Sunday, March 08, 2009

I watch the Watchmen

"The studios are extended gutters and the gutters are full of garbage; the accumulated filth of all their greed will foam up about their waists, and all the studio execs and publicity whores will look up and shout 'make us a sub-par movie with over-rated actors while defiling the source material and compromising integrity for a quick buck', and Zack Snyder will look down and whisper, 'no.'"

While it's very likely this exchange never actually took place, it may as well have, as it's perfectly clear having just seen Watchmen that director Zack Snyder not only lived and breathed this epic comic series (my friend Rich would kill me if I used the term 'graphic novel') during production of this movie, but also refused to buckle under any pressure that may have been applied by the suits to make just another run-of-the-mill blockbuster action flick. The end result of this resolve is a film worthy in every way of the name 'Watchmen', a story long considered to be ultimately unfilmmable. That's not to say that the film is without it's issues; I'd be hardpressed to find any film I couldn't nitpick a few points on, especially when it comes to adaptations. However they're mostly issues born out of necessity; problems that arose because bigger problems needed to be solved, and in this respect I consider them minor at best.

<< This review contains major plot spoilers. If you plan on seeing the film as a Watchmen virgin, enter at your own risk. >>

Before I get started, a word of warning: This film is not for everyone. People who know very little of the Watchmen universe, it's characters, backstories, and the comic may find this film extremely disjointed and very hard to follow. Had I not just recently read the novel, I may have had a very different reaction to the film. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that people who aren't well-versed in the Watchmen universe should avoid it; quite the contrary, by all means book your tickets now, if for any other reason than to whet your appetite enough to want to run to the bookstore to learn more about these fascinating characters and their motivations. Just don't go into it thinking you're getting the full story - the book, having originally been 12 separate issues of a comic, is disjointed enough; add to that the various elements that needed to be cut or condensed to fit into a feature film and you may walk away with a lot of questions.

For those that ARE well versed, you're in for a major treat. It's clear this movie was directed at the fans, but not in an in-your-face kind of way that cheapens many other film adaptations. Although storyboarded directly from the comic panels (there are certain scenes you can literally overlay over the film and not see a difference), it never comes across as forced or out of place. One of the many concerns most people had was how the dialog would come across; whether it would be word-for-word and thus sound like, well, cheesy comic book dialog, or fleshed out enough to keep it from being cringe-worthy. Fortunately the answer is the latter. Most of the key dialog is there verbatim, from Rorschach's journal entries and trademark "hurm" grunt (and no, he doesn't actually SAY 'hurm', much to my delight) to Dr. Manhattans miracle speech on Mars. But it never comes across as a bad audition read; Proof positive that writing is only half the battle, you need good actors to give the words life.

Speaking of actors, it'd be damned near impossible to collect a better cast to play these characters. If you've read every other review of this movie, you know by now that Jackie Earl Haley deserves an Oscar nomination for portraying one of the most fascinating characters ever created on paper, Rorschach. Certain actors were born to play certain roles, and Haley has finally fulfilled his destiny. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is the living embodiment of the Comedian. And Patrick Wilson will have future generations of viewers wondering whether the book was actually illustrated AFTER the film, basing the character of Dan Dreiberg directly off of Wilson's performance. Even the actors other reviewers considered weak links were perfectly cast. I thought Matthew Goode, despite straying the furthest away from his 2-dimensional counterpart, was perfect in the role of Ozymandias. And Malin Akerman did as good a job as Laurie Jupiter as I felt could be done with the limited character she was given.

Which brings me to my only real point of contention which, again, I can't really blame Snyder for. As a point of reference, the Motion Comic DVD release of Watchmen, which is essentially a word -for-word, page-by-page narration of the comic, animated for viewing, is 6 hours long. The feature film is just shy of 3, meaning just about half of the material had to be cut from the book. In most cases the cuts were obvious; the Black Freighter sub-story and the Under the Hood entries, while enjoyable, were unnecessary to the film as a whole. Some, while unfortunate, were acceptable losses given the time restrictions; Rorschach's first visit to the bar looking for Edward's killer, his description of the origin of his mask or the police raid on Dreiberg's apartment failed to make the cut. Still others were combined/condensed to squeeze further. For the most part it works; however things like the Keene Act, Laurie's animosity towards the life she was forced to lead by her mother, Ozymandias' past or Jon's slow journey into apathy for mankind are all glossed over too quickly. If you've read the book it shouldn't matter as much because you already have knowledge of these things and your mind automatically fills in the gaps, but the uninitiated may be left scratching their heads wondering why characters act the way they do. Thankfully rumor has it, as another tribute to Snyder's integrity, the DVD will contain an extended version of the movie, promising to have another hour's worth of footage edited back in. We can only hope some of the character development material, especially Ozymandias, is among it.

Other than that, the only real quibbles I have with the film are the occasional choice of soundtrack song which, although fitting for the time and place, tended to somewhat pull me out of the moment, and the use of ultra-graphic violence, but ONLY when it was ad-libbed; if it was in the book I'm all for it, but the book had enough without showing bones being splintered.

Now for the stuff that worked: Edward's murder was fantastic, he actually puts up a real fight in the movie, which was a treat to watch. Rorschach's capture literally sent chills down my spine, from the moment he realizes he's been duped all the way through to the gut-wrenching "GIVE ME BACK MY FACE!" In fact, let me backtrack and just say pretty much any scene with Rorschach was nothing short of cinematic brilliance. Adrian's (Ozymandias') assassination attempt works so much better in the film than on paper, where he seemed to just push his secretary in the way. And the ending.... oh, the ending. I'm usually not one for changing what is already established, but in this case I support the decision for an altered ending 100%, for the simple reason that it doesn't actually change the outcome of the story, only the mechanic by which that outcome is achieved, and quite frankly works SO much better than the convoluted "Master plan" of the book. Kudos to Snyder for risking the fury of the purists for the sake of a better film for all.

In the end, this is easily one of the best comic adaptations to date, even nudging V for Vendetta off to the side. If you've read the book, go see it now. If you haven't, go see it now, then read the book. It's as simple as that.