Monday, March 9, 2009

Movie Review: In Which Rickey Watches The Watchmen

Maybe it's the inner snob in Rickey speaking, but we're guessing that a lot of folks walked out of this three hour bonanza either completely disgusted or scratching their heads. And that's why Rickey's here to explain it all to you.

The good news for detractors of this movie is that it is the one comic book film you'll see all year that is guaranteed not to spawn a sequel. The property was originally created by a nihilistic British excluse and is famous for it's bleakness and inaccessibility, so naturally, Rickey completely loves it. A line of action figures won't be popping up on store shelves, and it's a safe bet that a Watchmen themed balloon won't be appearing in the Thanksgiving Day Parade this year (although the idea of a gigantic blue inflatable Dr. Manhattan drifting down Broadway is admittedly fun). It is, in essence, a property that defies marketing, however that apparently hasn't stopped Warner Brothers from trying their damndest to prove otherwise.

What's the comic book about? Well, to best answer your question, we must engage in wanton hyperbole. For a comic book enthusiasts (read: geeks. massive raging geeks) like Rickey, "Watchmen" is ground zero for what the genre is capable of. Written between 1986 and 1987, the story revolves around an alternate history of the United States in which masked vigilantism has been outlawed and a nation in steep societal decline edges closer to nuclear war with Russia. Over a twelve issue span, writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons proceeded to deconstruct the entire superhero genre, cog by cog. For a graphic novel, it is surprisingly literate yet unabashedly violent and pulpy. It's an intimate character study that gradually widens to become epic in scale. It is simultaneously rousing yet bleak and somber. Above all, it has an incredible weight and density to it. It is the comic book version of "Moby Dick" and "The Wasteland" combined. And it's a serious shame it wasn't made ten years ago when it might have had a greater impact.

Ten years ago, when a movie like "The Incredibles" hadn't examined the notion of washed up Golden Age superheroes coming out of retirement, or when Chris Nolan's iteration of Batman hadn't delved into the neurosis that drives a man to dress up like an angry night rodent, "Watchmen" would've seemed fresh and inventive. This isn't to say it's a bad movie, it just isn't nearly as good as it could've been given better timing, better acting, and a director who had a firmer grasp of the subject matter.

With the exception of a woefully rushed ending, the script does a solid job of touching all the major events and weaving in all the memorable dialogue from the original graphic novel. The acting is all over the place, ranging from inspired with Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach to downright cringe inducing with Malin Akerman as Laurie Juspeczyk. Also, it's a serious shame when the best actor in the film, Billy Crudup, is relegated to portraying a character like the largely emotionless quantum superhero Dr. Manhattan. It's simultaneously discomforting and awe inspiring to consider that an entire CGI animation team was probably tasked with bringing a certain, ahem, body part of his to life. Fire a few of those guys and the studio would've had plenty of money to devote to casting Tom Cruise as Ozymandias as was originally hinted at, thereby making this movie eminently more entertaining.

Rickey's biggest issue with the film is that Zack Snyder, the director, has absolutely no grasp on how to convey the looming terror of the nuclear brinksmanship depicted in the original graphic novel. He casts aside gravitas for farce in his depiction of a third term Richard Nixon grumpily cowering in an exact replica of the war room from "Dr Strangelove." Snyder devotes his energy to the recreation of elaborate set pieces, which to his credit, do a great job of bringing the panels to life. From a terrific opening credits sequence, to a decaying 1980's Manhattan, to the desolate surface of Mars, to a snowy Antarctica, Snyder proves himself to be adept at glossy facsimile.

The problem is that Snyder is excellent at visual mimicry but unable to give a proper voice to any of the deeper themes from the property. Completely stripped from the movie are Moore's ruminations on the bestial nature of mankind, the hunger for power, the inevitable march of time, and the analysis of the number of events that need to go wrong in one's life in order for them to feel compelled to dress up like a giant moth. What we're left with are one dimensional personas who are as flat and uninteresting as the kind of comic book characters that the original "Watchmen" so brilliantly lampooned.

Most alarming is Snyder's unyielding devotion to shooting elaborate fight scenes showcasing unnecessary wire work and brutal violence which far exceeds anything showcased in the comic book. It's ironic given Alan Moore's distaste for the superhero genre and the violent revenge fantasies that it fosters. While Moore artfully critiqued the genre's tropes, Snyder gleefully traffics in them. It's sad that Snyder has made a mass market movie that fetishizes gory violence rather than depicting its consequences like the original material did. It's sad that most current movie directors don't understand the psychic value of implying or hinting things rather than blatantly depicting them. It's also sad that after feeling compelled to write a paragraph like this, Rickey now suspects that he qualifies for a senior discount at the movie theater.

In the end, maybe it's all about expectations. Maybe a great "Watchmen" movie is impossible to film. Maybe getting nostalgic about a twenty year old celebrated comic book property is slightly unhealthy. This much we can all be assured of: there will be no sequel. We hope.

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Alex L said...

I've heard on the dvd there will be a different longer ending. I heard good things about it, from both reviewers and fans of the comic book so I guess I'll just have to wait and see if I agree with Rickey.

Tom Cruise though... he's in some good movies, but I can't help myself he seems like such a wanker.

Rickey Henderson said...

Go into the movie knowing that the ending on the DVD won't be all that much unlike the original version. Early on, Snyder made a very conscious decision to hold the calamari (so to speak) so Rickey's not sure how different or beneficial director's cut could ever possibly be. Perhaps a not so rushed ending with a bit more exposition would work better however.

Trust Rickey, Cruise as Ozymandias would've worked PERFECTLY for this film. You'll see what Rickey's getting at if you read the original graphic novel. Just imagine him monologuing at the end as a zealous scientologist and you'll see what could've been...

maybe i can help... said...

I agree about Cruise as Ozy. He would have made a perfect self-righteously pious, slightly gay "hero" .

I saw the movie Friday. I agree with pretty much everything you said. I feel like I can't judge this movie because of how much the GN impacted me when I read it almost 20 years ago. That being said, the mere fact that I didn't hate the movie is good enough for me. To expect anything more than that, is unreasonable given the source material.

Adam said...

Spot-on analysis- the director really didn't push the project to its deepest levels of meaning. And even if he didn't screw anything up royally (it was a decent flick, nothing more) it's a shame we didn't get a Nolan-esque Watchmen movie.

Toasty Joe said...

Tom - what do you mean "slightly" gay?

steves said...

This is one of the best reviews I have read on this movie. I haven't seen the movie yet, but have read the graphic novel. I enjoyed it a great deal, but I tend not to develop a a strong emotional attachment to books, so I am not that hard to please (e.g. I like the movie version of Starship Troopers, despite it being nothing like the book).

Rickey's biggest issue with the film is that Zack Snyder, the director, has absolutely no grasp on how to convey the looming terror of the nuclear brinksmanship depicted in the original graphic novel.

I kind of wondered how they would approach this. Most of the younger movie audience probably has a difficult time relating to the nuclear boogeyman. The comic didn't really have to do much to get the reader to understand this, since they had a good understanding of what nuclear war might be like. How do you think a movie of today could pull this off.

coffee said...

I loved they way they bridged different cultural generations throughout the movie, both with content (like the PC) in and with music

Statler said...

Also, the spinning-heavy fight choreography sucked, and the music selections were stupid and jarrying. I think it's a rule that when you have a scene involving Vietnam in the movie, you are not allowed to play All Along The Watchtower at a random, different point. Especially when the Vietnam scene features a watchtower-sized blue dude.

Watchmen also features one of the most prolonged-yet-embarrassing sex scenes I've ever seen, spliced with Rorschach committing horrible acts of violence.