Tuesday, March 10, 2009

I Watched the Watchmen

It was a long time coming, but it may be that we finally got the Watchmen film we've been waiting for.

The question is who exactly the collective "we" is in this sceanrio. It's next to impossible to discuss the movie of Watchmen without connection to the graphic novel. So if "we" is the general comics-loving geek crowd who holds the novel in high regard, then mission accomplished. But if "we" heads into the overly critical looking for the end-all be-all of comic book movies, there may be a little left wanting. Since for many Watchmen is the end-all be-all of graphic novels, in some respects its a no-win scenario.

To get the comics comparisons out of the way, Watchmen as a comic is nigh impossible to translate into film. The comic itself is a meta-driven deconstruction of comics. At minimum, all you're getting into a screenplay is an intricate plot. Screenwriter David Hayter takes a workman's approach into dissecting the novel, and does a surprising job of cramming in all of the relevant details. Here's where we need to get specific in regards to the source material. The character translations are really solid overall, however there were some weights shifted to support the film's narrative. Laurie/Silk Spectre is beefed up almost inversely to how she's marginalized in the book. In turn, I felt Ozymandias was short changed as a result. A fascinating character on paper, Ozymandias on film is telegraphed early on as the misunderstood villain and little else.

The main character, if there could be considered as such, is easily Rorschach. He anchors this film and is best represented throughout. Rorschach is superbly acted and nails the essence of the character. Friends and I even discussed afterwards that even though we already knew the outcome, Rorschach got us emotionally invested to the point of tensing up and lamenting his inevitable fate. Coming in at a close second would be the Comedian, who was the one character I wished had more screen time. Both scene-stealer and one you love to hate, the Comedian is also the one character from the group that outshines his comics counterpart.

Meanwhile Dr. Manhattan is also a major player to the storyline, but it was clearly difficult for Hayter to include him to the extent he is needed. Even tho Dr. Manhattan's storypoints are some of my favorites in the book, the film could have easily done without much of it; leaving more of Dr. Manhattan's origins and motives uncovered may have in turn enhanced his disconnected nature and lead to a more satisfying conclusion. Dr. manhattan's origin seen page-by-page as he skips through time is an amazing read, but just doesn't translate to film in the middle (literally) of a complx, developing story.

Lastly, as in the book, Dan/Night Owl remains a neutral character. He's given alot more action on screen, but basically tows the line throughout. It works pretty well considering the larger-than average cast of focal characters. Especially in a superhero movie where the focus is usually on one person's drive and fetish, here with five Nite Owl hops back and forth between action hero and angsty straight-man without stealing the spotlight.

Moving from the structure of the story to execution, Zack Snyder takes a downright amazing and faithful approach to the source. He captures the visuals of the book and extrapolates them into something we all wanted to see-- in giant, widescreen eye-candy. There are scenes in this movie that are flat out gorgeous, impeccably framed. Additionally the attention to detail is at times hard to believe. If you know what to look for, it's there. Snyder plays out Hayter's difficult script like a pro, winding an abnormal amount of exposition between sweeping panoramics and action set-pieces. Everyone and everything is given their due, which may not have been the best way to go, but no one can say the effort wasn't there.

One of the more surprising aspects of the movie is the one thing the comic does not have: sound. Music cues instantaneously set the era and tones for what's going on. Song choices setting up different scenes range from the odd to the sublime, I had a huge smile when Dan and Laurie's dinner meeting was introduced with "99 Luftballoons." Their eventual love scene may fall into the odd category, but throughout the film the music is noticeable and largely complementary. I tell you it's a strange thing, because after years of reading and re-reading Watchmen, not once did I apply an imaginary soundtrack.

But even more surprising than the new element of sound is the unexpected areas where Watchmen truly shines as a film. I've noted in prior reviews that there is little reason to create a literal translation of a comic book onto film-- it defeats the purpose of both mediums. While it's doubtful a more faithful job could have been done bringing the source to screen, where Watchmen strays from that source is the new stuff of dreams. The original material added to the movie is exceptionally compelling, and each little tidbit left me wanting more. The opening montage alone so beautifully sets up the film's world it's hard to wonder what more could have been lurking around in Hayter and Snyder's imagination as an extrapolation of Watchmen rather than an adaptation. Deviation from the core story seems like a trivial matter when there is an obvious care being taken to get the important stuff right. As for the conclusion, which is most removed from the book's (which I love), it's certainly more plausible in the condensed scope of what's presented. If not a necessity given the intricate sub-plots required to see the original's through.

Even still, the movie runs at a heavy 3 hours, and that was more than I was expecting. The first hour is kind of long in the tooth, and almost spelled doom for the whole shebang. The second hour is more up to par as plot lines begin colliding for the uninitiated, while comics fans sit in disbelief at how much is being crammed onto screen. The third hour is top notch, ramping up to a fevered pace and letting most expectations be paid off in full. But given the skill involved behind the scenes, knowing the source as well as I do, and an inkling of what's needed to shore up a good flic, I believe the opportunity was there to make a tight 2-hour movie that would have been more than gratifying. But Watchmen being "Watchmen," I'm sure there was a looming obligation to deliver what was presented. And really none of that was anything I wouldn't have wanted to see.

Watchmen was one of those movies I thought would never get made. A small part of me wanted to keep it that way, knowing the butchery Hollywood is capable of. But damned if the parties involved pulled of what was once thought impossible, with a level of dedication and plain 'ol entertainment "we" can all be proud of.

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