Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Watching The Watchmen (Extended Thoughts)

The Watchmen (2009) directed by Zach Snyder

The movie is never as good as the book, because books and movies are different things. Books, even comics, have a written narrative structure and a style of pros, that cant be replicated by movies. Characters and events must be streamlined and restructured to fit into moving images.
Zack Snyder's "The Watchmen" is not the book, like Snyder's previous "300" it does pay a high reverence to the comic art, (it's comic as storyboard yet again) down to the dialogue. If you don't like Snyder's disjointed tubleaus the film will seem unnatural and flat in places, if you enjoy it or tolerate it, you probably will the movie.
Watchmen is a story of super-powers, normal men and women who put on masks and costumes, super natural beings, and Global Political Powers like the US and Russia, in the world of Watchmen all peoples delegate their responsibility to these folks. Superheroes stop crime, Super-Men stop wars, and Super-Powers bring us to the brink of Global ahnihilation. The year is 1985, president Nixon is on his 3rd term, we won the war in Vietnam (thanks to Dr. M), and the Keane Act passed by congress outlaws masked superheros.
In the first scene we witness the murder of retired hero "The Comedian", drinking watching the doomsday clock til down on television (in America we have the colors of the threat and emergency, the rainbow of doom!). The last masked hero Rorshac, begins an investigation of his own, paranoid theorizing that someone is out to kill "masks". The only surviving heroes left are Night Owl, a retired second generation costume, who enjoys "technology, birds, mythology", and talking about the good ol days, when his life was exciting. Silk Specter who like Night Owl, is also 2nd gen, inheriting her costume and moniker from her mother, she lives between the shadows of her, and her husband Dr. Manhattan. Dr. M (named after the American program which created the Atom Bomb) is the only person with traditional paranormal abilities (aside from the Matrix school of martial arts all the characters appear to attend), who was transformed by a freak accident into a being of pure energy, who can take any shape, be anywhere at will, and perceives the past and the future simultaneously, he is also blue and completely naked for much of the film, glowing genitalia and all. Finally there is Ozymandias, the smartest man in the world, who was first to retire and has used merchandising of his and the other heroes images to become enormously wealthy, though he uses the money to fund his real research into genetic engineering and energy research, things to make the world a better place. He and Dr. Manhattan are collaborating on a new research project to end the worlds energy crisis, which would in turn end competition for global resources, and deflect the coming world war between U.S. and the Soviet Union (something which was going on in 1985, rumor has it). SPOILERS FOLLOW::
The end was cleverly done and centers on two opposing world views of its main characters Dr. M and Rorschach, and in turn metaphysics vs. existentialism (like the opposing and secretly working together schools of philosophical detectives in "I Heart Huckabees"). Night Owl says "the world will be safe as long as we think John (Dr. M) is still watching us". As long as the world believes there is an all powerful God-like being judging them and observing them. Rorschach says "God doesn't make anything happen there is only us.", and "Never compromise, not even at Armageddon". In other words, there are only human beings to create horror, and subsequent earthly justice, and that truth, and truth itself, alone is worth defending. While Dr. Manhattan's voice almost never changes, Rorschach's face is constantly rearranging, in contrast of their beliefs and those they create in others.
In Woody Allen's "Crimes And Misdemeanors", Landau after telling Allen the story of his crimes in the form of a story, asks him "so what would you have the character do?", "I would have him turn himself in, if there were no God, he would have all the more reason to take that responsibility unto himself.", "But see your talking about fiction, I'm talking about reality." Though Dr. M, has conspired to contribute to the God delusion that's risen around him for sake of the world's safety and his own emotional security (now he can retreat from the world, a self imposed hero, rather than an emotionally isolated humanoid caught between worlds), Rorschach's journal survives on with all it's pathological and maybe destructive indictments for truth.The end is left open as to which will win out, metaphysical fear or existential madness, unlike say the Dark Knight, where the conspiracy and the lie (covering up for Two-Face, Alfred hiding note from Wayne), is clearly nobler than the truth. As far as super-hero movies go, Watchmen is head of its class for complexity. Manhattan at the end, becomes the relativity influenced realist, while Rorschach is the paranoid idealist, the journey between reveals our mis-comprehension of their outlooks. It's not a perfect film, the action is at times perplexing. In one scene Night Owl and Silk Specter savagely beat and kill a group of anonymous thugs. They're "professional" crime fighters, so its safe to assume they know how to defend themselves in non-lethal ways. Perhaps in the adrenaline they forget (in the book no one dies), even the best of Snyder's Watchmen have little regard for human life.
Their sex scene later, in the book a few discreet panels, now stretched to 300 style soft-core, though less realistic than soft-core, its full of ass shots, thrusting, and moaning, but only from the Silk Specter, Night Owl doesn't break a sweat or make a sound (he is in slow-mo land). My only real thorn in my side book gripe, is the mishandling of this sex scene. Which in the book was portrayed as a middle aged couple putting on fetish costumes to spice up their impotent and lifeless sex lives, and has a tender sweetness, here it plays out like young people charged from a night of partying, getting off in their parents bed. The performances all have a wooden 1 dimensionality too them (standard for super-hero movies I know), but only in Rorschach and Dr. M, does it make sense in the story. For Ozymandias in particular, you would think the smartest man in the world, who can read the smallest facial ticks in Dr. M, would himself, know how to better manipulate his own appearance and behaviors to seem, I dunno less creepy and sinister? It's just bad acting and casting.
The most central problem with the Watchmen can be best be described in terms of music. The film ends with a My Chemical Romance cover, of Bob Dylan's "Desolation Row". The original song is slow, sung in an hoarse old man twang, and depends heavily on understanding the allusions and references in the lyrics as much, if not, more than the simple melody. My Chemical Romance, are to put it mildly, youthful, energetic, nasally sounding band, and cover the song in that style. This mismatch of pacing to source material is evident on all levels of the film. The closest equivalent to Watchmen the book, in cinematic language is Nicolas Roeg (who writer Alan Moore, consciously emulated), not Wachowski Bros. style slow-mo, speed up, supercharge, which Snyder seems indebted too.
Otherwise though, the music works great, the opening montage of tableaus to "The Times They Are A-Changin.", being one of the films strongest and most unique moments. That song like most of the music is mentioned in the book. The few that aren't like "99 Red Balloon's" and a subtle muzak version of "Everybody Wants To Rule The World", are appropriate to the time and clever to the story as well. Missing however is Billie Holiday's "Your My Thrill", but you cant have everything.
It's a mixed bag of a film, some sequences working well, others awash in modern excesses and conventions, the source material shines through brilliantly, at others its muddled, like the conversation on Mars (cutting a few some of the slow motion out, might have freed up a few minutes easy.) Why does Dr.M agree to save the world? Not because of his love for Silk Specter is enough, not because she's so great, but because the very thing he left earth for to begin with (aside from rejection, and a fear of being hurt by others he may have hurt, i.e. to avoid judgement on himself...he is still human after all), is to retreat from the contradictory illogical world of humans. In Sally Jupiter however, whose very birth is contradiction, paradox; a woman voluntarily sleeping with a man who attempted to rape her. Her very existence is the result of the same human illogic and contradictory impulses that produces wars, violence, destruction, only in her its produced someone who aspires to heroism, love, and self-sacrifice. Beneath the veneer of order, there is a deeper world of chaos, and beneath this chaos, one of order, and so on, and so, the Super-Man learns a lesson in Quantum emotion ("This is what it sounds like when doves cry").
Watchmen deconstructs super-hero comic book myths and asks us questions about who we chose to relinquish authority to. The true story of heroism is behind the scenes though, in Alan Moore's refusing to take any money for this film and having his name taken of the credits, its not everyday when authors and creators refuse paychecks, especially with a merchandising cash cow like Watchmen.But Watchmen is not just a story of heroes, it actually suggests that maybe what the world needs is one good super-villain. Zack Snyder, is such a villain, and the result is mixed, but also challenging and compelling.
It's worth seeing on the big screen, though it should have been longer. I take it a directors cut might even things out, raise the score a bit. See it on Imax if you can. Its inevitably flawed, but still dynamically alive with ideas, that few films in general, and certainly fewer super hero films are.

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