Friday, March 6, 2009

Watchmen - review

My latest review for NBR:

A little over 20 years ago, the comics industry was revolutionized by two graphic novels: Dark Knight and Watchmen. Hollywood has taken a while to catch up, but now the film version of Watchmen has arrived, just a little after Dark Knight hit the screens to much critical acclaim. In the comics industry, Watchmen, written by Alan Moore, is generally considered to be the cream of the crop. I suspect that, for moviegoers, Dark Knight will remain the pinnacle among superhero films for a while. But director Zack Snyder has made Watchmen into an intriguing addition to the genre, providing enough visual flair to help bring the original novel convincingly to life.

Let me start with the most impressive moment: the opening credits. Snyder uses freeze frames and slow motion to go through the history of the Watchmen from the 40’s through the 80’s, the decade in which this alternate history is placed. It is a brilliant use of film that gives a tip of the hat to the comics medium, while quickly and clearly telling a story. It is also a sequence that is not at all dependent on good acting, of course, an area the film gets mired in once it begins in earnest.

The intro leads to a dark story about a superhero, The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who is brutally murdered and an old companion, Rorschach (played by Jackie Earle Hailey behind an ever shifting inkblot mask), who is trying to track down his killer. Rorschach becomes convinced that somebody is out to kill former superheroes, who for the most part have been outlawed as vigilantes by something called the Kaine Act. He decides to track down his old companions and warn them. Among those companions are Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), a Batman lookalike; Doctor Manhattan (Billy Crudup), a human embodiment of quantum mechanics; Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), a genius; and Silk Spectre (Malin Ackerman) a—well, in the context of the film, a love interest.

Snyder clearly loves the original text and references the original artist Dave Gibbons on more than one occasion. In fact, one can spot among the graffiti on the walls the occasional “G,” Dave Gibbons’ signature and seal of approval. Moore is less approving – he has declared he will not see the movie, at all. But Snyder’s affection is unabated, and the screenplay by David Hayter and Alex Tse does a convincing job of boiling down the original while remaining true to it.

What was revolutionary about the graphic novel is that it looked at these superheroes and imagined who these people really would be—flawed humans all, except perhaps Doctor Manhattan, who has left most of his humanity behind. The movie does the same, though sometimes the balance between self-referential humor and drama skews the message a little, making for a movie that can be inconsistent in tone. The music often works as ironic commentary, sometimes referencing other movies—as when the “Ride of the Valkyries” plays while a 10 foot tall Doctor Manhattan vaporizes terrified Vietnamese men.

Much worse than the inconsistencies in tone are the inconsistencies in acting style and talent. The actors ranged from fairly good (Morgan and Hailey) to outright bad (Goode). With the huge budget and the willingness to look outside of big names for the actors, there is no reason that every one of the actors cast should not have been incredible, or at least competent. They all look right – Snyder clearly took some time to look at headshots. But when it came to acting, he seems to have lost interest.

That is where this movie really fails, especially when compared to Dark Knight. There will be no Oscar nominations here. There are sure to be those who blame the shortcomings of the movie of too much fidelity to the original or not enough fidelity, but it is often forgotten that it is the actors who need to really sell the emotions of the work, and without strong performances material that could have real depth seems a little – well, like a movie about some comic book heroes. Not people.

Yet the story is there, the visuals are there, and occasionally there is a burst of light among the performances. The movie is good. It’s just a shame it couldn’t have been great.


Douglass Barre said...

The one note I would mention is that the movie The Dark Knight is actually a completely different story than Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. The movie is a pastiche of elements from The Long Halloween and The Killing Joke combined with an original story for the movie. The groundbreaking Frank Miller GN was an "imaginary" tale of an older, retired Batman coming back after ten years away. While there is some consistency of tone, and even a few easter-egg visual nods, the movie and the 1986 GN are separate creatures. I'm sure you know this, but it's easy to infer incorrectly from the way the review reads.

Theater of Ideas said...

I have to shamefacedly agree with your comment. Not clear, and I always get frustrated with reviewers who don't give the facts straight on the source material. I went for the easy parallels without making the distinction clear.

I also didn't go into the violence in the movie, which I think is another point where this version stumbles. It is violence for people who find a thrill in the gore. It throws the movie off a little, i think, and personally I find that unpleasant to watch.

Hmmm... now I wish I could write the whole thing again. Should I admit that? Looking back at the review, I think I could have done better...

Kasheri said...

I've not seen the film yet, but I must say that I've been concerned about the violence. I just don't take much pleasure in egregiously violent films. It was for that reason that I didn't care for "Sin City." I felt it really deserved a rating of NC-17 for violence. I suspect that The Watchmen goes more in the Sin City direction than I'd best like.

Theater of Ideas said...

I didn't see Sin City because I didn't think I wanted to watch the violence. I imagine it was more violent than Watchmen - but as I say, I didn't see it. Watchmen took a while to get violent, but when it did, I found myself looking away more than once. It's a shame, because it affected my enjoyment. I really think graphic violence is only artistically justified when the movie is making a strong, strong point about violence. But the rating system is messed up. An erection gets NC-17 while really graphic gore is given a pass?

coffee said...

Rorschach was an especially well developed as a character; i hope the actor that played his role is nominated for some kind of an award (when that season comes around again)