The following review contains big fat spoilers for the movie and original graphic novel.
Jeez. And I thought Dark Knight caused a stir.
After 20 years of dissecting premature announcements, early footage and promising (and damning – the director of 300?) production info, the Watchmen movie finally arrived this past weekend, and it is … not a total disaster. It does some things really well, does other things rather poorly and just kind of putters about all over the place until its hollow ending.
It starts out really well. The opening credits are fantastic in that unlike most opening credits they serve a purpose beyond telling who you the D.P. is. Set to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin'”, a series of “living photographs” detail how the 20th century was affected by the existence of the original superhero team, the Minutemen. The V-J kiss happens between a nurse and the vampy Silhouette, JFK’s assassin turns out to be the cigar-chompin’ Comedian, and “smartest man in the world” Ozymandias hangs out with David Bowie at Studio 54, to name a few tableaus. Coupled with the incredibly visceral fight between Comedian and his masked assailant, it is a superb way to start a Watchmen movie. In the theater, I thought “Okay, movie. You’re off to a fantastic start. Impress me some more.”
And for a (long) while, it did. The Comedian’s murder sets paranoid psychopath Rorschach on a noir-ish path to find out who did it and why, while narrating angry passages from a journal we never see (until the end) in a dystopian New York City complete with Taxi Driver-like squalor. It’s a lot like the book, dark and dreary, with a Blade Runner Lite film score bubbling underneath. It’s quite awesome.
This is when we get our character introductions too, and for the most part each character successfully makes the transition to screen. Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorschach and Billy Crudup’s Jon Ostermann/Dr. Manhattan get top honors for acting circles around everyone else through their masks and special effects, and beyond that they’re just the most fascinating, most fun characters to watch. Patrick Wilson provides the right amount of uncertainty in Dan Dreiburg/Nite Owl II, speaking with a “gosh darn” sort of delivery, hunching over and generally looking like a big, impotent nerd. Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Comedian plays scummy with an air of regret rather well, performing everything in expository flashbacks. Sort of a thankless role as the center of the mystery plot–
oh no d.r manhattan wordpress erased hours and hours of ahrd workd i did. instead of a really well-written, thought-out piece here is what i was able to salvage – some notes and random crap:
Let’s see … Rorschach is a violent psycho, Manhattan is cold and aloof to the plights of humanity, Dan can’t get it up unless he pretends he’s a superhero, Veidt is a stuffed-shirt know-it-all and the Comedian thinks life is but a joke. Watchmen‘s ultra-flawed characters aren’t a reflection of comic book readers are they?
There are only a couple of ladies in the flick. Malin Akerman’s Laurie Jupiter/Silk Spectre II isn’t as awful as other reviews will have you believe. She’s easy on the eyes and most of her delivery is competent. It’s Carla Gugino, as the first Silk Spectre, who is awful. Caked with stupid, unconvincing make-up, warbling out silly old lady nonsense, I couldn’t wait till she was off the screen.
And when was the last time you noticed shoddy make-up in a movie? Considering all the technical lengths the rest of the movie reaches – bones exploding out of elbows, buildings exploding, whole people exploding, explosions exploding – the artists in charge completely forgot about their lesser, human characters. Richard Nixon plays an important role, serving a full-life term in office so the Russkies don’t blow us all to hell. Too bad he looks like Bob Hope with Play-Doh on his nose and he shows up way more than I care for. When Henry Kissinger and Alan Greenspan and a bunch of other historical little cameos show up, it starts to feel pretty corny. Throw in an owl ship jizzing fire and, overlong sex scenes and an overall winking-to-the-audience feel and the whole thing feels like it’s being played for laughs.
Yet that is how the original was and the movie tries and tries to stay so close to the book, so when it veers off in other directions and outright dismisses important details it’s frankly unpleasant. Sometimes the opposite is true too. The much-too-stuffy review at the New Yorker singles out Rorschach’s voice-over, “This awful city, it screams like an abattoir full of retarded children” as something over-the-top. I’m inclined to agree. It’s a line from the book, but hearing it in the movie made me wince. Then the movie defies the book in the next moment, having Rorschach butcher a man with a meat cleaver instead of, ah, humanely burning him to death.
There just isn’t any happy middle ground. The central plot continues faithfully up until the final act when it all turns into something into a retread of The Dark Knight – Doc Manhattan is made out to be a villain and everyone covers up the truth of what really happened. In doing so, the movie completely changes who the original characters are and fails to elicit any sort of meaningful reaction.
First, it’s important to note the violence is incredibly excessive. Some say it’s because the superheroes are so awfully disconnected from the rest of humanity they don’t realize they’re doing more harm than good. In the case of Doc Manhattan obliterating mobsters so we can see their skeletonized arms waving at us, yes, I would agree. In the case of bones breaking out of limbs in slow-motion or limbs getting sawed off by prisoners – that’s shock value. That’s Zack Snyder waving his arm at the audience, reminding us this is his personal mark on Watchmen. Which is unsettling, but fine. What is odd is that despite the blood and guts in the rest of the movie we are left with a flat, sterile, bloodless finale. Something that is meant to be shocking, is not. We are told Ozymandias murders millions of people across the globe, and we see a blue flash of light and bodies defying gravity, but we see a safe, defanged aftermath. We see rubble. A big hole in the ground. It does not compare to the awe and disgust felt upon first looking at the final pages of Watchmen the Book‘s final chapter. The whole movie, for the most part take, takes great pains to be as close to the book as possible — OH, until the last most important moments. That feels like a big fat cop out.
I’ve heard all about how the actual mechanism of the movie’s ending makes more sense than the book’s. Dr. Manhattan leaves Earth in a huff, everyone knows he’s omniscient and omnipotent, he zaps Sodom and Gomorrah, and suddenly the whole world lives in fear of him – rather, in even more fear of him. They feared him to begin with. So, instead of instantly-exploding aliens everyone fears it’s God. I get it, but it’s not nearly as interesting, and when you hold what’s left out of the book in mind – and what’s left in, like Bubastsis, Ozy’s mutant cat (!!) – confusing.
I hope the movie gets people interested in reading the book. I hope it gets them interested in that time period, in those characters, in the music… the movie is more of a companion or “introduction to” Watchmen than a decent adaptation… whole thing reeks of gaudy parody by the end. And again, more moments ring false… Rorschach’s departure and Dan’s subsequent “NOOO!” raises an eyebrow. Is it the editing? The staging?
Why couldn’t genetic engineering be the culprit again? Wouldn’t that be even MORE timely today than it was in 1985? Bubastis, Ozy’s pet is still in the movie … but the squid. No.. didn’t have to be a squid, movie. Could’ve been something else, as long as it was extraterrestrial. Something to unite the entire world against an OTHERWORLDLY menace. Sadly, the blame lies with David Hayter for this one. I understand his post-9/11 concerns and the hokey nature of showing a giant space squid … but the way it is in the movie (which is pretty hokey anyway!) now it just falls flat. Especially when we don’t even SEE the results of Veidt’s plans. Given Synder’s penchant for awful gore to not include it in what used to be a horrifying finale… seems… well, pretty fuckin’ odd!
And no “I DID IT?” That would’ve raised my opinion of the movie a few notches if they included it…
Ozymandias… doesn’t strike nearly as cool as he did on the page. Or sad. In the book he’s left by Doc Manhattan in the end uncertian of his own apocalyptic actions, like a kid looking up to a parent for acceptance. That incredible, revealing moment is gone entirely.
There is good stuff… the prison scene is mostly perfect (notice i use “mostly” a lot for this movie?) Dr. Manhattan’s backstory is as close as the movie gets to perfection – a sequence heartbreaking, wondrous, weird with Billy Crudup’s ghostly voice narrating and Philip Glass’ Koyanisqtaatsi score threatening in the background… can’t stop thinking about it. Or talking about it. It reminds me of Ang Lee’s Hulk. SUCKS at first but then… can’t get it out from under my skin. Just like the original graphic novel. But I can’t separate the graphic novel from the movie enough to keep myself from nit-picking the movie! URRRGGHH.
I should be happy the movie exists at all right? Well.. eh. Glad I saw it, I’m curious what Snyder’s DVD cut will be like but not expecting that much more. Snyder’s got blood and guts and sex and explosions and badassery down pretty well (see: 300, Dawn of the Dead) … everything else? Not so much! The movie’s a curiosity. It won’t endure like the graphic novel, like Dark Knight … I’m really curious what Greengrass would have done.
The movie is merely okay… a very flawed experiment. Which is okayyy. A really flawed artistic experiment than no really flawed artistic experiment… So, go see it. If David Hayter, the screenplay’s writer and Solid Snake himself, is to be believed Watchmen’s success will mean more weird, dark, risky movies will be produceed – like, say, Hayter’s own adaptation of Metal Gear Solid. And that’s a good thing. Hopefully someday someone will make that 12-part HBO special it needs to be. Otherwise, leave it be.