Saturday, March 7, 2009
Quis Custodiet, and All That
I first read Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen when the book was rereleased for its tenth anniversary. I was sixteen. For a while there in college I'd read the thing over again once a year, around the same time, in Spring. This Spring, the long, not-quite-awaited adaptation of the film came to celluloid at last. I got a chance to see it last night.
The whole Internet must be on about this, a moment of geeky catharsis probably unmatched. Among comics fans--me included--there isn't a book more revered, whose transition to the screen was watched with more scrutiny and anxiety. We nerds are overprotective, and Watchmen is perhaps the one great comic work that has a rightful place as a work of literature (that one comic where Superman fights Muhammed Ali nonwithstanding).
Can a soundtrack doom a film? The book Watchmen, which originally ran in single-issues between September of 1986 and October of 1987, has a lot of history, and in one of the film's best sequences, a lot of that ground is covered in an opening sequence set to Bob Dylan's "The Times, They Are A-Changin'." It's an expansive, effective, beautifully shot scene and for me at least, the song was chosen perfectly. Some of the other song choices? Not so much. Not so much at all. But I'll get to that.
Like I said, the book has a lot of history. It covers about two weeks in a parallel 1985 where guys in tights and at least one man capable of leveling mountains actually did burst on the scene, way back in 1939, and tells the stories of each of these characters through different flashbacks, often giving different points of view to the same event. It's the superhero thought experiment that made the book famous. Superman routinely beats up on bank robbers, mad scientists, and evil aliens, but his world remains the same as ours. Metropolis is more or less New York, and there's no real change to the political landscape that, realistically, you'd expect there to be if some dude who could destroy South Dakota by sneezing was just running around punching the shit out of people.
So it's 1985. Nixon is still President. Vietnam is the 51st state. America has won the arms race, due to having its own superman, Dr. Manhattan, a walking, talking nuclear deterrent who was once a normal guy. All the superheroes have been forced into retirement, save Doctor Manhattan and the Comedian, a brutal nihilist whose murder kicks off the book and the film.
Plot-wise, Zack Snyder's adaptation hits all the right notes. The mystery of who was behind the Comedian's death and the countdown to nuclear confrontation between America and the Soviets is all there, shot ably and beautifully by Snyder, as our heroes come out of retirement to solve a conspiracy that reaches about as high as it gets.
But is it any good? Should you go see this movie? Short answer: kinda, which is better than most of us nerds had any right to expect. If you haven't read the book, though, I'd do that. You'll be way more invested in this three-hour tour if you can read the book, and being a book and not a relentlessly intense action/mystery/superhero picture, the Watchmen graphic novel can be lingered over and puzzled after for as long as you damn well please. So: go read the book. It's good. I promise.
Done? Wicked. Because the long answer as to whether or not this film is any good? That's below.
What the Hell, man? So before, I asked, "can a soundtrack doom a film?" The answer is "You fuckin' betcha." And for me, really, all the problems in this film more or less pivot on this scene, the love scene between Dan and Laurie. Now, normally I'm not against Leonard Cohen, but the use of "Hallelujah" here is just fucking embarrassing. It was cringeworthy and abysmally cheesy at a moment which is supposed to be, well, kind of a hallelujah moment. But it's like 2001, man, how "Thus Spoke Zarathrustra" can't be used in any context anymore that isn't ironic and jokey. That's how this felt. Either that or Snyder had no self-awareness, which seems quite likely given that his two directorial triumphs were basically storyboarded out for him twenty years ago. Not only that, the thing goes on for far too long, but maybe that was just me reacting to the Cohen. It's shot like an action scene, one of my friends pointed out. It's choreographed. It's technical. It made me want to die a little and that's not the reaction I should be getting to the Silk Spectre naked.
The direction here brings up the major problem for the film, which is that Zack Snyder really has only one setting and that's EXXXTREEME! Which is fine for a film like 300, where that's its lifeblood, but here it just doesn't work and in my other least-favorite part of the movie, it completely undermines those same two characters: Dan and Laurie.
There's this bit in the book where Dan and Laurie are ambushed by a group of thugs in an alley. Same in the movie, only in the book it's far, far less violent. See, D & L are supposed to be the sane ones, the two grounded people in this picture. They're meant to be compared favorably to Rorschach, who goes around breaking people's fingers. But here, Dan is breaking somebudy's fucking arm through his skin while Laurie stabs some asshole in the neck and uses him as a human shield. This isn't who these people are. Snyder makes an egregious sacrifice here: he chucks character in the bin in favor of pandering to the people who came to this movie to see 300 II: Blue-Man Boogaloo. (The AV Club referred to them as "Joe Popcorn.")
Speaking of Laurie Juspeczyk, Malin Ackerman, the actress who plays her, is, well, she's not all that good. She looks like the character from the book (in fact, with the exception of Adrian, the visual aspect of the casting is 100%), but her acting is, well, it's just bad. Distractingly bad. As is the acting of Matthew Goode as Ozymandias. He's got "I'm an Evil Wanker" in neon lights above his head through the WHOLE FUCKING FILM. This is a problem. Again, comparisons to the book. In the book it's a huge shocker because Adrian's a nice guy, never a patronising asshole who you're just waiting on to reveal his plan. A quick google reveals Goode's from England, and it shows. If he's trying to hide his Brit accent, he's doing a piss-poor job of it and, let's face it, if you're in an action film and you have a British accent, odds are you're going to try and kill the fuck out of some people.
Goode is incapable of selling Ozymandias, either as a result of piss-poor direction (Snyder's a little like George Lucas. He's there to make sure the visuals are perfect, and God help you if you need acting tips) or because he just feels like he can sleepwalk through this thing and cash a check. This does a huge disservice to the character. Ozzy's whole thing is he's saddled with this unbearable burden, the burden at the core of all superheroes, really. Proactive vs. Reactive.
Like I said, alternate history, right? Thought experiment. What if there were superheroes, alive and well in the real world? Because in comics, Superman never flies to Burma and tears apart the junta, like they oughta be torn apart. Wonder Woman never busts white slavery rings. The Fantastic Four are utterly unconcerned by global famine. Captain America could give a shit about AIDS. This comes back to needing to make comic-book worlds accessible, especially to new buyers (of which there seem to be perishingly few), but in the world of the Watchmen, that's not how we roll. Ozymandias sees the doomsday scenario between the US and the USSR as inevitable, and he's gotta do something about it. And having lived life as a vigilante crime fighter, he's used to this proactive, above-the-law approach. But Goode just can't play ball. He can't do Oz as anything less than an asshole, making his professed guilt ring hollow. It's a shame.
Which isn't to say all the acting is bad. Patrick Wilson is fantastic as Dan Dreiberg, the Nite Owl. He's got the Clark Kent thing nailed down. And Jackie Earl Haley as Rorschach is amazing. For most of the film he's saddled with a face-concealing mask and Alan Moore's purple prose, but when that mask is off, particularly at the film's climax. Haley soars. The man needs to be in more pictures.
Some people didn't care for Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan, but for me that's easily the hardest role to play. He's gotta be off. Manhattan's a guy who is becoming totally disconnected from reality, the way you might slowly forget a dream early in the morning. That's incredibly difficult to do right and not slide into unintentional camp. I think Crudup does pretty well. And speaking of Dr. Manhattan....
Wang. Okay. I said it. Can we move on? This is more a complaint about the audience and not the picture itself, and I'll close out my little diatribe with it. We've all seen naked men. Get over it. Both Manhattan, whose nudity is a symptom of his just not giving a fuck about anything anymore, and later Daniel, who is nude in a scene meant to show him as vulnerable and frightened, have in-film reasons. And yet I get snickers. Come on, people. When it's Malin Ackerman's bare butt, nobody laughs. It'd be par for the cinematic course. But suddenly Patrick Wilson's derriere is yack city? Come on.
All in all, speaking as a fan of the book, this was a better film than it had any right to be. It wasn't perfect, far from it, but there's a visceral thrill of seeing these characters I grew up reading translated on to the big screen which buoys the movie through even the choppiest waters. Plus, I really want an Owlship.