Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Watching The...Well, You Know


Last weekend I saw, er, watched "The Watchmen". Good sport that she is, my lady love, who I will refer to from now on as Future Mrs. NITF, actually agreed to go with me. She knew how I had bought the trade paperback version when I was a young lad of twenty-one and how it rocked my world back then. Needless to say, anyone daring the film version had big shoes to fill.

How did the movie stack up?

I actually enjoyed the movie overall, although it had many flaws and omissions, both in what it left out of the movie and what it left in. As anyone who has watched movies adapted from novels, graphic or otherwise, knows, there are bound to be disappointments with the finished product. Favorite scenes cut out. Changes to the story. Actors who play the role differently than the reader had originally envisioned.

Think of it like going to see your favorite arena rock band, a veteran band with several albums under their belts, like , say, U2 or Radiohead or the Foo Fighters. In the space of a 2 hour concert, you will see the band perform many of its greatest hits along with some rarities, but large chunks of their discographies will go unplayed onstage. Some of those unplayed songs may be your personal favorites. The same can be said of "Watchmen". Director Zach Snyder had the unenviable task of distilling a 12-chapter graphic novel, complete with two or three pages of written articles of exposition accompanying each chapter, into a two hour and forty-five minute movie. So you could expect some missing pieces.

The question you have to ask yourself in both cases is: Was it still worth paying your hard-earned money to see it?

With "Watchmen" the answer is "yes", although I had my share of disappointments.

Many of the book's "greatest hits" were faithfully executed, like the scenes with Dr. Manhattan ending the Viet Nam War, Comedian "policing" the rioters, Rorschach's prison time, and Nite Owl in his basement. As with the best arena rock concerts, the visual effects and scenery were quite stunning, especially Dr. Manhattan's Mars construct and Nite Owl's ship Archimedes (which whet my appetite for a possible but highly unlikely Blue Beetle movie). Snyder handled much of the editing masterfully, particularly with the opening montage detailing the backstory of this alternate Earth's development.

Still, it was far from perfect.The adjective that kept going through my mind about this movie was "truncated". While this may seem like a strange word to describe a nearly-three-hour film, I have to call it like I saw it.

There were parts of the film where Snyder upped the ante on the violence where he didn't need to. Yes, some of artist Dave Gibbons' scenes in the book were bloody, but I swear if I never see a compound fracture in a movie again it will be too soon.

The performances were mostly very strong, and may push many of the previously unknown stars into a higher tax bracket. With his work here as Comedian, former "Grey's Anatomy" and "Supernatural" star Jeffrey Dean Morgan will probably make moviegoers forget about Dead Denny, although he carries over his Papa Winchester character's tendency to look too old or too young for his character's age. (In fairness, though, so does his comics counterpart.) He has a lot of fun with his Edward Blake's contradictions, reveling in his character's amorality but still making him human.

Jackie Earl Haley as Rorschach was a revelation here, especially considering I was mostly familiar with him as Kelly Leek in "Bad News Bears" and from lighthearted coming-of-age movies as "Breaking Away" and "Losin' It". Even fully masked, he provides a strong emotional presence throughout the film, but his best scenes are the ones with his shifting mask off. Looking like a deranged (or more deranged)
Alan Kalter, his face reveals a series of emotional and physical scars, and his scenes with his prison psychiatrist are particularly riveting.

It's hard to review Billy Crudup visually, as his Dr. Manhattan was mostly a CGI creation, but his vocals accurately reflected someone who's increasingly on the outside of humanity, looking in. His performance reminded me a bit of Brent Spiner's Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, which is a high compliment in this case.

Patrick Wilson's Nite-Owl had a lower-key role than either Rorschach, Comedian, or Manhattan, but Wilson nailed the nerdy inventor/hero Dan Dreiberg, who is the most likeable main character. Which made how Snyder misused Nite Owl in the final scenes of the film almost shameful. If you had to include a "Nite-Owl loses his shit" scene in the film, wouldn't it have been better to use the one Moore originally wrote instead of cutting it out and tacking on a new one somewhere else?

But that was nothing compared to the mishandling of Silk Spectre in the film. In the book, she, along with Nite-Owl, is the human center of the story. Her scene with Dr. Manhattan on the moon is the big emotional catharsis of the book. In the movie, it's treated as almost an afterthought. I'm not even sure how to fairly grade Malin Ackerman's performance as Laurie here. She's more natural in her dialogues with Wilson's Dreiberg than in her scenes with the CGI Manhattan, and she handles the fight scenes well. Sure, maybe there were actresses who could have captured Laurie's cynicism or her expressions better, but her character had essentially been gutted before Ackerman had the chance to read her first line. The very fact that her character in the movie is called "Laurie Jupiter" instead of "Laurie Juspeczyk" is testament to this.

While I enjoyed Matthew Goode as Gary Sturgis in "The Lookout", he was a mixed bag as Ozymandias. Goode captured Adrian Veidt's world-weary demeanor and pioneer spirit very effectively, but whoever handled his hair and wardrobe did him a tremendous disservice. Whereas Veidt looked like a confident and stylish philanthropist in the comic, in the movie he looked more like the keyboard player for Duran Duran. Worse, his Ozymandias costume in the movie was so different from the book version that it diluted the impact of the whole "catching the bullet in his hand" scene. While his comic costume was essentially just a pullover shirt and a toga, his suit was so armored up in the movie that he could have probably taken one to the chest point blank. And apparently the tachyon fields at Ozy's fortress were interfering with his American accent, which was flawless in "The Lookout".

Snyder effectively stayed true to artist Gibbons' vision, but at times I wished he'd shown a better understanding of Alan Moore's. There were many frustrating moments about watching this film. For example, Snyder cast veteran sci-fi actor Stephen McHattie delightfully against type as Hollis Mason (the older Nite Owl I), but cut out Mason's big final fight scene (and everything except the opening beer scene for that matter).

Worse, some of the scenes Snyder kept in the movie were edited or changed in a way that seemed to indicate he had missed the whole point of those scenes in the first place.

Most obvious was the scene where Nite Owl is yelling at Rorschach for living off people while insulting them. Snyder omitted the line ("Do you realize how hard it is to be your friend?") which was the whole point of that scene. And considering that Moore's original purpose for including "All Along The Watchtower" was to highlight the line "two riders were approaching", shouldn't the scene in question have included, well, two riders approaching instead of two walkers?

And the scene near the end where Sally was watching "Outer Limits" was left in, but the inside joke behind the scene was left out. (In the comic, Sally's watching the OL episode "The Architects of Fear". Ozymandias' plot had the same idea, tricking warring human governments into thinking they're being attacked by an alien common enemy and forcing them to get along, as the plot of "Architects", which Moore had not seen until after almost completing his script. Thus he added the OL scene with Sally as a "dedication".)

Despite all the flaws, the film was a successful and well-done adaptation of the graphic novel. But without the flaws I mentioned, it could have been a classic.


At 5:11 AM , Blogger Saranga said...

The scenes with Nite Owl in the basement were visually superb, as was Archimedes.
I also agree about Rorscach's performance.
I liked Ozymandias' costume, but until the fight scene I was left confused about if had any actual powers. I'm still confused as to what he can do, in fact about what any of them can do, powers wise, to make them superheroes, but I guess that was explained better in the book?

At 12:11 PM , Blogger notintheface said...

None of them have special powers except Dr. Manhattan. The rest are just highly-trained athletes and fighters, except for Ozymandias, who's an EXTREMELY highly-trained athlete and fighter.

As far as other special skills, Nite Owl is an inventive genius who invented and uses a ton of gadgets. Ozymandias is just a plain all-around genius. And Rorschach is just plain nuts.

How's that?

At 6:02 PM , Blogger Saranga said...

A-ha, that does clear things up! Thanks. I'm pleased to say that I did get that Nite Owl is an inventor guy, whew.
I think I really need to read the book!


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