Friday, March 6, 2009

Watchmen review *some spoilers*

My biggest concern going into Watchmen was that it wouldn't be able to stand on its own as a movie; that--especially due to the density of the source material--it would be too dependent on one being "in the know" to understand what's going on. Thankfully, that wasn't the case, though it'll be awhile before I myself can view it as a movie and not an adaptation. But indeed one of the film's greatest accomplishments is to have transferred Alan Moore's story intact. There were cuts, of course, but the heart of the story is there. One of the best parts for me was the opening credits, a montage of the various Minutemen and their history-changing deeds,deftly establishing in minutes the alternate 1985 the characters inhabit. It's a sequence which allowed Zack Snyder some license to play around with the material and not strictly follow the book.

This is, alas, one of the only parts of the film where such liberty is taken, and it is here that the film's achievement becomes its handicap: its fidelity, long thought impossible, becomes constrictive. For those who have read the book (I did two or three years ago, but I intentionally stayed away leading up to the film's release so I could have a relatively fresh view) there is, storywise, little surprising. Even the dialogue, much of it lifted from Moore's text, feels here stilted, as if the characters (and to only a certain extent the actors) would have been better served by being allowed to break free from their intricately sketched literary counterparts. There is a certain pre-ordained feel that overshadows even the best of the film.

Good thing there is so much done right; Patrick Wilson is the perfect everyman in Dan Dreiberg, and Jackie Hale Earley makes the gravelly voice that feels so weird with Christian Bale's Batman a natural fit for the wounded sociopath Rorschach, especially when the mask comes off. Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan was an inspired choice (one shudders to imagine Joel Silver's suggestion of Arnold Schwarzenneger having become reality). His stoic delivery and demeanor are perfectly suited for a character that views humanity with clinical, but not antisocial, detachment. I was concerned that the score would be one-dimensional, and while perhaps not particularly memorable, it was effective (here's hoping nothing was stolen). The additional use of popular music in the soundtrack, apparently lifted from the lyrics quoted in the chapter endings in the book, spans decades and genres and, together with the afforementioned credits sequence, gives the film a time-spanning feel, with my favorite such sequence, probably my favorite in the entire film PERIOD, probably being Dr. Manhattan's departure to Mars and flashbacks, underscored by a Phillip Glass piece from Koyaanisquatsi. There are certain parts that don't work (Malin Ackerman feels out of her league as Laurie, in the same way Katie Holmes did in Batman Begins), and the script feels somewhat clunky at times. But it's obvious everyone involved with the project gave it their all.

It's all so well done, but again, its conservative take on the material keeps it from greatness. The best adaptations--my friends mentioned Fight Club--take their source material and make something new with it. Because Watchmen is so beloved and so intricate, there is simply no way that it could have made any significant departures, however great, without getting ripped to shreds by the fans. Unfortunately, part of the magic of the original was its deconstruction of the comic book medium (done, for example, in the Curse of the Black Freighter scenes which are wisely jettisoned here; I'm curious as to how they'll be handled on the forthcoming DVD), which could only be done as a comic book. A more interesting direction for the movie to take would have been to examine the now-ubiquitous superhero films in the same manner. But it would have been too much, and maybe an impossible task.

Bringing Watchmen to the screen without sacrificing its story or (much of) its thematic integrity is a Herculean achievement; Alan Moore's works have been poorly served in previous adaptations, and we should all be glad that one has finally gotten the respectful treatment it deserves (V for Vendetta came close, but not close enough). At the same time, though, that very faithfulness blunts the enjoyment for one already familiar with the material. I thought it strange that so many of my friends wanted to read the graphic novel for the first time just before the film came out, and I think my concern was justified: the movie is probably much more enjoyable to the uninitiated, who then have the depths of the book to explore. As a movie, as its own work of art, I must reserve judgment: I've so focused on the adaptation aspect at this point that I can't without subsequent viewings see the movie objectively, and I have a feeling the film will appreciate for me, given enough time. For now, as an adaptation, it feels strangely safe. Yet considering the perils even making the film at all carried with it, this is about the best we could have hoped for.

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