Sunday, March 08, 2009

Watchmen Definitely Worth Watching

Warning: Spoilers
(spoilage factor: about the same as the basket of fries in the prison caffeteria after Rorschach got finished with it)

It was about as faithful a big-screen adaptation of the comic classic as you're gonna get, and while it wasn't perfect, it was good enough. Good enough to pay full price for an IMAX ticket. Good enough to wait an hour-and-a-half in line on opening night last Friday (with a highschool princess braying behind us in line the whole time - but that's another story). Good enough to see a late showing after a long day of work. "Watchmen" was a damn good movie about good people damned by having to make a compromise to make a damned world a bit better.

The opening sequence (including a shockingly graphic depiction of Kennedy's assasination at the hands of the Comedian) did a good job of laying out the recent history of this alternate world, along with enough glimpses of the backstories of the early superhero pioneers, the Minutemen, as well as the newer generation. It was enough to bring the uninitiated up to speed and let the film get on with its business - killing Eddie Blake and getting on with the unfolding conspiracy.

Overall, the film had the same feel as the comic. Sacrificing a lot of the secondary story lines, narratives and add-ons (although some may argue, and rightfully so, that the stories involving the other characters like the newsman and the comic reader, the psychiatrist, Nite Owl I, the black freighter comic, etc orbiting that of the conspiracy were actually primary storylines in their own right) took away from the depth of the story, but allowed for greater focus on the conspiracy and enabled a slightly faster pacing. I say "slightly" because with all of the flashbacks and the reminiscing conversations, the movie's pace was thoughtful, methodical - which is as it should be. The story's about reconciling the past as much as it is coping with the present and averting or ushering-in the future. Anyone who came to this film looking for a relentless head-banging action piece like "The Increadible Hulk" was blinded by the fact that there are superheroes in the movie. Yeah, these people are costumed vigilantes, but they're people - highly damaged people - first and foremost.

The casting was pretty much spot-on. Jackie Earle Haley was Rorschach and got cheers from the audience with his delivery of the "You're locked up in here with me!" line. Billy Crudup's voice work for Jon was distant, vaguely appologetic, matter-of-fact, and utterly creepy. And Patrick Wilson did a great job as Dan Dreiberg. Wilson had to carry a lot of weight on his shoulders for this role - and I'm not talking about the owl suit. Rorschach may get the ball rolling and let us know what's going down, but he's a complete nut and we, as an audience can't ever really connect with him. Dreiberg, on the other hand, is more-or-less a normal guy and provides the real emotional window to what's going on. Being something of a geek, he's the perfect choice for a character to focus on, given the comic readers and SF fans who make up the primary audience for the movie. Because of this, I was actually a little disappointed that Dreiberg wasn't given more screen time for his backstory (I think it was just a quick throwaway line about liking birds), but, admittedly, his is probably the least interesting of the personal histories. In a way, it's also kind of a-propos that his backstory gets marginalized - as a geek in our society, he's overlooked anyway. But as the film unfolds (as in the comic) we see Dan come into his own and become more confident. If there's anything to nitpick, it's that Wilson didn't pack on enough weight to show off the paunch Dreiberg has in the comic, but that's certainly not a story-killer.

On the subject of nit-picking though, what I didn't think was necessary for the film was the addition of so many concocted scenes with Nixon and his gang. His part is quite minimal in the comic (in fact, I don't recall that his face is ever seen in the comic - or if it is, not for more than a frame or so). It's enough to know that the US and Soviets are squaring off, and if Zack Snyder wanted to ramp-up the tension while staying true to the original story, he could have done so with panic on the streets or more TV newsflashes. Don't get me wrong, I've got no problem with anyone picking on Nixon - it's entirely justified. My issue is with taking up extra screen time with him unnecessarily. Those were minutes that could have shown us something else.

Lastly, there's the end. No doubt many fanboys will complain about the absence of the manufactured giant squid alien and the substitution of Manhattan-esque explosions by Veidt to carry out his scheme to sow unity through mutually-shared fear of the superman. I didn't have a problem with this. It was logical and consistent with the story and with what Veidt was capable of doing. What's problematic about it for me is that it creates in the movie a noticeable departure from Ozymandias' character in the comic. The Adrian Veidt of the comic would not have framed Jon with the attack/disaster/mass-murder because he would have known that Manhattan's repsonse to the fear and hate generated around the world by the explosions would have prompted him to leave for good. And that would be the last thing that Veidt in the comic would have wanted. In the comic, Veidt manouevered the situation to get Jon off Earth, but I never got the sense that he wanted that to be the case permanently. Ozymandias sees (in a way, worships) Jon as his only superior. He wants to learn from Manhattan, to get validation from him. And Adrian's mighty upset that Jon leaves without giving him the answers he wants. It's one of the few times that he displays true humanity (which underscores how different he is from Jon). Movie-Veidt, on the other hand, doesn't have much to say when Manhattan toddles off on his merry way to make some life on the other side of the cosmic tracks. Movie-Veidt is in many ways as inhuman as Jon. Because there's no sense of loss in the film for Ozymandias, his personal victory is total (aside from the need to grow/breed another souped-up kitty). And I think the movie loses something because of that. It's this loss of the final exploration of flawed humanity that's more significant as a weakness of the moive than the lack of the other sub-plots of other characters who have been cut out or minimized.

That being said, "Watchmen" remains a thoughtful and well-crafted story and is certainly worth seeing.
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