Saturday, March 21, 2009

Watchmen

First off, yes, I normally like to give my posts "cute" titles. Usually too cute by 40% or so. I can understand why Jerry Seinfeld forbade his writers from giving episodes funny titles. It really does distract from working on the content. Truth be told, I've actually got a couple of titles that I'd like to use, but for which I can't come up with any article ideas, not that lack of ideas always stops me from posting.

If I gave this one a cute title, it would probably have to be "I Watched The Watchmen." Thus I would have appeared to join the thousands of hacks who think that level of triteness is funny. Sure, it would mean that I could write for Entertainment Weekly or pretty much any regional newscast, but I'd be forced to abandon the shred of self-respect I sometimes manage to feign.

On to the point. This week my wife and I went to see Watchmen. Not long ago she had asked if I wanted to go see it, and I answered unequivocally, unhesitatingly, and negatively. It was only after reading several thoughtful reviews and discussions that I decided I would be willing to lay down the eighteen dollars for two tickets.

My belief before the reviews started coming out was that Watchmen was essentially unfilmable. The content is so wed to the comics medium that I thought any adaptation doomed to failure. I only half-jokingly suggested that it would probably work about as well as an attempt to make a movie adaptation of a Beatles album.

From this point forward, there will be spoilers, and not just for Watchmen. I discourage you from reading the rest of this article if you plan to read any books, watch any movies or television shows, attend any plays, or listen to any limericks in the future.

Once we paid our ridiculous admission price (it always occurs to me that I could buy the DVD for what it costs us to go to a movie, and that way we wouldn't have to watch it with chattering teenagers), I wandered the lobby a bit and saw the Watchmen movie poster for the first time. What an awful poster. If I had never heard of Watchmen, there's no way I would go to the movie after seeing that poster. It looks like a really bad X-Men knockoff.

Actually, it looks like the promo / first issue cover shot of every Image Comics team book of the nineties, with a group of grimacing people posing and trying to look tough. The standard checklist of characters was used. Mysterious Guy With Full Face Mask, Guy With Gun, Cowled Batman Knockoff, Creepy Glowing Floaty Guy, and Girl With Way More Skin Exposed Than Most Of The Guys were all present and accounted for. Definitely a vintage Image-style shot, which takes us full circle to "really bad X-Men knockoff."

However, that poster also probably fools innocent passersby into expecting a standard super-hero move, which pleases me very much. I'll come back to that.

We settled into our seats, and after I loudly complained all through a commercial, we got some previews. Apparently there's a new Star Trek movie coming out. I need to get in touch with the marketing people at Paramount, because I have a perfect advertising tagline for it:

Star Trek.
If You Care, You're Probably A Virgin.



The next preview was for Mall Cop II. Oh, wait, sorry, it was Seth Rogan's new movie about a mall cop. Observe and Detain or something. I don't remember the title and really couldn't be bothered to look it up. It's ostensibly a comedy, and looks freaking hilarious.

Oh, don't get me wrong, it looks painfully awful. However, I could enjoy it immensely if I watched it with the mindset that it was a grand perverse experiment in uncomedy, in the tradition of Andy Kaufman seeing how long an audience would tolerate him reading The Great Gatsby onstage.

This movie looks like the filmmakers deliberately set up premises that could have led to humourous punchlines, then willfully subverted them by not only not delivering, but by actually veering off in the least funny direction possible. If I watched the movie with that mindset, I'd probably laugh the whole way through it because of the sheer audacity of the experiment and consider everyone involved to be comic geniuses.

On to Watchmen. I'll start with the bottom line. I thought it was very good. If I hadn't read the book, I'd probably think it was great.

I'm not much of a movie reviewer. I'm more of a movie discusser.

The director, Zack Snyder, has been saying on his promo tour that people should watch the movie before reading the book. He's right. Since I'm a longtime comics geek, I'm deeply familiar with the source material and carried a lot of backstory into the theatre. My wife just read the book over the past couple of weeks in preparation for the movie, partly at my suggestion; that may have been a mistake.

Watchmen is definitely not for everyone. It's absolutely not for the kiddies - there's a lot of graphic violence, including an onscreen rape attempt that should make you wince at the very least, visible nipplage, both covered and uncovered (some of the movie takes place in cold locales), and some sex - consensual this time - that's surprisingly vigorous for an R-rated studio release. Oh, yeah, I almost forgot - a big blue computer-generated nuclear penis gets lots of screen time.

A more important warning is called for over the entire movie's tone. It's very, very dark, and unrelentingly bleak. This movie is a study of what it means to be human, and so it takes a long hard look at human nature. The picture isn't pretty. Lord of the Flies is just the tip of the iceberg. Once those kids grow up they can start into the real savagery.

This movie is brutal and unflinching. It amuses me to think of people going in expecting a Spider-Man type feelgood movie and coming out completely shellshocked. Too bad they hadn't waited to release it during summer blockbuster season so that even more innocent passersby could walk by the theatre, think from the poster that they were in for a popcorn movie with plenty of explosions but no ideas, and get completely suckerpunched.

The casting was quite good. There were a few actors in the cast who couldn't quite keep up with the others, and one bit player whose performance I didn't buy at all, but I don't want to dwell too much on the negatives. The big positive was that the actor playing Nite Owl was perfect. That said, a few casting notes are in order.

They didn't go with huge names for the cast. There are a few people in this that you'll recognize, but no budget-busting stunt casting. I generally prefer it that way. I also love to see Matt Frewer, a favourite of mine since his short-lived sitcom, Doctor Doctor, getting work.

I found that a couple of the cast reminded me too much of bigger names. The actor playing Ozymandias constantly reminded me of Seth Green. Not a problem, normally, since I enjoy Seth Green's work. However, Ozymandias represents the pinnacle of human physical and metal perfection. Seth Green strikes me as a very sharp-witted guy, but when I think "perfect human being", he just doesn't come to mind.

Also, the actor playing the Comedian was a dead ringer for Robert Downey Jr., so much that I kept forgetting it wasn't him. This is entirely subjective, of course - I've talked to other viewers who didn't see it at all - but it seemed pretty obvious to me. Again, I like Downey, and he could have capably played the role, so it wasn't a problem.

There were other performance issues that I can't really lay at the feet of the actors - the director, and possibly other people on the production side, have to share the blame. For instance, I found it distracting that Seth Green's - sorry, Ozymandias' - accent came and went at random.

Speaking of things that came and went... boy, there's no delicate way to get into this, so I'll just dive in. When Silk Spectre / Laurie was in costume or civilian clothes, she appeared to, shall we say, amply fill out the top half of her outfit. She wore a low-cut formal outfit for an early dinner scene, and was in danger of spilling out of it at any second. However, when the same character appeared topless later in the movie, well, they weren't so much there anymore. When she got dressed again, they were back. Don't get me wrong, at no point was there anything wrong with the lady's build, but there sure seemed to be some garment-based enhancement going on when she was dressed.

Toward the end of the movie, there's a scene where the character is wearing a snug sweater and appears to have gained twenty pounds, all just a few inches south of her shoulders, since we last saw her in costume. The poor actress then had to deliver a most unfortunate line: "There's something I have to get off my chest." Yeah, I'd guess four inches and two cup sizes worth of padding. That line was the funniest thing by far in the movie (which contains very few laughs, even for cynics).

While we're in that area, Silk Spectre's costume appears to be skintight vinyl, and she doesn't seem to wear anything underneath (at least on the upper half of her body). Chafing must be an issue.

Anyway, let's move on. I apologize for the last three paragraphs, but I'm a guy. I notice these things.

Of course, being a good comics geek, I'm unhappy with some of the changes that were made from the original comics. The first example isn't even an objective change - it's just something done differently than I would have wanted. Jackie Earle Haley does a fine job as Rorschach, but he doesn't deliver some of his lines the way I "hear" them when reading the book. He's too aggressive. In the movie, Rorschach growls and barks many of his lines. Many of his sentences would, if transcribed, end with exclamation points to demonstrate his anger. In the book, at least inside my head, Rorschach delivers virtually all of his speech in a monotone, completely devoid of any affect or emotion.

The best example is when Nite Owl / Dan asked what ever happened to their old partnership. In the movie, Rorschach snaps, "You quit!" An accusation with a definite exclamation point, meant to sting. In the book, the same words are delivered with a period. No emotion, simple statement of fact. Rorschach is not hurt by his old partner's abandonment; he's incapable of feeling anything, for good or bad. This is more devastating in its way, as Dan is again confronted with the fact that he can no longer relate to his former friend. There may not even be anything left inside him to relate to. Another character later mentions, in the book version, that Rorschach's lack of vocal modulation makes her uncomfortable. Having him occasionally raise his voice to make a point misses the point altogether.

That's a change or a different interpretation, though, not necessarily a mistake. At least the filmmakers resisted the temptation to make the line, "Never disposed of sewage with toilet before" into a joke. That line is faithfully delivered with no intonation, so it doesn't come off as a standard Hollywood one-liner. Few filmmakers would have shown that restraint.

Most of the movie used the original comics as a script, with the panels as storyboard. However, there were three changes to the dialogue that really stood out to me, and not in a good way. In all three cases, the original dialogue was better.

First, when Rorshach is telling the psychiatrist about when he made the change from being Walter Kovacs to being only Rorschach, right after killing the kidnapper. In the book he says, "It was Kovacs who closed his eyes. It was Rorschach who opened them again." It's much less poetic in the movie; something along the lines of "Kovacs died that day."

Second, when the thug reaches through the bars of Rorschach's cell and asks, "What have you got?" The response is one of my favourite lines in the book: "Your hands. My perspective." In the movie, it becomes "Your hands. My pleasure." I understand that it saves the average movie viewer from loudly asking what "perspective" means, but it's far weaker dialogue, and borderline nonsensical. He "has his pleasure?" What?

Third, a minor change that harms the flow of a moment. After Veidt explains his plan to Dan and Rorschach and they state the cliche that they'll never let him get away with it, in the book he says, "I did it thirty-five minutes ago." This is one of the great moments in fiction, as the "villain explains his plans, including possible points of failure, to the heroes so they can escape and foil him" trope gets the upset it deserves. Despite what every James Bond movie has taught us, few people would ever be that stupid.

In the movie, a subtle change is made, to "I triggered it thirty-five minutes ago." To my ears, that word change hinders the effectiveness of the sentence. I realize the irony in my preferring a simpler, more succinct wording, but there are times when that's the best way to generate emotional impact. This was one of them. Exact wording matters. It's not unusual for me to spend several minutes deliberating over a word choice before moving on, often while re-reading an article before posting. My wife has often heard, "Which word is funnier in this sentence?" For the sentence under discussion, neither word was funny, but "did" was far better.

Now let's move on to non-dialogue changes. Again, these are not errors, but changes that interested me. The removal of the squid didn't, so unlike far too many nerds I won't be complaining about that.

The ending actually improved on one aspect of the book. In the book, no entirely satisfactory reason is given for Dr. Manhattan deciding to leave Earth. He's bored, and it's shown that he's satisfied that Laurie has moved on from him, but he doesn't really need to leave. The movie gives him a good reason.

The group was never called the "Watchmen" in the book. The reader was left to figure out for themselves the relevance of the question "Who watches the watchmen?" However, as already noted, the average moviegoer is considerably dumber than the average reader. Filmmakers don't have the luxury of assuming that their audience will be capable of thought. So, in order to pacify the masses, things need to be spelled out in movies that the author of a book can leave unsaid. For instance, who the "Watchmen" are.

Second, another removal of subtlety. In the movie, we actually see Roschach looming over Big Picture in the washroom. The book handles the same events more discreetly, and far more effectively.

Snyder also had to change how Rorschach killed the kidnapper. This change was mostly forced upon him. Going with the original method from the book would have lead to charges of ripping off a Mad Max movie, or, far worse, one of the interminable Saw movies. Showing Ozymandias watching a Mad Max movie later on was a nice touch.

The movie indulged one bit of comic book nonsense: the idea that a little domino mask would protect someone's secret identity. Think about it for a second: would you fail to recognize one of your friends if they showed up with a raccoon band around their eyes? The book dismissed this. When Dan and Laurie arrive at the prison, they're able to identify Rorschach by his posture and gait, even though they've never seen him without his mask. That's the way it would actually work. There's more to recognizing other people than their facial features. If you can recognize anyone you know while walking up behind them, before you can see their face, then that person would not be able to fool you by putting on a mask.

Yes, Lois Lane and Commissioner Gordon were idiots.

Believe it or not, this movie actually contains some good theology. Even before seeing it, I had been thinking about an article on "Dr. Manhattan as sermon illustration", based solely on the book. I may still write that up, since I haven't touched on what it would have said in this entry. This one is going to be long enough before it's over.

The foundational fact of Christianity, and one that is largely denied in the modern world, is that we are sinners. Every one of us is prone to commit acts of unspeakable evil when our innermost natures are allowed to run free. The western decline of Christianity is directly due to the rejection of this truth. Until someone realizes and understands that they are a sinner, they will never accept their need for a Saviour.

North American and European society have for some time now rejected this idea in favour of a vague notion that man can create his own utopia. Evil is an aberration, and if everyone would only embrace their inner wonderfulness and chant "Yes we can!", we could solve every problem and create paradise on Earth, and cancer would go away and leave us all alone to sing Kumbayah.

That's a nice idea. It's the foundational belief of what's normally described as "liberalism" these days, and it's certainly what the public educational system seeks to teach our children. The problem is that it has absolutely no basis in reality. Human beings are inherently prone to selfishness, to greed, to violence, to hatred. If you want to fight against those tendencies, which are inherent but not irresistible, you must first acknowledge that they exist. To fail to do so is to lose the battle before it begins.

Watchmen understands this. The Comedian, standing in the middle of a bloody urban battlefield, joyfully proclaims it the realization of the American Dream. Rorschach explains that God can't be blamed for atrocities, because people gleefully perpetrate them quite without His help. The characters largely agree on the fallen nature of man.

They're correct. Human nature is dark, evil, and awful. God offers a way out, and most people reject it then think themselves enlightened for doing so. This is the Gospel. Watchmen is a deeply theological film. I am tempted to call it a deeply Christian film.

Watchmen works on several levels. It is a murder mystery, action movie, sociopolitical commentary, and character study (these are without exception broken people). However, the level that most interests me is its examination of human nature.

The three main characters in the story (as I see it) are Rorschach, Dr. Manhattan, and Ozymandias. Each of them in their own way rejects their membership in mankind, losing sight of or actively abandoning their own humanity. They each move to a different level.

Rorschach sets himself below society, living in the gutters and peering into the darkest corners to hunt down murderers. He interacts with society on the micro level, intimately punishing individual criminals and avenging their insignificant (to larger society) victims. He looks into the world from underneath.

Ozymandias sets himself above the masses, proclaiming himself worthy to sacrifice others for the greater good. He looks down on the world from above. He is the inevitable product of a society that preaches self-esteem to its young. The problem is that the self-esteem taught is usually not tied in any way to merit. Veidt / Ozymandias actually is smart, strong, and capable. His self-image would be fine without any pushing. When someone is capable of actual accomplishment, they don't need constant reassurance. Heaping praise on such an individual results in what we see here - a narcissistic and arrogant god complex.

Dr. Manhattan's separation from humanity is obvious and explicit. He exists on a quantum level, seeing human beings as collections of atoms. At one point he openly states that to him, a living person is no different from a dead one - they're both just arrangements of molecules.

However, before the story ends, all three have made contact with their former selves. Veidt points out that Dr. Manhattan still feels far more human than he even realizes; Veidt manipulated him into washing his hands of Earth. It is significant that Rorschach removes his mask at the end, choosing to die as Walter Kovacs, the man Rorschach had already buried long ago.

Ozymandias himself is a trickier case. I think he was telling the truth when he expressed empathy for his victims ("I've made myself feel every death..."). Others (including my wife) contend that this statement was just more manipulation and he didn't mean a word of it. I think he meant it, but that he has become so detached that his empathy doesn't run very deep. He detached not by choice but because he needed to in order to carry out his plan, which, remember, he sees as necessary to save the world. He honestly sees himself as a hero. A saviour.

The book does a better job of expressing the moral ambiguity of Veidt's actions. He's a more straightforward villain in the movie, not least because his "badness" is telegraphed from early on. I've read online stories of Watchmen newbies spotting him as the villain from his first appearance, standing in front of a nightclub looking arrogant. I believe them. Personally, I probably would have figured it out at his attempted assassination if I hadn't already known. The book shows him as a much nobler, much nicer person, and so it's far more shocking when his plan is revealed.

Anyway, that's probably enough for now. I recommend Watchmen to anyone who hasn't experienced it yet. See the movie first, then read the book, or the movie will suffer by comparison. Be forewarned: both the book and the movie require the audience to think. Hopefully that's a plus, not a minus, to anyone reading this, but I think it explains the movie's sharp second-week dropoff at the box office.


Enough rambling. Here's a picture of a receptacle for soiled linens.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Any movie that requires the audience to think seems to suffer sharp drop offs. The studios, being aware of this don't tend to make many movies that require thought.. No wonder I don't go to many movies anymore.

RebelAngel said...

I don't usually go to the movies to think. But I don't go to be treated like an idiot either.

My movie-going desires usually lean toward escapism. Dark Knight is as dark as I care for my super hero movies to get. Well, I liked The Crow, too, so I am not really sure which of those wins as The Most Dark.

I believe I will give Watchmen a pass. I don't think I would enjoy it.

I don't actually mind movies that make you think. I can even deal with the occasional sad ending. I just can't deal with an overabundance of nihilism, even when I do get to see a glowing penis on the big screen.

However, lest you lose all respect for me, you should know, I don't go see mall cop movies either.

Anonymous said...

I like movies that are real spectacles. If they ever make a movie about eyeglasses, I'll be there on opening day.

TB