Thursday, March 05, 2009

Watchmen


There is really only one way I can approach Zack Snyder’s adaptation of the seminal graphic novel, Watchmen. Others might be able to view the film on its own terms, or as a piece removed from its source material, but I cannot. I’m a fan of the graphic novel, and I am relatively familiar with most of its ins and outs. This fact on its own shouldn’t stop me from being able to divorce the film from the book, but what does stop me is that aside from some ample story compression and a few alterations to certain scenes and plot points, Zack Snyder’s Watchmen is as literal an adaptation of its source as possible. Fortunately and unfortunately for the film, literal adaptation is a double-edged sword.


I’ll start by discussing the points of the film that I really enjoyed.


Number one on that list is Jackie Earl Haley as Rorschach. Rorschach is a masked hero of highly suspect moral character, but his outlook and extreme commitment to his own principles anchors the film for the audience. For the most part, he is the film’s narrator, and he is also the only protagonist who is continuously actively involved in unraveling the plot of the film; and in a certain way he becomes the proxy through which one can enter the story. For that reason alone, it is vital that the actor portraying Rorschach nails it. Jackie Earl Haley does more than simply nail the role: he captures the character in a way true to the comic while also infusing him with a level of emotion that the comic was unable to achieve. The final scene that Rorschach spends on screen in the film possesses both an intensity and power that sells the entire character. In fact, it isn’t even the scene: it’s the final close up on Haley’s face. In that single shot Haley conveys the distraught emotional climax of the story, and manages to be the counterpoint to the horrors abound. Between Watchmen and Little Children, Haley has cemented himself as one of the more able and powerful actors working today.

Displaying the same calibre of performance is Haley’s Little Children co-star, Patrick Wilson, here playing Dan Dreiberg, the second Nite Owl. This performance does not require the intensity of Haley’s; in fact, the opposite is true. Wilson plays a man who has given up on his past as a masked vigilante. His character is quiet and Wilson’s portrayal is even quieter. Behind every expression or reaction is buried a longing for freedom of character; his is a character who keeps his innermost thoughts silent, but by reading his face, we know exactly what he is truly feeling at any given moment. This, again, is something that the comic book could not achieve. The film brings it to the forefront through the simplicity of the actor’s expression. Between Rorschach and Dreiberg lies the true footing of the story, and the fact that both of the actors portraying these characters are so good is a godsend: the film would likely have fallen apart on the shoulders of lesser actors.


I should also comment on Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Edward Blake, The Comedian. I was a little worried about his performance from pre-release clips and trailers, but Morgan shines. Morgan is an actor who has been around Hollywood and television, almost exclusively playing slightly rough-edged, but great, warm and funny guys. Here, his character is, in simple terms, disgusting. As The Comedian, he has to portray all that is morally bankrupt about human nature and the world. Morgan fits the bill as The Comedian perfectly. He is cold and terrible, but he also demonstrates a range of emotion that only a man who so willfully chooses to see only the cruel joke of modern life can exhibit. He is steadfast while also being crushed and broken, and its yet another performance that gets the character exactly on the nose. The other actors are generally quite good, with a special nod to Billy Crudup’s stoic take on Dr. Manhattan.

Next: the visuals. The film is stunning; did anybody expect different? Almost every shot is beautifully composed to replicate sequences, scenes and individual panels of the comic. It’s a technique that worked well for Snyder in 300, and it works even better here. It goes a long way to aid the impression that Watchmen really is the graphic novel-come-to-life. It also helps the world of Watchmen feel wholly created and visually unique. This isn’t our world; it is an alternate history, and the visual style helps to detach our perception of the reality of the film from that of our own. The film could have attempted a grittier, more realistic style, akin to the treatment Christopher Nolan gave Gotham City in The Dark Knight, but that might not have suited the distance in perspective the story requires. Watchmen shouldn’t look as though it takes place in the real world; it needs, instead, to feel somewhat familiar, yet darkly estranged. New York City in Watchmen is a bastardization of even the worst that city experienced in the 70s and 80s.


The narrative, however, is where the film’s construction gets iffy: Zack Snyder knew that there was no way he’d be able to put together an adaptation that stayed true to the themes and storyline of the comic while also changing a majority of its elements. Making major alterations would be a monumental task, which would risk alienating fans of the book as well as potentially resulting in a film that just wasn’t very good. Instead, he opted to stick as close to the graphic novel as possible. The film is actually so close to the book that I would say at least seventy-five percent of the dialogue in the film is taken directly from the comic. The only major departure from the book is the ending, which I’ll get to later. On one hand I applaud Snyder for not assuming he could rewrite Watchmen to be better than the source, but on the other hand, I wonder what those who haven’t read the book will think of the film.

The plot of the film is dense, more so than the comic due to the large amount of compression that had to be done. The storytelling structure is all over the map in terms of time periods and flashbacks; piecing together the back-story of how the world came to be this way may also pose a problem to those unfamiliar with the source material. Aspects of this alternate history, which are given pages upon pages of explanation in the book, are only explained here in quick shots or light dialogue, and I can’t help but think that the uninitiated will have a hard time following along. That said, Snyder attempts to give a cursory account of the history of the masked vigilantes leading up to the present 1985 in a relatively lengthy opening sequence set to “The Times They Are A-Changin’” by Bob Dylan. I have read some comments that the opening sequence is the best part of the film. I disagree with that sentiment, but I agree that it is extremely efficient and effective; without a word spoken, any audience should be able to glean a basic understanding of the Watchmen universe. It might not quite be the best part of the film, but it might be the best-directed sequence.


I’d like to make special mention of Snyder’s editing. Snyder has been derided for his use of slow motion during fight scenes, and even I was dreading seeing that style being used in Watchmen. I’m still not entirely sold on it, but I can say that I’ll take Snyder’s slow motion over any of the close-up shots and rapid editing common in today’s action films. Watchmen’s action scenes play well, and there’s always a strong sense of spatial and physical location. Finally, we have a movie with action that manages to be decipherable: I can actually tell who’s punching whom!

There is one issue with the action that I think might lead to confusion among those who don’t know much about the book. The masked heroes display extraordinary skill and strength in combat that is far increased from the book. It makes the action scenes cooler, but also may lead one to believe that these characters possess some level of superhuman ability. It’s not a big complaint, but it’s noticeable enough to be singled out.

Ultimately, the action scenes only comprise a tiny part of the running time. Most of Watchmen is made up of dialogue scenes with very reasonable choices of shots and edits throughout. Pacing is lively, but enough time is given for lingering looks and other emotional punctuation. On the whole, the film works very well from an editing perspective, and without hesitation, I can say that even though at 2 hours and 45 minutes the film feels its length, yet never drags

There are more concerns to be found with the film’s narrative, though. The film sticks almost exclusively to the structure of the book, and in some cases this works better than others. One problem is a lack of narrative drive. That’s not to say that the plot is episodic or unfocused; the plot moves forward, but generally at the novel’s pace and order. There are many scenes and story points unrelated to the mask-killer storyline, and it often gets to a point where we forget the underlying mystery to the film. The film must also deal with the book’s lack of climactic setup during its first two acts. In some ways, Snyder and his screenwriter try to correct this issue by foreshadowing more overtly throughout, as well as chopping up the villain’s expository ‘evil plan speech’ from the last act and spreading the parts as far as the film’s first twenty minutes.


While Snyder was faithful (to a fault), he did change the ending. You may have heard of the giant squid from the novel: That squid is gone, its function replaced by a similarly destructive power relating to one of the main characters. This keeps the themes present in the novel’s ending alive and well in the film while also creating a deeper story and character connection. When the ending happens, it no longer feels completely out-of-left-field as it did - at least upon first reading - in the novel. It’s actually commendable that Snyder was willing to endure fan outrage to make sure the film worked as best as it could, and better for virgin audiences than the squid ever could be; It makes me wish that Snyder had taken a few more chances and changed other things in the film to make the mystery of the mask-killer more effective.

One other minor complaint is regarding Malin Akerman, who plays Laurie Juspeczyk, also known as Silk Spectre II. She isn’t terrible by any means, but she doesn’t add much depth to her character. Similar to Evan Rachel Wood in The Wrestler, her character gains more depth from the other actors around her and their reactions to her than from Akerman herself. I say it’s a minor complaint, because in the end her character still works. But when you’ve got Haley and Wilson knocking it out of the park it would have been nice to see the same from Akerman; especially considering she is the lone female lead.

One area where the faithfulness pays off is Snyder’s insistence on making the film for a hard R-rating. All the intensity and, in some cases, graphic nature of the violence remains in the film. The nudity is there, and in all the same places as the book, and when I say nudity, I mean both female and male. If you‘re looking for a film with many shots of a glowing blue penis, then Watchmen is the film for you. It all goes into helping the film display the extremes in reality as on display in the story. When one character attempts to rape a woman, it is just as violent and horrifying as it should be. There is no holding back in Watchmen, and I think that goes a long way to selling everything that happens as well as the themes and ideas that are being examined.


I suppose that’s the best thing about Watchmen: It’s a film that captures its source almost too faithfully, and it slightly suffers because of that, but it’s also a deep film that sustains much of the narrative and thematic complexity and density as the Alan Moore masterwork. It is unwavering in its tone and it earns its place as one of the most visually enticing comic book films yet. It’s also entertaining and never gives up its pace during the long run time.

I do somewhat question the necessity of the film considering how literal an adaptation it is. I guess there are several answers to my own question is that if you want the whole and proper Watchmen experience, the book is out there for you to read. If you have already read the book and would simply like to relive the story, its characters, and its themes in a shorter and less in-depth manner, the film is an excellent alternative. If you haven’t read the book and don’t intend to I believe the film provides a more than adequate alternative and may actually inspire people to pick up the novel. The film, in my opinion, is solid in its own right and, in that sense, is a success.


It may not be the best possible adaptation of Watchmen, but having heard enough about previous attempts to make the film, Zack Snyder’s Watchmen is probably the best version any fan could have hoped for. In fact, any fan should be pleased with the results of this comic book-come-to-life on the big screen, and I only hope that those who aren’t fans can appreciate it too.

3 comments:

  1. if fans of the comic are too wrapped up in details like the squid to realize how great this film is then they are missing out
    i thought the prison break was much better in the movie than the comic, even without the hallway guard fight
    of course its a movie and you cant have everything like the newsstand and that parallel castaway comic but thats not important when it comes to bringing this story to a wide audience
    they did an amazing job bringing these characters to life
    rorschach especially, haley gave him much more personality
    -evan

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  2. Agreed with the bloke above. They couldn't have fit everything into the movie. They did the best with what was essential in order to make a comprehensive film that preserved the spirit of the comic. In that regard, the movie is very solid.

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