don't know what else to say, other than I saw Watchmen the movie. It took almost twenty years of waiting, but I finally got to see it.

And I thought it was terrific!


AfterShock said...

You might want to look this up - but I seem to remember reading somewhere online that in June, the director's cut is actually going to be released to theaters. I don't remember if it was an AP story or something similar, but I will see if I can track down the link again.

Great review and great movie!

Matt said...

Yeah, the director's cut will be released theatrically... in NY and LA! ;)

Back to the movie, when I walked out of it Friday morning (Thursday midnight showing), I was absolutley baffled over if it was good or just downright bad. When I saw it with Peter yesterday, I realized that it was actually a very good film.

It does not expand upon Watchmen. And it has its moments of weakness. There were lines of dialogues that showed just how crazy Rorscach truly was, and Ozymandias' "I DID IT!" truly showed just how emotional he was over his victory. And his short speech afterwords showed us that he was a man of the future.

But there are still the times when the movie acts as a moment of pure genius. The very best scene by far is the not the climatic confrontation at Kharak, but DR. Manhatten's self imposed exile on Mars. The use of Phillip Glass - who was long a favorite of mine due to his works on Koyaanisqatsi - was wonderfully executed.

Watchmen is worse than the graphic novel that it was based off of. However, it is not so much worse off that it is just *good*. It is a great film. It changes some things, but it keeps the core themes of the TPB, and THAT, not the squid, is what makes Watchmen, Watchmen.

Anonymous said...

Your review is terrific too Chris :)

Anonymous said...

In the same shot from the credits showing Andy Warhol and Truman Capote, if you look to the left you can see John Lennon and Yoko Ono. They are sitting on the floor being photographed.

I love this movie!!!

Anonymous said...

I thought it was very good too! Something I can not figure out though. When Ozy is watching his screens one of them shows the movie Rambo. How can there be Rambo movies in a world where the US won in Vietnam?


Chris Knight said...

For some reason, I've missed Rambo twice now. But I did catch that Adrian is watching the three ladies in the Wendy's "Where's the Beef?" commercial :-P

Matt said...

What does Rambo have to do with Vietnam?

Chris Knight said...

Matt... are you serious?!?

What does Rambo have to do with Vietnam? Pretty much like what Santa Claus has to do with Christmas :-)

If you have never done so, I would highly recommend that you watch First Blood, the movie that started the whole Rambo franchise. The later movies (haven't seen 2008's Rambo yet so I won't comment on it) have gained some notoriety for the over-the-top violence. First Blood though is an absolutely heartbreaking and very serious examination about what a lot of Vietnam veterans went through. A very visceral and raw psychological thriller as much as it is an action movie.

Anonymous said...

It is the Watchmen movie we always dreamed of but thought we could never see. I've seen it three times now and it is unbelievably good. And your review is good too Chris.

Anonymous said...

Hey Chris!

I've been avoiding your review because I haven't been able to check out the movie until recently.

I've never read the original book, and after having seen the movie, I know what the number #1 book on my summer reading list is.

I know I missed something by having not read the book, and I want to thank you for helping to bridge the gap between the book and the movie for me.

I came away from this movie with a total sense of wonder. I could not believe that 3 hours had passed. I was just so overwhelmed by the entire cinematic experience that I can't tell if I liked that movie or not! I'm pretty sure I did though, considering I want to look into it further.

Anyways, just want to congratulate you on another excellent review!