Hurm.

Since the internet is now composed of roughly 23% articles about the Watchmen movie, previews of the Watchmen movie, and reviews of the Watchmen movie (not to mention illegal downloads of the Watchmen movie from some pirate site in Hong Kong), I feel an immense amount of peer pressure to join in the dogpile.

And we all know how peer-influenced I am.  So settle in, beware of spoilers aplenty, and change the tally to 24%.

It's not an exaggeration to say that I've been awaiting this movie for my entire adult life.  The first issue of the Watchmen comic came out in 1986, right about the time I got married.  (I was 23 at the time, so I was already an adult chronologically speaking, but certainly not in terms of attitude.)  Kelly and I were immediately wrapped up in the story, and we greedily gobbled up every one of the first eleven issues as soon as they hit the racks at the Second Foundation bookstore in Chapel Hill. 

When the twelfth issue came out, however, we got to 2F too late: every issue had already been purchased.  It was July of 1987, and we were preparing to leave town to celebrate our anniversary, but we'd have to do so without reading the conclusion of the story.  Our glumness was so palpable that the man behind the counter, our good buddy Kevin J. Maroney (hi, Kevin!) was moved to sell us his personal copy of No. 12 and await the next shipment to replace it--a gesture of generosity I've certainly never forgotten.

But with the story completed, the speculation began: Would it be made into a movie?  Could it be made into a movie?  Remember, this was back in the time when super-hero movies were few and far between, and good super-hero movies were fewer and far betweener.  In 1987, there was... uh... Superman... Superman II... uh... hurm... Despite massive speculation as to casting (Robert Redford as Ozymandias!  Donald Sutherland as Rorschach!), nothing from this time amounted to anything more than rumor.  The commercial success of Batman in 1989 showed that there was a market for super-hero movies, and Batman screenwriter Sam Hamm apparently did put together a Watchmen script soon after its release, but it never went into production.

And honestly it's just as well.  Even if the script had worked, the special-effects capabilities of the period were simply not up to the task of creating a believable Dr. Manhattan, and many of the book's other sequences wouldn't have been easy to duplicate, either.  Not until Jurassic Park (1993) did computer animation reach a reasonably solid level of believability, but by then super-hero movies were back on the way out (and arguably reached their nadir with Batman & Robin in '97), and it wasn't until 2002, when Spider-Man shattered box-office records, that Hollywood felt much incentive to try out a super-hero movie involving Nietzchean philosophy, sexual explicitness, and alternative political history.

But lo, here it is at last.  And for the most part, I'm pretty happy about it.  I feel more or less the way I did about Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies: the film will never replace the source material, so why judge the former according to the latter?  There are certainly elements of the source material that can make for a cracking good time at the multiplex, while any attempt to duplicate the source material perfectly is doomed to failure.  (This is a lesson Chris Columbus should have learned before attempting to direct the first two Harry Potter movies.)  And there were several changes that, in my opinion, helped streamline the film effectively (sort of like Jackson's decision to excise Tom Bombadil from The Fellowship of the Ring) and/or bring out new elements of the story and characters:

*Cutting out the murder of Hollis Mason was fine.  It gives some extra pathos to Dan's character in the book, but it doesn't really advance the plot much.

*Similarly, I'm not sure we missed anything by not having Dan pursued by the police.  It adds a sense of urgency to the book's serial publication, but it's not really necessary to keep us interested in the movie.

*As I think about it, I like changing the critical moment in Rorschach's breakdown.  In the book, he cuffs the murderer to a woodstove and lights the house ablaze; in the movie, Rorschach cuffs him to the stove and, unable to believe taking him in will serve justice, kills the murderer with the same cleaver used on the little girl.  That, to me, seems a far more direct and traumatizing action than the fire-setting; it's easy to believe that a man driven to take such an action would become a total sociopath.

*I missed Bernie and Bernie, but their role in the book is basically to give the attack on New York meaning; we feel the deaths of millions because we've learned to sympathize with these guys over eight issues.  I'm looking forward to seeing what's done with them in the DVD.

*I fully support cutting Tales of the Black Freighter, which was another wonderful way of reiterating the story on another level and in a subtly different medium. (Really, Watchmen is all about recursion; every theme and character is echoed or restated in some way--with the notable exception of Dr. Manhattan, who is of course the single thing that deforms the entire universe.  It's "The Art of the Fugue" rendered in panels.)  Again, that's something I look forward to seeing in related media.

*I liked Adrian allowing Dan to attack and pummel him after the death of Rorschach.  It seemed both an act of condescension and one of penitence: in some ways, Adrian seemed to be saying, he deserved what Dan was giving him, but he was also implying that it was unimportant whether Dan hit him or not, because Adrian had already won.

But since I'm a fanboy, there are of course things I missed in the movie version:

*The loss of the squid meant losing one of my favorite moments in the book: Max Shea and Hira Manish in amorous play in the hold of the ship.  Max's "Nothing, love... nothing's wrong.... hold me" is just a hammer-blow of a panel.  I wish there'd been some way to keep it in the movie.

*The entire Hooded Justice/Captain Metropolis pairing is ignored.  I support the idea from a plot standpoint--lord knows we don't have time to get into the love life of every minor character--but without it, we're left with only two major gay characters, neither of whom gets to be very heroic:  the Silhouette, whose public lesbianism gets her murdered before the opening credits are even done, and Ozymandias.  Sure, nothing's explicit, but the gay subtext couldn't be any more... well, like text.  The man appears in a scene with David Bowie and the Village People, for god's sake.  And sure enough, the homosexual character is the one who ends up committing unspeakable crimes against humanity.  It's as though the filmmakers decided the bad guy might be too appealing--rich, handsome, athletic, brilliant--so they made him gay in order to get the audience to dislike him.  Irritating, and hardly necessary.

There were a few additions to the film that I disliked, including several gratuitous bits of sex and violence.  Fine, you want to have the prisoners go into Rorschach's cell with a power saw instead of a blowtorch.  Why do we need to linger on the sawing through Lawrence's arms?  In the book, Gibbons shows the brutality with a simple cutaway to a shot of Rorschach getting an arterial spurt of blood all over his undershirt.  Similarly, after Dr. Manhattan blows up a couple of gun-toting hoods in Moloch's den--and that's fine, since we're supposed to be doubting, along with Jon, exactly what the morality of his actions might be--why do we need the shot of the intestines splattered onto the ceiling?  The sex scene was simply clumsy.  It's supposed to be crawling with romanticism and beauty and passion (and Billie Holliday, I note pointedly), but instead we get as much R-rated nudity as possible, simulated O-faces, and my least favorite version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." (That'd be Leonard Cohen's version).  Less can be more, folks.

I'm also not sure I like having Dan witness Rorschach's death.  I think it would make it harder for him to keep his mouth shut about Ozy's actions--it would become too personal.

Like most of the reviewers I've seen, I would rank the performances with Jackie Earl Haley's Rorschach at the top, an especially impressive bit of work given that he had to work with a mask on for about 85% of his screen time.  Patrick Wilson's Dan Dreiberg was also good, repressed and tormented and fundamentally decent, but also packing a rather violent alter-ego.  I was back and forth about Billy Crudup's Dr. Manhattan, but part of that may have been the eye makeup; it simply didn't look right on film.  (Most of the other costume changes worked fairly well for me, though I could have done without the rubber nipples on Laurie and Adrian's outfits.) I was largely happy with Jeffery Dean Morgan's Comedian, and he was appropriately burly and blunt, but I did find one moment unconvincing: his dressing-down of Manhattan after getting his face slashed open.  He betrayed no sign of pain (or, alternatively, enough drunkenness to not feel the pain) until after telling Manhattan he didn't really care about people, and it came off as forced.  (I didn't like his scene with Moloch either.) I honestly liked Matthew Goode's Ozymandias, though I thought it was a fundamentally odd bit of casting.  It was odd to see such a wispy actor in the role of the supreme martial artist of his time.

And then there's Malin Akerman, who was sometimes a believable Laurie, at least physically, but who seemed unable to do much beyond looking good in latex and a long brown wig.  She wasn't grotesquely bad, but there was a fundamental emptiness to the performance. She never reached the emotional extremes necessary to counterbalance Jon's preternatural calm.  And when she learned the identity of her father, the response simply wasn't believable.  (Admittedly, the writers didn't help by cutting out the scene where she confronted the Comedian at the charity function--that's largely where we begin to understand her hatred of the man.)

Finally, there's the music.  As I mentioned, I didn't care for "Hallelujah," but I was extremely pleased by the use of "The Times They Are A-Changin'" in the opening credits, and I really dug having the transition from Mars to Antarctica set to Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower."  Kelly didn't like "The Sound of Silence" in the funeral sequence--she thought it was too much.  But my favorite music, which I was hoping they'd use in the film as well as the trailer, was the Philip Glass accompanying Osterman's transformation.  I love the Koyaanisqatsi soundtrack beyond all reason (and what a perfect piece to use in a movie about recursion!), and it was perfect as a counterpoint to the destruction of a man and the creation of a superman in his place--there's "life out of balance" for you.

I know Alan Moore will probably never see it--or at least that's what he says--and though I don't know whether he'd like it or not, I can at least tell him this much:  it was not his creation, but it did his creation proud.  He left his work in the hands of others, which is ultimately what an artist must do, and they didn't drop it.  For that, at least, I'm thankful.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on March 15, 2009 10:11 AM.

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