05 March 2009

At the movies: Watchmen. (warning: elliptical spoilers)


I approached this film with utter dread. I’d enjoyed director Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead, but found his follow-up 300 as painful and expressive as a kidney stone, both ponderously ornate and incredibly stupid. So I’m being up front in the interest of journalistic objectivity when I say that I was terrified of how bad this movie might turn out. It turns out, though, that the surprise is on me, and Snyder’s film of the immortal Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons graphic novel is actually kind of good. It doesn’t succeed on all fronts, and there are a few instances that clang rather than mesh, but on the whole, I’m actually impressed.

It covered all the necessary story points, it moved along breathlessly (its hundred and sixty-odd minutes pretty much flew by), and as far as presenting big budget weirdness up for the masses, it’s as subversive a mainstream film as Oliver Stone’s unfairly-maligned Alexander.

Once again, Moore has had his name kept away from the filmed version of one of his works, which in a way reasserts his authorship praeteritively. These are his characters, and yet they are not. Not completely. But Watchmen, the film, does preserve the dominant tenet of its graphic origins, using a Greco-Roman approach to divinities as its model, rather than the Marvel/DC saints. Rather than emblematic of ideals that humans should aspire to, Moore's heroes are just as flawed and screwed up (alcoholics, sociopaths, exhibitionists, and racists) as humanity is.

Unfolding in an alternate earth, circa 1985, history has played out rather differently than we know it to have done: a 1959 accident resulted in the creation of a superhuman being, codenamed Doctor Manhattan (Billy Crudup), whose near-limitless power changes outcomes and shifts global arrangements around completely. Manhattan’s cosmic power resulted in the immediate end of the Vietnam War, which led to the abolishing of term limits, which brings the film’s world into the beginning of Richard M. Nixon’s fifth term.

Two different groups of costumed adventurers, The Minutemen (circa 1940) and the Watchmen (circa 1970) provide us with the majority of our characters. Messed-up human beings with messed-up lives, these ‘masks’ were diversions for the public, locked away after the late-70s passage of the Keene act, which outlawed costumed adventurers and crimefighters. But now, someone, it seems, is killing off ‘masks,’ and the remaining survivors have to get to the bottom of a mystery that could shred the very fabric of space and time. This is the engine that gets the film going, as we follow the vigilante Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley, of The Bad News Bears and Little Children) as he starts laying out the pieces of the puzzle.

The original work is one of the most seminal graphic novels ever created (though I would put the Frank Miller/Bill Sienkiewicz masterpiece Elektra: Assassin on a similar pedestal), and what makes it onscreen is an inordinate deal of what makes the Moore/Gibbons Watchmen so enduring and special: this is as morally complex a film as von Trier’s Dogville or Tolkin’s The Rapture, and anyone expecting a wham-bam superhero adventure is in for a rude and blue-phallused awakening.

Speaking of that blue phallus, let's talk for a moment about Doctor Manhattan. As far as this film is concerned, Doctor Manhattan is God. And God, busting forth with the power cosmic and the ability to create and annihilate with but a thought, is disinterested with humanity. And it's only by appropriating the ideology of good ol' American Puritanism that humanity can get its act together, which is provocative on several levels. Because it isn't the fire and brimstone dogma so many millions get drilled into their heads, but rather the illusion of that dogma that provides the fulcrum on which society, at least in this film, pivots.

And that leads to an interesting conundrum about the film: there are no regular folks. We get glimpses of the occasional regular folk (including the denizens of the newsstand), and whole craploads of them die in horrible ways, but there's no real human perspective on display here, so that's a mark against this particular adaptation. It's not an insurmountable problem, though.

Flawed as they may be, the Silk Spectre II/Nite Owl II sex scenes, bookending their rescue of what seems like an entire refugee community, get into the psychosis of the need to be a superhero in a more perceptive manner than The Dark Knight. That’s the film that will hang over everyone’s analyses of Watchmen, and it’s an unfair comparison, because The Dark Knight had Heath Ledger’s powder-keg of a Joker, and in Watchmen, the villain is human nature. The Percy Bysshe Shelley quote that adorns a statue during a climactic confrontation is a fitting one, both for our species’ tendencies toward egomania and for the way in which we hope to make a difference- to have it all matter, somehow.

So I have to say, I miss the squid, and Malin Akerman wasn’t really up for what her role called for (though the catty tone many advance reviews have taken with her performance is off-base and unfair). The whole instance of how The Comedian uncovered what he uncovered isn’t really explained at all, nor does it even really matter in the long run, which is also a problem. Jackie Earle Haley is good enough in this that it doesn’t even bother me that they’re considering him for the new Freddy Krueger. Patrick Wilson gets to play a secretly sexy nerd, and Billy Crudup has this amazing zen approach to the proceedings that for some reason make me think back to that immortal line in Almost Famous/Untitled where he proclaims “I am a golden god!” Change that adjective to cerulean, and you’ve got something.

This movie could have been a disaster of epic proportions. Instead, it’s a thematically complex pleasant surprise, and I find myself giving this take on Watchmen the highest compliment I could: it’s good enough that I forgive Zack Snyder for 300.


Ron Lubovich said...

That helps overcome some of the fears I had after reading other critics' assaults on the film.

BTW, I've found a comic writer that you should be reading, if you haven't discovered him yet. Warren Ellis is his name. You should start with Transmetropolitan or Planetary, but The Authority is essentially the late 90's/early '00's version of the Watchmen.

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