Thursday, July 23, 2009

Review: In Which I Rewatch the Watchmen.

Fanboys and haters, get down on your knees and shout "save us" so that i can whisper "no". As I see it, there are two camps of negative criticism on Zack Snyder's adaptation of Alan Moore's genre-busting graphic novel Watchmen. In the first, we have the hardcore super fans. In the second: those new to the story. The former argue the film isn't good enough, the latter that it has no soul. Both, as I see it, are missing the point.
Before you doubt me, let me clarify that yes, Watchmen is one of my favorite novels. Yes, I read it long before the film was greenlit. I have the appropriate level of nerd clearance to effectively judge the Watchmen's leap from page to screen. Things were changed, sure. Deal with it. This is true in every adaptation. This is an incredibly complex tale that calls for multiple primary characters, the creation of a very specific universe, large temporal leaps, and its own isolated moral code. Simply put: there's a reason the book was deemed 'unfilmable', but that doesn't mean it wasn't worth trying, even if Moore was overseas hexing the production. For such a tremendous risk, Watchmen is undeniably a success. The execution and attention to detail is phenomenal. Every second looks slick, the editing is fantastic, the characters drawn (for the most part) close to what i always imagined. Jackie Earle Hayley is, for all practical purposes, the exact personification of antihero Rorschach. I buy Matthew Goode's Berlin Bowie-esque interpretation of Ozymandias, who is perhaps the book's vaguest character. I've even found the trace of humanity left in Billy Crudup's monotone-by-necessity voice over for Dr. Manhattan.
This is where debate over the film's soul comes into play. For wary newcomers who found last year's Dark Knight possessed by a bleak worldview, Watchmen sinks further into an uncompromising mire. There's no one holding out for a hero here. The lines between the righteous and the villains are blurred, those with the ability to save humanity are those willing to first destroy it. As I always read it, the story's heart is barely beating. It was a cold text that makes for a colder film. Snyder and company have artfully maintained the calculating sci-fi/noir tone that may have made critics argue they were being kept at a distance. But, wait, isn't that how it should be? How else would one expect masked, discarded, largely jaded vigilantes with stability issues to sound? Do we want to be drawn in, or should we be comfortable being pushed away? There's no positive outlook here. The soul of both the novel and the film can be found in what it reveals about the darker side of human nature. Happy endings are false. The movie version manages this without the squid, an exclusion that's frequently cited as a cause for uproar though it would have likely destroyed the overall believability of the film. Really, a CGI squid would be the Jar Jar Binks of the comic book world.
What's remarkable about this particular adaptation is everything that was painstakingly included. Watchmen is an intensely beautiful film that is clearly a labor of love on Snyder's part. As a companion piece to the book, the film is a visual marvel that will in time be canonized as a work of art in its own right. There's never been a superhero genre film quite like it, and it will likely be years before there's another. As it stands, Watchmen will likely never accumulate the mass culture resonance of mainstream Marvel and DC comic blockbusters, though it's more deserving of rabid fandom than most. It will have to settle for its comparatively small yet militant army of admirers, and in time I see many coming around. Author Alan Moore too should probably suck it up and watch it, he might find something worthwhile.
If the attention to detail was remarkable in the theatrical version, the DVD/Blu-Ray Director's Cut adds enough luster to truly shine. 24-minutes of footage were added to the already epic length of the film, and while it may take a fan to appreciate them, the scenes seem almost vital components to the overall package. Conversations have been extended, the story progression flows more cohesively, newcomers can understand the motivation of the characters, and we are given (most notably) the death of Hollis Mason and some (perhaps) unnecessary brutal violence. This is one of those movies that reveals more with repeat viewings. This second time was a remarkable improvement on an already impressive first, I look forward to the third.
My one complaint? I would have loved to have seen a bit of the soundtrack shaken up in the Director's Cut. Specifically, the use of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" during the sex scene renders it alarmingly laughable. Sort of like, I don't know, last week's episode of "True Blood". There are times when immediately identifiable pop songs color the scenes in ways that detract from the atmosphere. Nena and Simon & Garfunkle just don't carry the necessary darkness that the out-of-context, temporally incohesive Smashing Pumpkins track featured in the trailer did.

4.5 out of 5.

Check out all of Wilde.Dash's reviews and more at Love & Squalor.

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