Sunday, March 8, 2009

On the VERY Big Screen: WATCHMEN (2009)

The local multiplex installed an IMAX screen last fall, so now that a movie I was interested in was finally going to be shown that way, I decided to give the very big screen a try. It was a packed house for the noon show, which opened with an audio-only primer on the wonders of IMAX by a local radio personality, followed by trailers of upcoming IMAX attractions (Harry Potter, Star Trek, Transformers, etc) and a video countdown for the wonders to come. I am forced to note that, during this particular exhibition of the world's optimum viewing experience, picture and sound broke down about halfway through. We were only left in the dark for about 30 seconds, however, and the picture resumed in its proper size and sharpness, "letterboxed" somewhat so that it didn't fill the entire screen.

The picture, of course, is Zack Snyder's interpretation of Alan Moore's famous comic book series of the 1980s. I bought the issues as they appeared way back when, so there was going to be no suspense to the experience except about learning what reporters meant by a change in Ozymandias's big scheme. Without describing it myself, I'll say that I thought the change worked and was, to an extent, an improvement on the original by tightening the focus of the plot. But with the murder-mystery element of the story irrelevant to me, I could focus on Watchmen as a visual experience and an exercise in adaptation.

Many early reviews have described the film as a "too faithful" adaptation of the comics, leading me to fear a repeat of Sin City, but I think that Snyder and his screenwriters mostly lived up to their artistic obligation to adapt the material. There were few attempts to slavishly recreate Dave Gibbons's panels. Certain familiar images are recreated, and much of the dialogue (good and bad) is taken straight from Moore, but the movie team understood that their medium requires a different balance of word and image than a comic book page or panel does. They've been creatively faithful to Moore and Gibbons by making the screen dense with imagery that people will pause their DVDs over well into the future. I suppose it's a challenge already to recall as much as you can of what Ozymandias had playing on his multiple TV screens in his lair (I can only immediately recollect the "Addicted to Love" video and a clip from Fail-Safe). Better still, the adaptors felt free to elaborate on the original, both visually (as in the wonderful opening-credit sequence) and through musical counterpoint (the playing of Nat King Cole's "Unforgettable" during the attack on the Comedian).

Some reviewers have said that the opening credits are the best part of the film, and without disparaging the film as a whole I'm inclined to agree, simply because the novelty of the images and the sometimes shocking variations on familiar moments there can't be matched by the familiar material that follows. Also, while I think Snyder has made a good film, I'm not ready to call him a great director. Maybe the material makes his approach inevitable, but too often he lapses into the banality of swooping epic vistas, as in the Mars sequence (which may be the weakest part of movie and comics alike). On the other hand, basing my perception on his past work, it seems like Snyder most personalized his work by making it much bloodier in parts than the book was -- and Alan Moore is not a squeamish writer. I have no problem with this, because the original is all about questioning the necessity of brutal measures for larger purposes.

And here I have to watch a watchman, or criticize a critic. Anthony Lane did a hatchet job on the movie in The New Yorker, making it clear that he had issues with Alan Moore as an author as well as with his cinematic bastards. Lane is more of a humorist than a critic, and some of his rips on cast and crew are funny even if you disagree. However, Lane's main objection to Moore's work seems to be ideological. Moore believes in breaking eggs to make an omelet. He dares to imagine the necessity of revolutionary violence and terror. If this isn't an absolutely forbidden subject for Lane, he seems to think it should be a restricted one.

"The problem" he writes, "is that Snyder, following Moore, is so insanely aroused by the look of vengeance, and by the stylized application of physical power, that the film ends up twice as fascistic as the forces it wishes to lampoon. The result is perfectly calibrated for its target group: nobody over twenty-five could take any joy from the savagery that is fleshed out onscreen, just as nobody under eighteen should be allowed to witness it."

Lane continues: "Amid those pompous grabs at horror, neither author nor director has much grasp of what genuine, unhyped suffering might be like, or what pity should attend it; they are too busy fussing over the fate of the human race -- a sure sign of metaphysical vulgarity -- to be bothered with lesser plights."

This isn't the place to debate Lane's political premises, but I will suggest to movie blog readers that a movie that can inspire such outrage has to have something going for it. To be honest, though, I've never bought Moore's notion that Ozymandias's plot could achieve the results it does. In fact, it's a good thing that the adaptors chose to set the movie in the year the comics first appeared, 1985, instead of updating it. Because if something like that happened today, do you doubt that there would instantly be millions of people questioning what happened and why, without waiting for Rorschach's journal to serendipitously come to light? For all I know, Watchmen may have primed today's "truthers" to interpret actual traumatic events the way they do. But I can overcome my skepticism enough to approve the movie anyway. Most of its flaws are Moore's (would the "world's smartest man" really have a password to his most secret business files that's so easy to figure out?) or come from failures to adapt the material more thoroughly (the movie screeches to a halt during the Comedian's funeral, where it seems that every attendee has a flashback of him, because that's how it was in the comics). Watchmen is no masterpiece, but it is a solid piece of cinematic sensation that's worth a look -- though I don't really know if the total-immersion IMAX experience really justifies its extra expense. You could just as well watch it on a regular old big screen.

A quick word about the actors. Most are unknowns, none are stars. That always seems like the right way to go with superhero movies unless you have a perfect fit like Robert Downey Jr. for Tony Stark or against-the-grain casting like Michael Keaton as Batman. Jackie Earle Haley probably comes out best in the psycho role of Rorshach, despite being burdened with Moore's pidgin-staccato dialogue, which I always assumed was meant to represent the degeneracy of the "hard-boiled" style (as well as comment on the evolution of Steve Ditko's comic-book heroes from youthful idealists to ruthless avengers). Billy Crudup is poorly served by the decision to render Dr. Manhattan as a motion-captured animation. The actor might not have liked it, but the character would have been better off on screen as a blue-painted man -- or as less realistic looking than the effects team achieved. I can't say the others made a strong impression, but none of them embarrassed themselves. Nor will you embarrass yourselves by giving the film a look.

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One other thing: I know that the song "All Along the Watchtower" is quoted in the comics, but this is one time when Hollywood definitely waited too long to make a film of Watchmen. Because now, how dare these filmmakers use that music in their mere movie? That song belongs to Battlestar Galactica now, frakkers!

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