Joshua Gizelt (swashbuckler332) wrote,
Joshua Gizelt

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Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?


I have been attempting to organize my thoughts on Watchmen into something relatively coherent. It is very difficult to do so because watching the film was such a very strange experience. What follows is an attempt to make some sense of the chaos in my head regarding this movie.

There is a scene in Tropic Thunder where Cody (Danny McBride) tells Four Leaf (Nick Nolte) that the book he had written was "sort of my Catcher In the Rye." In many way, Watchmen was mine since jailnurse loaned his copy to me in high school. It was a very profound experience for me, and I have read the book fairly often since, I keep discovering new dimensions in it. To date it is the only graphic novel to have won the Hugo Award, and it was chosen by Time in 2005 as one of the "100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present."

I have long been ambivalent about the idea of adapting the book to a film for several reasons. The most obvious is the sheer amount of material in the book. In addition to the breadth of the narrative, in between the twelve chapters (issues) were excerpts from in-story books, sales brochures, magazines, all things that enrich the story, flesh out the characters and, most importantly, fill in this world that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons were creating. I have felt that something like an HBO mini-series might serve the story better, allow it to retain the 'chapter' feeling (which is important as most of the issues are told from a different character's perspective). This was apparently the approach Terry Gilliam would have taken had he continued working on the project.

However, comic book movies are now big business, and so it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that all of the problems in adapting it would be shunted aside in pursuit of that Almighty Dollar. Alan Moore was against it because part of what makes the book so effective is that it is in many ways about the very medium that it is presented in, and removing the story from its graphic novel origins would rob it of much of its context. He was also against it because the previous adaptations of his work sucked big floppy donkey cock, and so it was understandable that he was not excited about the idea of turning what many considered his magnum opus into something like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Well, the Watchmen movie is here, and it for the most part it is a decent film adaptation of the book. Yes, the movie is nowhere near as nuanced as the book is, but that is only to be expected. A true love for the source material is evident in almost every frame of the film and most of the cast are outstanding in their respective roles. With so much that was right about the film, it was all the more infuriating whenever there were things that I did consider to be missteps. Most of these were either deviations from the original story that seemed more perfunctory than sensible, but what is really bizarre is the treatment of violence in the film.

I am not a squeamish person, and it isn't like the original graphic novel doesn't have extremes, but Zack Snyder has a violence fetish. This is not something that can be denied after viewing 300. He just loves to have big crunching sounds when blows connect, he likes to show people doing crazy moves and he lives to slow the film down and savor blood spouting out of broken bodies. His eagerness to present such things means that the violence from the graphic novel is so overdone that it ends up being much, much more brutal than the book ever was.

This hurts the story. There were only five or so guys in the alley that attack Laurie and Dan on the way to Hollis Mason's house, and they are alive following their encounter. Snyder is so excited by the prospect of violence that he turns five guys into an entire street gang, and Laurie and Dan take them apart... almost literally. Blake's attempt on Sally is unnecessarily protracted. People Jon kills don't just disappear, they explode. All this makes it difficult to ascertain exactly what the distinctions between Rorschach or Blake, who kill with aplomb, and the other characters who find them unsavory when this level of carnage is being perpetrated by everybody.

If the whole point of Watchmen is that these are not specially powered people at all — the only metahuman on display is Jon, which is vitally important to the story — using such things as Hong Kong wire fighting techniques in the action sequences and the completely unbelievable level to which the fights are taken make it very difficult to accept that these aren't superheroes. I swear, if it was a plot point that somebody pricked their finger with a pin, Snyder would have shown it close up and in slow motion with a loud sound effect for the impact and squicky noises for the needle's penetration.

I suppose that the adaptation of the point of the conspiracy (I'm not going to discuss it at length here because that would violate my strict no spoilers rule, but it is very different from the book) works on a basic level, but it really doesn't make much sense if you really think about it. On the other hand, I am not sure what would have made it work other than going back to the graphic novel's version, which is admittedly problematic because it requires a whole hell of a lot of backstory, so I'll just say that I see why it was necessary... but feel that it was a problem that could have been solved had enough thought been given to it.

Okay, you've heard me do the obligatory geek bitching. But, as I said, this book was something that was an extremely defining piece of literature for me, and I have to say that with the exception of the problem I have with the way that the violence was handled, any other issues I might have are relatively minor. So, on to the good...

Patrick Wilson makes a fantastic Dreiberg, both as a broken down sad sack pretending not to pine for his glory days and as an excited grown boy playing with his toys again. Jackie Earl Haley absolutely nails Rorschach, capturing the character's isolation and determination. Billy Crudup's Jon is appropriately calm and detached. Jeffrey Dean Morgan actually manages to add a dimension to Blake that isn't as apparent in the graphic novel, a certain level of charm that makes his relationship with Sally even more plausible, whom Carla Gugino is quite excellent at portraying. The use of Matthew Goode recasts Adrian as more of a David Bowie figure, which is an valid interpretation (if, in my opinion, not entirely successful). On the other hand, Malin Ackerman is really the only member of the main cast who doesn't work all that well, clearly having been chosen for her resemblance to Dave Gibbon's drawings of Laurie rather than her acting range. Matt Frewer has a brief role as Moloch, and he is quite effective.

The film looks absolutely gorgeous; Larry Fong's cinematography and Alex McDowell's production design doing an excellent job of evoking the original artwork without slavishly reproducing it. Some of the costumes are a little slicker than their comic book counterparts, but they work in the film. Tyler Bates' score is mostly textural material; at first I was annoyed by the idiom, which seemed a bit too modern for a film set in the 80s, but it was pretty effective in context, with some extremely nice guitar parts. The most striking instrumental musical sequence in the film, however, is an excerpt from Philip Glass' Koyaanisqatsi score. The soundtrack is appropriately supplemented with several extremely well-chosen and utilized songs (okay "99 Luftballoons" as a little silly where it is, but that's just about it). The film is set up by a marvelous title sequence depicting how different this alternate timeline is. It is set to Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changing," which both serves the film thematically and is also a sly reference to the revisions being made to history as displayed on screen.

Most (though of course not all) of the important themes from the graphic novel are here relatively intact, the core of the characters was conveyed, and the tone of the piece was retained. It remains a thought-provoking work in any medium. I had absolutely no issue with anything that was dropped (note that my complaints above were about changes, not omissions) and the film has an excellent pace, especially considering what ground it had to cover.

So there you have it. I have no idea if I achieved the coherency I was hoping for, but that was the good (cast and visuals), the bad (plot variations) and the ugly (treatment of violence) of the film version of Watchmen as perceived by myself on this day the tenth of March in the two thousand ninth year of the common era. If it sounds like I am damning it with faint praise, remember that I am judging it from the perspective of somebody who is very biased. I should also point out that despite my ambivalence about certain aspects of it, I did feel that it rated a second viewing as well.
Tags: bob dylan, cinema, film music, reviews, science fiction, terry gilliam

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