Friday, March 6, 2009

Movie Review: Watchmen

In The Middle Room, we take pride in our reviews. In particular, we are proud that you will not see puns littering our discussion. While we may, from time to time, sink to the such levels in our choice of photos, such comedy ends there.

Likewise, we make it a point to avoid spoilers whenever possible: a movie's plot, we feel, is something the audience should be able to experience for themselves. We see no point in inflating our word count by including a synopsis.

We've brought this up not to boast, but to apologize in advance. Due to the nature of Watchmen, we feel a thorough discussion cannot commence without touching upon the similarities and contrasts between the original work and the adaptation.

Rest assured, however, our boycott of cheap puns shall not be broken.

So, if you've yet to read the comic or see the picture, you may want to stop reading at the close of this paragraph. In the interest of aiding such readers, we will simplify matters for you: if you are able to handle the violence and brutality of the film, Watchmen is a unique, fascinating experience. It is highly recommended viewing, though we need to stress it is not a film for children or the squeamish.

To those who were hoping to be surprised by the conclusion of this review, you also have our heartfelt apologies. Regardless, consider yourselves warned: from here on out, spoilers may appear.

For those of us who are fans of the comic, the very idea of an adaptation boggles the mind. Watchmen is no simple story: it is layered and complex, and it resists simplification. It is important to note that Watchmen, itself, is something of an adaptation: the characters are derived from the heroes of Charlton Comics, purchased in the 80's by DC Comics, then offered to Alan Moore for use in his experiments. Even on the screen, we could see elements of Blue Beetle and The Question in the characters portrayed; a positive sign in our opinion.

The omission of the psychic alien squid from the final chapters is a subject the internet has had months to reflect on. Zack Snyder (iD&Di: .73) has made no secret of this sacrifice, and there has been a great deal of criticism as a result. While the squid's landing remains one of our favorite sequences from the comic, we in The Middle Room do not condemn the director for this choice. In fact, the replacement was handled with such care and thought, we found ourselves commending the decision.

Unfortunately, the scenes around it were not so fortunate. We appreciate that there was a great deal of studio interference, but the final scenes in and around the arctic stronghold of Ozymandias felt rushed. As the director seemed to try and fit as many lines and ideas from the book as possible, the studio seemed to demand a final showdown in which Night Owl explains the flaw in the villain's plan. The result was disjointed and awkward. The comic concluded these interactions by having the other characters yield the moral high ground to Ozymandias. That he'd lost his soul trying to save the world was a revelation for the audience, not the characters, to make. The attempt to explain this directly felt pedantic. It was as though the studio was too scared to leave the viewer in moral uncertainty, so instead they forced a ethical confrontation that defeated the entire point.

As a whole, similar issues plagued much of the movie. Lines were simplified; ideas dumbed down for a wider audience. At the same time, so much was left intact, we suspect those who have yet to read the comic will be lost.

But, make no mistake, the sum of the movie's parts proved greater than the whole. While the entire story could not be adapted perfectly, there was more here to like than we would expect to find in a dozen movies.

Let us start with issue #4, the chapter in which Doctor Manhattan's origin is told outside the boundaries of time. In SF Gospel, Gabriel McKee declares this portion of Watchmen is better than the whole. While we will leave such debate for another time, we gladly admit the chapter is one of our favorites. And, much to our surprise, it was retained nearly in its entirety. This alone represents one of the most impressive adaptations of a work of graphic literature for the screen, and is well worth the price of admission.

The design and set work likewise represent a rare achievement, recreating a fictional world in startling depth and detail. While Watchmen can be compared to many recent films, the most apropos may be Forrest Gump. Watchmen explores a world full of historic figures and events existing beside superheroes and villains. The film blends the real and surreal together into a product that feels entirely organic. From the war room of President Nixon to the nest of Night Owl, there is a startling sense that everything fits together naturally. When Dark Knight received a great deal of attention last summer, we noted that there was something missing. Had Dark Knight incorporated this mixture of comic book elements with a real-world sensibility, it would have succeeded on a level greater than anything we've seen in live action.

The fight scenes likewise left us amazed. These are superhero physics, shown in their entirety. Reality is abandoned from the start, and good riddance: what we see here is the first true recreation of superhuman ability. When these characters move, they do so with more force and determination than exists in this world.

Be warned, however, the consequences of these blows are taken seriously. Truly, this is a brutal film: far more so than the source material, in fact. These are characters who can shatter stone with a punch; bone fares no better. This is a story about the abuse of power, and little is withheld. There are scenes that make Fight Club feel like Tom and Jerry: do not take children to see this movie.

A lot of the comic was omitted or handled so fast it no longer felt like Watchmen. But, for all its faults, it is impossible not to at least respect what was accomplished. The reason the comic works as well as it does is simple: for all the lip service paid to it being a "realistic" appraisal of superheroes existing in our world, the comic really isn't embarrassed at all about the genre and its excesses. It may feel more organic than most comics, but it isn't any more realistic.

This movie left in the depth of comic book absurdity, but never did it fail to take the setting and characters seriously. For that, Zack Snyder has earned our applause. Did he truly succeed in adapting Watchmen as a motion picture? Perhaps not: there is simply too much to capture a film of any reasonable length.

But, as an exploration of the dark side of superheroes, of power without oversight and limit, the film is a complete success. While the comic proved too much to adapt, the film truly succeeds in honoring its themes. What's more, it manages to adapt the concept of a superhero to a degree we've not yet seen in a live action picture.

First and foremost, this was a historical picture. That it charted a fictitious history rather than a real one does not change this fact. Therefore, we will compare it against Forrest Gump, and we find it lacking cohesion and consistency. But there are moments of such brilliance and thought that we can't bare to rate it harshly.

We give Watchmen four stars to Gump's five, though we may someday look back and reassess. We are particularly intrigued by the possibility of an extended edition or director's cut. While the squid may be gone for good, there is a great deal of tuning that could be done to correct many of the movie's problems, particularly if the picture is permitted to run longer. And we cannot help but suspect more footage may have been shot than that which appears.


Anonymous said...

Watchmen is a visual and psychological cornucopia -- definitely worth watching

Erin Snyder said...

Well said, mysterious pusher of caffeinated beverages. Well said.