Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Exfanding Your Horizons Watches the Watchmen

Watchmen posterWe watched the Watchmen.

"We" encompasses Alex and my girlfriend and myself. We caught the 6 PM showing on Friday night, and we had bought tickets in advance in the slim chance that it would be sold out. Judging from the crowd, you would have thought that the movie had already been out for a week or two.

But hey, more arm room for us.

Watchmen clocks in at a ponderous 2 hours and 43 minutes; there's sex, strong language, cruelty, gruesome violence, and frequent nudity (as someone pointed out, we see a lot of Dr. *ahem* MANhattan); and the plot may be potentially too intricate for someone unfamiliar with the source material.

Clearly, this film is not for everyone.

Yet, somehow, there were points throughout the entire film where I heard few giggles from somewhere in the back. There were one or two children watching Watchmen, and I would place them at about 3-4 years old. The giggling, little snippets of talking I caught, and an innocent "I love you, Daddy" helped me to arrive at this conclusion. I have no doubt these people followed us from the Renaissance Faire.

Public Service Announcent: Help stimulate the economy. Hire a babysitter.

Everybody's throwing in their two cents about Watchmen, and we succumb easily to peer pressure, so here's what we thought of the film:

Alex's Review

And, no, before you ask, I wasn't one of those people in the back of the theater giggling. I was in the middle/front of the theater. And I did giggle. But only a little. Anybluething, before I start my review of Watchmen, I want to lay my cards on the table.

And, no, I'm not talking Dr. Manhattan style. You're all sick, by the way.

Watchmen castWhat I mean is, I've read Watchmen three times, and I have a sad confession to make. While I enjoyed the book the first time I read it, and I completely understood why it was a watershed moment in the history of comics, I guess I just didn't fall in love with the work the way that so many have over the past twenty-odd years. And I skipped over the supplemental material at the end of each issue, figuring, eh, what's the point?

Then, I read the book again. This time, instead of focusing on the book as a whole, I tried to take it chapter by chapter. And, being that I knew how it all ended, and being that I knew plot points and the really big things in the story, I was able to take a closer look at all the details on the pages and in each and every panel. And I started to get the admiration that others have for the book. But I still didn't read the book excerpts at the end of each issue, because, again, I was all, eh.

But then I sat down about a year later, and I read Watchmen for a third time, this time a chapter a night, with the supplemental material included. And I took the time to pore over every panel, and I tried to soak it all in as best I could in order to see the the smallest details as well as the whole picture.

And I did this in an attempt to find out what Watchmen really is, and why Watchmen has achieved all that it has. And I think I did a pretty good job of it, because I realized that, while there are pictures in Watchmen, and speech bubbles and sound effects, Watchmen is something much more than a comic book. It's something much more than a "deconstruction of the superhero," as so many critics have reverted to calling it.

And that's not to say that it isn't. A deconstruction of the superhero, that is. Because, Watchmen is certainly that.

Rorschach fires a grappling hook gunBut, more significantly to me anyway, Watchmen is a mystery novel, and a science fiction epic, and a philosophical journey, and it happens to be a superhero book that you can buy at a comics shop. What's more, it's a superhero book that me and you can read on the train (that is, if I rode the train) and not get a strange glance from someone clearly confused by the sight of a grown person reading a comic.

Watchmen is literature with pictures, plain and simple.

And, my point in all this (haha, very funny--yes there is a point) is that, Watchmen is a whole bunch of different things; a story with multiple layers and meanings and subplots and minutia.

And that can't be filmed.

It just can't, no matter what anyone says or does. And that's how I went into the film this past Friday (see, I told you it had a point). I said to myself, This is not Watchmen, the graphic novel. This is not Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen. It's not. It's an adaptation of the work, as imagined by Zack Snyder.

And that's exactly what I watched for two hours and forty something minutes. And I really did enjoy it. (Oh, and SPOILER ALERT from here on out.)


Going in, I, like everyone else with even a passing interest in the source material, knew about the changes. No Black Freighter subplot running through the main story, and no alien invasion at the end. Something else to unite the world, but not an alien invasion. And I was fine with both those things, though honestly a little worried about what would replace the alien at the end. As it turned out, I liked the ending of the film, but I won't go so far as to say I preferred it.

And, with the Black Freighter, as important to the story as that is in the comic, I think any reasonable person has to understand that a movie cannot be released in the theaters with a running time over three hours. As it currently stands, Watchmen is about 2:40, with nearly 20 minutes of trailers at the beginning. That's three hours of moviegoers' time, and that's pretty much the ceiling.

That said, I will happily purchase the inevitable Director's Cut, with the Freighter scenes woven into the film. Now, onto what was actually in the film.

From an opening sequence unlike anything I have ever seen in a film before, to Rorschach's gravely, perfect voice, there were many things that the filmmakers got right. Well, okay, probably not if you ask Alan Moore...but I liked them.

I think the things I wasn't thrilled with, like the prolonged sex scene in "Archie" (boy does that sentence sound dirty), and the over-the-top violence, are things most people probably either winced at, or in some cases, even laughed out loud at.

Dr. Manhattan makes people EXPLODEWhereas Watchmen was violent and graphic for a comic book in the mid-1980s, the violence was not as...um...Zack Snyder-ry...as the violence in the film. But, hey, it's a Zack Snyder movie, so I went in expecting some blood and gore.

Okay, so maybe I didn't expect quite so many axes to the head, but still.

I didn't think the frequent, quick shots of violence added anything significant to the fight scenes in any way, other than to get a disgusted reaction from theatergoers. For example, I could have done without the old school Texas Chainsaw-style closeup of a prisoner, sans arms, and the bones of bad guys popping through their skin.

But, just to be contradictory, I have to say, I really enjoyed the long, drawn-out fight sequences, and The Comedian's death scene is a fine example of taking a page or two from the book and translating that into film.

Speaking of staying "true" to the graphic novel, I think the filmmakers did everything possible to do just that, and there were times in the theater where I kept thinking things like, I can't believe they're pulling this off. The scene with Dr. Manhattan on Mars is the perfect example of how to be true to source material. And I don't know about you, but when Rorschach breaks into Nite Owl's home, I felt like I was watching moving panels from the book.

Oh, and Nite Owl--Dan Dreiberg. Wow, did Patrick Wilson pull that role off, or what? He flat-out looked like the Gibbons character, he sounded like I always imagined the character would sound, and for me at least, his performance was a highlight.

Dan Dreiberg is contemplativeAnd then there was Kelly Leak as Rorschach. Bad News Bears jokes aside, Jackie Earle Haley was outstanding. He embodied the role of the psychotic and uncompromising Rorschach completely and utterly, and his performance ranks up there with Heath Ledger's Joker in Dark Knight in terms of his immersion into the character.

If Wilson's Nite Owl was a highlight, then Haley's Rorschach was the highlight. And that part--that character--needs to be the highlight of an adaptation of the graphic novel. In the book, we are introduced to the world of the character by Rorschach, and it is his voice that runs through the entire work. If Haley doesn't pull off Rorschach, then the movie has no hope.

But he did pull it off, and the movie was able to go from there. Actually, I thought everyone involved played their parts well, and I was never taken out of the movie because of a bad performance.

So, in summation (ooh, good word), here's my take. I liked the film. Quite a bit, actually. And I would see it again, and I will definitely be buying the DVD. I guess the only question I have is, is the film accessible to those unfamiliar with the book? I imagine several friends of mine watching the movie, without any clue as to who Alan Moore is, and just completely not getting it. At all.

With that said, the day after I saw the movie, I went out and bought Absolute Watchmen, a book I've had my eyes on for some time. And now I've just started reading Watchmen again, for a fourth time. The movie made me want to return (again) to the source, and I think it's because, as I got to the end of the film, I couldn't help but think, how did they manage to pull this off in a comic book? And I think that is the true legacy of the novel, and why it will always be in print, and in demand.

Anyway, it's time for someone else to talk now.

Nathaniel's Review

Reading the graphic novel was difficult for me. It was masterfully constructed, to be sure, but so dense. So very dense. It was absolutely worthwhile to read, and I did enjoy specific parts here and there, but I can't say I officially enjoyed Watchmen--the amount of effort required to piece together the basics of what was going on, plus the dark nature of the story, are not things that generally appeal to me.

That being said, I was astounded that I not only liked the movie, but that I greatly enjoyed it.

One of the biggest difficulties I had in reading the graphic novel was that there were so many plots running at the same time, and just about all of them seemed to be of equal importance. The film, on the other hand, has a very distinct main plot, and the other stories and plots are skillfully woven into the main plot or into the background--for example, the opening credits sequence covers a great deal of the Minutemen saga while brilliantly setting the scene. I can't even begin to list exactly what was cut and what was very subtly worked in, but I can say that it didn't feel like anything was missing, with the small exception of how Rorschach got his mask.

I was thrilled by how much of the dialogue I recognized, and by how many camera shots were direct translations of panels in the graphic novel. Even with the omissions and changes, I've never seen a movie so faithful to the source material.

Overall, everything was spectacularly done. I had slight qualms about certain aspects of individual characters, but they didn't ruin the movie for me (except maybe the last one or two): Ozymandias didn't look quite as jacked as I had expected; Miss Jupiter could have been a smidge older; Rorschach's gravely voice felt just a tiny bit forced; Frost/Nixon is too fresh in everybody's memory for Watchmen's Nixon to be wholly convincing, and, most lamentably, Dr. Manhattan was not voiced by Issac Hayes.

Ozymandias standing around, looking coolWatchmen's version of Richard NixonStill, the soundtrack and scenery kept the film rooted in the time period, the costumes looked as natural as real-life costumed heroes would ever look, the actors were totally immersed in their characters, and the action sequences were fun, albeit too gory for my taste in several spots. So Alex and I are in agreement that the movie was a little too graphic.

Even so, I think I'd sooner watch the movie again than reread the graphic novel. The movie left out most of the things that I wasn't so fond of in the graphic novel, and I liked the pacing better. I've drawn all of the deeper meaning that I care to out of the graphic novel for now, so at this point I am content to simply be entertained by Watchmen.


That's our take on Watchmen. What's yours?

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