Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Watchmen Review

Overall Grade: C+

Along with being the first “Event” film of the year, Watchmen is the first film that I have seen all year that seems curiously unaware of what it really wants to be. Taken, Paul Blart, Coraline, The International, and even Push, all knew exactly what they were and weren’t and delivered a movie accordingly. Much like last year’s Wall*E and Hancock, Watchmen attempts to be more than one thing, in fact it tries out several genres, numerous tones, and attempts to appeal to nearly all crowds. Like in the worst politicians, this desire to appeal to everyone usually leads to a weakened effort without any singular focus, and Watchmen suffers the same fate.

Watchmen is a generally faithful cinematic adaptation of the graphic novel of the same name, and therein lies its main problem. The original graphic novel is a sprawling canvas with a large cast of characters (all with the requisite back story), multiple points of view, several side stories, and a primarily cerebral payoff. This absolutely works for the graphic novel, but translating it to the screen is difficult, because it requires Translation, something for which the director (Zack Snyder) and writers did not seem willing to do. I would think that a director like Alfonso Cuaron, someone who is willing to translate literature into cinema (look at Prisoner of Azkaban and Children of Men), would have been better suited for this. What you may ask did they get right?

The first fifteen minutes of Watchmen featuring the murder of the comedian and the opening credits (with great use of Bob Dylan’s “The Times Are Changing”) are incredible and rival anything else I have seen so far this year. As an introduction to the central plotline and to the Watchmen universe, these opening fifteen minutes are the most creative, informative, and efficient scenes of the entire film. Along with the fidelity to the source material of Watchmen, came fidelity to the look of the graphic novel, and this is where Watchmen truly shines. The art department and camera crews have perfectly captured the look and texture of the novel, and outside of the first fifteen minutes (and Jackie Earl Haley’s performance of Rorschach), the only unconditional successes of the film.

Thankfully, Zach Snyder did cut many of the side stories found in the novel (the paper vendor and the Black Freighter storylines seem perfectly made for DVD extras), however he failed to find any adequate answer for telling the back stories of our main characters without losing the momentum begun in those opening fifteen minutes. In fact, investigating the murder of the comedian (which should have been the central focus of the film, perhaps with Rorschach as the sole point of view) and the present time storyline merely felt like necessary evils in order to get to the momentum halting back story. This is where creative translation would’ve helped this film truly become a compelling and involving story, rather than a checklist of needed sequences.


Which brings me to the biggest problem of the film, the themes. The central theme and purpose of the story is in demythologizing our Watchmen superheroes. In your typical superhero story, its assumed that the superhero is not only there to do the right thing, but that he ultimately knows what the “right” thing to do is and has the power to make it happen. They operate as the saviors of mankind. Our Watchmen hero’s operate as the destroyers of mankind.

In the world of the Watchmen, everyone does what is right in their own eyes, even the superheroes. The Watchmen are just as miserable, evil, corrupt, and wrong minded as the people they are trying to save, just with some special powers. In fact, the Watchmen don’t even agree as to what is “right” and what “justice” really is. It’s a worthy message that is unfortunately undercut by one of the few translation decisions Snyder decides to curse Watchmen with. Why create a story that attempts to demythologize superheroes if Snyder is going to create an action style that immediately works against it? Instead of portraying fallible heroes going too far in violence, getting bruised, and seen in silly costumes, we are treated to superheroes that are shown in a “cool” light, striking poses, beating up bad guys in stylish and amazing fashion complete with incredible slo-motion camera work. I shouldn’t cheer with excitement when one of our heroes causes prison riots, kills and maims several inmates, and is ultimately busted out in an action scene that would be better suited to Arnold Schwarzenegger.

By trying to please the action and superhero crowd with whiz bang action scenes, Snyder undoes the main reason for the film in the first place. There are more thematic problems as well, including the attempt to posit objective values in a completely nihilistic world. Doctor Manhattan’s struggle to care for human beings in a nihilistic world is cheaply cut off by an illogical argument the film makes about unlikely events and miracles. If your gonna have a nihilistic world, then embrace it, but don’t try and wrap a nice objective moral on the film by the end. Again, one has to think that Snyder wanted the film to appeal beyond its pessimistic and cynical themes, and so he pulls the same act that Spielberg pulled in War of the Worlds (thankfully Spielberg had the guts to end Munich with the moral confusion and frustration it deserved).

I could go on about the films second and third act problems, but I honestly don’t want to pick on it. If you’ve read this far into the review then I think you are getting the idea of how I feel about the film. As I said at the beginning, the desire to appeal to everyone usually leads to a weakened effort without any singular focus. Watchmen is like a politician who tells you that all politicians are corrupt, given to mistakes, and are prone to ruin everything they touch, and he’s just the politician to turn it around; inherent contradiction. I didn’t vote for it in November and it doesn’t get my vote now.

2 comments:

micahmcmillan said...

Thanks for the review Kyle. I think you are a little harsh of the "miracles" element to Dr. Manhattan's otherwise nihilistic world view--this is how the graphic novel resolves Dr. Manhattan's feelings toward life. So maybe there wasn't time to fully develop the process of how Dr. Manhattan is persuaded to move from nihilism to all-life-is-a-miracle, but it's nevertheless faithful to the source material.

Kyle Leaman said...

Thanks for the comment Micah. I only wrote a line or two about it in the review, but Dr. Manhattan's resolution about humanities value has taken up about 75% of all discussions I've had about the film, and its my biggest fustration in the graphic novel and in the film as well. I don't mind a nihilistic film, and I think Watchmen does a good job of basically selling this world. But its reasoning for humanities objective value (the one that Manhattan buys into - and is confirmed at the end of the film by Silk Spectre's mom), is ludicrous in the face of a nihilistic world.

Its a philisophical point yes, but I didn't buy that motivation in the book and I thought it flopped in the film as well.