Fearful Symmetry

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Worth watching the Watchmen?

Worth watching the Watchmen?

So, this is it then, the film of the famously unfilmable, greatest graphic novel evah; the dark, complex, deep and, above all, adult comic book, Watchmen.

So do we have an equally dark, complex, deep and, above all, adult comic-book movie, then? In some ways, possibly – complex, yes; certainly adult enough to get an ‘18′ rating… but overall, no, not really. But then again I don’t think it was ever really possible.

I’ve written about Watchmen in the past, but for the uninitiated: the comic-book (and film) takes place in an alternate reality where, for several decades, costumed vigilantes have battled costumed criminals. It’s the 1980s and Nixon is sat in the White House, able to extend his presidency past two terms on the back of the single truly super-powered individual in the world, Dr Manhattan – a nude, bright blue, post-human demi-god, the result of a scientific experiment gone wrong, who can control all matter and see past, present and future simultaneously – enabling the US to win Vietnam. But the Cold War has not gone away and the world stands of the brink of nuclear armageddon, and the costumed vigilantes – now officially banned – have either retired or gone underground. Then the Comedian, a super-soldier, is murdered; thrown through the window of his high-rise New York apartment by an unknown assailant. Is a ‘cape-killer’ gunning for the ‘Watchmen’ or is a more subtle and sinister plot in effect?

It’s probably useful to get one particular elephant in the room out of the way first. Or not so much an elephant as a whole but a rather a great stonking elephant’s trunk swinging across the screen, that unavoidably drags the eye to it every second it appears, to the detriment of everything else. Yes, Nixon’s nose is absolutely ridiculous – a cartoonist exaggeration that works on the page but not on the screen. It’s symptomatic of director Synder’s adaptation where by he throws in everything from the source without regard on how it may not be quite appropriate for a different medium. Well, not quite everything, but more of that later. Oh and Dr Manhattan’s great swaying schlong is pretty distracting too.

Though to be honest Manhattan is one of the best parts of the film. For the most part, his appearance on screen is pretty effective as a CGI character, apart from a few moments when he sort of stands out from the screen rather than settling back into the action with the rest of the characters. His times on mars, and the enormous clockwork construction he draws out of the ground there, is particularly effective.

Rorschach, who leads a lot of the action, particularly at the beginning, is also pretty effective but seemed a little too emotional at times, compared to his comics depiction, and having his diary entries as a voice-over did not really work. His ex-partner, Nite Owl, comes over as a bit too dorky, especially when costumed; although ironically his costume is a somewhat cooler version that the original.

The women in the film come over as especially poor interpretation. The second Silk Spectre being reduced to little more than a sex-mad bimbo in crotch-hugging latex/ It’s not really helped by having an actress who does not seem really up to the job but most of her original interesting character traits are just not there – a feisty energy, partially shown via her attempts to give up smoking, is lacking. One scene, where she ends up of triggering the flamethrower in Nite Owl’s flying craft, now just make her look an idiot instead of in the comic when she was just looking for a light to get her nicotine fix. There are a couple of other glitches like this, were cuts have not been properly smoothed out, like the appearance of a genetically altered lynx towards the end with no explanation.

The smoking was cut because the studio put its foot down – only baddies can smoke. They were also – who, apparently, were also responsibly for emasculating from the original graphic novel’s ending the shocking scenes of New York’s streets choked with dead bodies.

The clean lines of the original’s art has been replaced with murky rainy gloom reminiscent of Bladerunner. Which is not really a problem, though Synder is far too keen to press the slo-mo button, using it as an easy option for giving scenes emotion. As to be expected, given his previous work in 300, he’s especially over keen to use it during the action as well. There’s a lot more fight scenes than in the comic. In itself no bad thing in a film, but there’s some pretty lack-luster fight choreography going on here and everyone seems to use the same style, no matter what their background – street-fighter or highly trained martial artist. Also, given that only Manhattan is supposed to be the only true superhuman, the athleticism shown here, with the aid of CGIed-out support rigs and other trickery, really pushes credibility.

The soundtrack has a number of classic songs on it, many that were referenced in the original comic. Some are really effective – the title sequence has a montage showing the history of this reality since the end of WWII back by Dylan’s ‘The Times Are A Changin” which is superb and the short clip of German version of ‘99 Red Balloons’ that crops up later made me smile. Some just seem lazy, though – ‘The Sound Of Silence’ for a funeral, for instance. And some are really bizarre – Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ over a raunchy sex scene, or Hendrix’s ‘All Along The Watchtower’ for an action sequence.

For the most part, Synder sticks very close to the graphic novel; probably too close – pushing out the running time, until you can’t help thinking it would have been better to split the thing into two films or actually do it as a mini-series. He makes some changes, however; especially ramping up the gore and sex -certainly more that what we’ve come to expect for a superhero movie. A couple of these changes actually work, but for the most they just seem wrong. And especially wrong is the ending – where there’s a pretty big diversion from the original. However it’s not as inventive, and after a moment’s thought would not actually work. (And one minor point, but a character’s reaction to another’s death towards the end, was for me literally laughable, killing one of the best points of the original graphic novel.)

It would have better to have a looser shorter but less stodgy interpretation rather one that just tinker around the edges and does not really get the point, but I really don’t think Synder was up to it… he’s a good enough craftsman but he is no artist, let alone a ‘visionary’ as described on the film’s posters. By trying to get it all into a 2+ hour film, Synder only really skims the original’s surface. The buried self-criticism of its genre does not come up here. Cutting out the ‘Tales Of The Black Freighter’ – the comic within the comic and the two Bernies – the Black Freighter’s reader and the newspaper man, cuts the emotional heart out of Watchmen. So we are left with only the intellect, and not much of that. Also much of the depth of the original work came with the ‘Under The Hood’ and other similar sections at the end of each chapter – sections of non-fiction works, autobiographies, reports, essays – that filled out the character’s background and the world they lived in.

There will be a later super-duper version of the film with some of this returned but until we see that then the film is all surface, all style over substance just like Snyder’s previous effort, 300.

So has Watchmen opened the door for similar films; darker, complex, more adult superhero films? Well it seems to be under-performing at the box office… and the earlier, more effective, Dark Knight proved that you don’t actually need all the ultra-violence and ultra-sex to do something interesting, and in fact adult.

Moore has famously disowned all film versions of his work. But this cinematic Watchmen, despite all it’s faults, stick pretty true to the original, it’s pretty and looks flash, shouldn’t we be happy that we have that? And okay The League Of Gentlemen was terrible and From Hell not exactly brilliant but V For Vendetta was a decent action film, right?

No, V, the film didn’t make one single mention of even the word ‘anarchy’ the whole point of the original. And as for Watchmen

The character Rorschach wears a mask. In the comic a continuous shifting arrangement of black and white blobs between two membranes. The black and white, a visual image for him seeing the world only in black and white, right and wrong. In the film it is more cloth-like and the black leeches and smears thought the fabric’s fibers and at the edges we have grey. Not just black and white, but grey. If they can’t even get that right…

A few days before I saw the film version, I re-read the graphic novel in one sitting. Again, I saw things that I’d not seen before… and the one image that was really fixed in my mind this time was one from the ‘Under The Hood’ sections. A man, a practical joker, is sat among all his gags and toys, wearing a pare of fake breasts, surrounded by people laughing at him; but he’s not laughing now, no, he’s crying, bawling his eyes out because he’s just heard his wife’s left him… and he’s just realised that life is one big joke.


Written by Fearful Symmetry

July 25, 2009 at 10:49 am

Posted in Review

Tagged with , , ,

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