Monday, March 09, 2009
Who's Watching the Watchmen?
I tend to read books visually, trying to imagine how a movie could be made from the words that I'm reading. In some cases, I can see pretty easily how a movie could be made. In other cases, it seems next to impossible. In the case of The Watchmen, a book I LOVED, I couldn't figure out how they could adapt the book in less than 15 hours. The pirate story alone would be a tough one. But when the trailers starting popping up for the feature film of The Watchmen, I was thrilled beyond words. Doc Manhattan looked amazing, The Comedian was awesome, and the actual look of Alan Moore's rendition of America in 1985 was true to the illustrations in the novel. I couldn't wait.
[WARNING: This review will contain some spoilers for the book and the movie.] Last night I went to see it, and I wasn't disappointed. I'll be interested to see what the hardcore fans of the graphic novel, who have devoured it dozens of times, thought of Snyder's adaptation of the book, but I thought it was beautifully done. For me, the movie would hinge on the success of a single character: Rorschach. And Jackie Earle Haley, most recently known for his Oscar-nominated turn as a child molester in "Little Children" (and not known RECENTLY for anything else, since he was a child star who disappeared for ages before this film), is PERFECT. He portrays the morally ambiguous man who denies his very self -- his mask is his "face," and even it is an ever-changing inkblot, and he never uses personal nouns and pronouns like I, me, or my, as if they don't exist to him. His interpretation of the character was amazing, from Kovacs' underlying seething rage to his annoyed, "Hurm," that he mutters throughout the book. I loved him.
I thought Patrick Wilson's Dan Dreiberg was also great. In the book, there are panels where he's quite dashing, and in the very next one he's schlubby. Wilson somehow managed to convey that, though thankfully, he wasn't quite as schlubby as he is in the comic. The Silk Spectre was good (her lines were delivered in a bit of a stilted way, but considering she's a little flat in the book, too, I didn't mind) and had that square-jawed face like the illustration, without the masculinity that's always been part of the drawing of that character.
LOVED The Comedian. Jeffrey Dean Morgan gives him the cigar-chomping awfulness, and Snyder stayed extremely faithful to every panel that we see the Comedian in, whether he's committing personal atrocities in Vietnam or leaping out of Archimedes to blow away a group of protesters.
I wish we'd seen a little bit more of Hollis Mason (not just because I loved the character in the book, which I did, but also because the Canadian actor, Stephen McHattie, who portrayed him, is the star of Pontypool, a Bruce McDonald film that also opened this weekend and was similarly fantastic). But I don't think the film loses too much by denying us Dreiberg's repeated visits to him. I was surprised it didn't reveal his vicious murder, however. I kept waiting for that to happen.
Moloch was well done by Matt Frewer (I'm about to reveal my age here, but I can't look at him without thinking of Max Headroom). Adrian Veidt was played by Matthew Goode, an actor I wasn't particularly familiar with, but I thought he was pretty good, too. I found it a little strange that his accent kept flipping from American to British to... something... but I think it added to the distance we sort of have from Veidt, not being able to nail down any sort of distinct origin for him. (It's been a little bit since I've read the book, and I remember Bubastis being red... was I remembering that incorrectly? She's blue in the film. Maybe her colour changes throughout... now I can't remember... in any case, I thought the cat was beautiful, and exactly the way she's supposed to look.)
And then there's Doc Manhattan. I always pictured him to be a quiet speaker, detached, speaking in a bit of a monotone, saying something colossal as if it were nothing, and Billy Crudup did exactly that. Doc Manhattan was stunning.
Speaking of stunning, the look of this movie is enough to fall in love with it. I could have watched it on Mute and would have still been impressed. Manhattan's crystal palace on Mars... that scene of Veidt sitting before the bank of televisions with Bubastis by his side... Archimedes rising above New York... it was shot-for-shot.
So what's missing? The pirate story is gone (it WAS filmed, however, and will be appearing on a separate DVD). The newspaper salesman and the kid reading the pirate comic aren't throughout the film, though they do appear right before the apocalypse. The doctor who is psychoanalyzing Kovacs in prison plays a much smaller role, and isn't nearly as sympathetic as he is in the book. There's quite a bit missing from the book, but it's SO multi-layered, pulling out several of those layers and focusing on just the most important ones was essential. The actual Veidt-engineered apocalypse was changed completely... that giant alien squid was gone, and was instead replaced by a blue ball of energy not unlike the one that surrounds Manhattan and Spectre when they're on Mars. And, hopefully without incurring the wrath of any of my readers, I kinda liked the movie version more. It just made more sense, and seemed like something that would have been immediately blamed on Manhattan, whereas the alien thing was just... yeah.
There were things I didn't like about the film. First, someone needs to throw that music supervisor into a prison cell with Rorschach for a minute. What a huge disappointment that was. It was like the only requirement was to find the MOST OBVIOUS song for each scene and throw it in there. So to show the opening montage about how much the times have changed, they play The Times Are A-Changing. As Rorschach and Nite Owl approach Veidt's Antarctica castle, we hear All Along the Watchtower, because, you know... two riders are approaching. (Sigh.) As the world dies, we hear Mozart's Requiem. And, just in case you were worried this movie was set in 1967 and not 1985, we hear "99 Luftballoons" at one point (which, sorry, now I can only picture as a German lullaby that Liz Lemon's grandmother sang to her). The music was a massive disappointment, and required sublety to counteract the huge things happening on screen. (Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" during a sex scene between Owl and Spectre... seriously??) It's not like they had to try very hard: Alan Moore references Elvis Costello, John Cale, and numerous other singers and songs throughout the book... so stick with those.
I didn't like the look of Sally Jupiter. In the 1940s, she has her hair coiffed in the up-do that was all the rage at the time. In the 1980s, her hair is white, but still styled exactly the same way because Sally has never stopped being the original Silk Spectre. She will always be sitting in one spot, nostalgic for who she used to be. In the film, they updated her hairdo, which was entirely out of character (and she looked like she lived in a weird split-level ranch, not a retirement home).
In the book, Rorschach dies alone. It's a devastating moment that only Jon sees (and commits) but in the movie, his death is punctuated by the long "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO" from Nite Owl. I thought it should have been left a little more desolate, with Dan not knowing what happened to Rorschach.
But these are relatively minor quibbles with an otherwise stunning film. At two hours and 45 minutes, it never actually felt like it was dragging. And there's a scene where Spectre and Nite Owl come charging into the prison where Kovacs is being held, and the film turns it into an exhilarating scene that rivals the spectacle of Neo and Trinity entering the building near the end of the Matrix in a hail of gunfire and acrobatics. My heart was racing during this scene. In fact, everything to do with the prison was the best part of this film, from Rorschach's curt putdowns ("Tall order." "Fat chance.") to the best line in the film, delivered in the cafeteria, to Rorschach's extraction. Brilliant.
A friend of mine is a film critic who emails me after he's seen screeners, and I generally agree with his quickie reviews of whether or not I should see it. But in the case of The Watchmen, he told me that he didn't read the book because he wanted to know if a person could understand the film without having done so. His conclusion? Absolutely not. This is a film for the readers of the book.
I'm not sure I agree with that. Of course, it's hard to say, since I did read the book, but my husband only read the first half of the book and he seemed to follow the movie okay.
But I want to hear from you. Are you a diehard fan of the book? What did you think? Did you like the changes Zack Snyder made? Do you think the stuff left out was okay being gone? Or are you someone who never read the book and went to see the film? Were you able to follow it? Did you like it? I'm eager to hear what other people are saying about this movie.