Tuesday, March 31, 2009

WATCHMEN: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Billy Crudup, Jackie Earle Haley, Malin Akerman, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Goode, Carla Gugino
Director: Zack Snyder
Runtime: 162 min.
Rating: ****1/2
Genre: Fantasy, Action, Sci-fi, Thriller

        I stand here feeling hugely impotent. Not out of some kind of complex after watching Doc Manhattan, but I mean as a reviewer. And strangely I wish I had never ever read the graphical novel. I have abstained from re-reading it for more than a couple of years letting time take a toll on the memory I have of it and the perception that seems to have constantly evolved. I walk into the film believing I have the necessary purity in me to judge it purely as a motion picture and not vis-à-vis the comic book, for I believe that kind of comparison is a pointless way of perceiving things. But as the film passes by I realize I may have greatly underestimated my memory. Or maybe Mr. Snyder’s film works as a refresher course, a briefing session of all that is there in the pages of the comic book. I seem to remember everything, even the little dialogs, the little glances, the little angles. I recognize the variations. And I feel greatly dejected. Not with the film but with me and my objective powers to rationally scrutinize the absolute mess within which I find myself in, trying to make out what I perceive from the adaptation and what I perceive from the source.
        Mr. Snyder’s Watchmen is a box office flop, and that is a fact. It is a movie that revolves around the American zeitgeist, yet audiences do not seem to have dug into it. The word of mouth hasn’t been good. Many critics like James Berardinelli and A.O. Scott have labeled it a big bore. That makes me wonder, does this film have any chance in India, or for that matter any country outside the US, where the concept of a superhero isn’t really that big a part of the national psychology.
        So, you might wonder if the adaptation is a success, to which the natural response considering the shift in medium would be Yes. I, in my present state of utter pliability might concur. I might even argue that cinema, as a medium, isn’t necessarily comfortable to discourse and elicit an intellectual response out of us. Much of it is because of the length and its form, where there’s a limited scope of inspiring the audiences to think during the running time, as in a static medium like a comic book. Ideas work every well on paper, like a 50 page Roark speech for instance, which might prove quite unimaginative and bland on celluloid. At the movies there’s little time to analyze the ideas, and the correct way to stimulate an audience is to make them feel. Elicit an emotional response, through imagery, so that they are forced to wonder. I walked out of Watchmen feeling that the film did a great job of accommodating as much as it could into its feature length, but I wondered if it needed to.
        And herein I invoke one of the great sources of many intellectually stimulating discussions I have ever had – a good friend of mine – and who walked into the film with no prior knowledge of the Alan Moore masterpiece. He is someone who doesn’t really give a rat’s posterior for all this superhero rhetoric, and believes it is all a big bullshit. The kind of talk that is more suited to kids and all their limited and simplistic sense of right and wrong. And he walks out fascinated by the film, walks out asking the exact right questions, hitting upon the ironies that simmered through the comic book. He is the third in a line of people whose opinions I respect immensely – the other two being Roger Ebert and Kyle Smith – and none of them have read the source. And they have all reacted the exact way one would hope to be from something as intelligent as this book.
        Consider, for instance, the kind of analogies my friend draws. If one were to dwell into the mythologies of superheroes, he argues, then Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight might be likened to Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, with all the individuals and their ideologies clashing in a little city acting as a microcosm of the world and its order. Watchmen, on the other hand, might be compared to Atlas Shrugged, where many such individuals struggle with each other to evoke an idea of their influence on a world existing in an alternate universe, where Vietnam is the 51st state of the United States and Richard Nixon has been elected for five terms.
        The point here is not the analogy. Well some maybe, but not entirely. The point here is that someone’s imagination has been roused, and that I believe is a success. Watchmen is a story quite well told, with remarkable clarity and surprising depth. And told not with a straight-face but one given to wit and nods and often winks. It is 1985, and The Comedian (Mr. Morgan), one of the members of a one functional superhero band calling themselves the Watchmen that has been disbanded and branded illegal under the Keene Act of 1977, has been murdered. The book never lets any of its characters use the word ‘Watchmen’, but that these guys use it themselves is a clever decision to underline the self-righteous tendencies of such folks. The film makes no bones about the Juvenal quote either – Who Watches the Watchmen – and its free usage by the crowd in general to paint it along walls reins in an awareness that says quite a lot.
        Rorschach (Mr. Haley), with his shifting-blot mask, is a sociopath, a post Keene act one-man detective agency who prowls the streets of the night spitting disgust and venom on all the “filth”, much like Travis Bickle, enters the scene of crime and comes to the conclusion that someone is picking of costumed heroes. He might be paranoid or he might be true, and he decides to warn other members – Dan Drieberg a.k.a Nite Owl (Mr. Wilson), Laurie a.k.a Silk Spectre II (Ms. Akerman) and Doc Manhattan (Mr. Crudup). Drieberg, on his part, also pays Adrian Veidt a.k.a Ozymandias (Mr. Goode) a visit, just to let him know of Rorschach’s weird idea.
        Now, you needn’t worry about the others for you would learn about them once you watch the film, which you most definitely should. But two of these folks are fascinating endlessly – Doc Manhattan and Ozymandias. The former is the one true superhero of the pack in that he has true superpowers. For him time and space are detached non-linear entities, and for him every body of mass around is a set of equations and atoms. He perceives everything only in terms of the tangible. For him a human is as valuable as a termite as a canyon as a nut. He has innumerable powers – to teleport objects, to reconstitute them – and in this alternate world where the Cold War looms large with nuclear proliferation raging endlessly, he is the sole deterrent that keeps the United States in a position of dominion. He walks into Vietnam and the country is won within a week. One should note the spectacular usage of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries (a clever and supremely funny nod to its iconic usage in Apocalypse Now) as Doc Manhattan towers over Vietnam and blows it away.
        The latter, Ozymandias formerly but now head of Veidt group of industries, is unofficially regarded as the smartest man on earth. He is building a big energy reactor with the help of Doc Manhattan so that the world’s energy crisis might be solved. You might look at his costume, both in the film and the comic book, and you might wonder about his orientation. But you might also choose to pay attention to his desktop where a folder titled “Boys” resides. I can hear Mr. Snyder chuckling at this adolescent joke and I can see him winking at the fanboys. Now, you should wonder how much the worth of smartness, of intelligence is. Do our dreams make us what we are (Nite Owl) or does our intelligence stand us head and shoulders above anything that was created on earth? If I were to believe that attaining and striving for greater intelligence is the only we can stand upto God and square off against him whenever the time comes, what would the odds be of our victory against him? You should wonder along these lines, and if I were to rely on my friend’s reactions, the film will inspire you to imagine along these lines.
        But enough about the plot. Speaking of which, the original comic book’s brilliance wasn’t limited to its plot. What made it the seminal work of art it now is is its very structure, and its brilliant usage of the medium that made it so dense that multiple readings always revealed something.
        The question that springs to my mind as I write this review is if the film is such a structurally brilliant work of art. I’m not sure because whatever cerebral audiences are going to take away from this film wouldn’t be because of its visuals or because of what is on screen. It would be only because of what is on the script. Mr. Snyder does a bang up job of improvising and omitting and deviating within some specified boundaries, but his film is never fully free of its plot. It is always about the plot and not about the experience. I believe a film should break free of its plot, i.e. stop being too busy just narrating it, and find various means to surround us with it. On that level Watchmen is an extremely interesting and inconsistent failure, often striking marvelous moments but mostly just ticking off plot points never getting around to soak the moments. This is what Alan Moore and filmmakers like Terry Gilliam were afraid of, that packing so dense a material with a feature length production and hurling the barrage of ideas over an unassuming and often unwitting audience would just fail. Did I feel any of the moments? Not many, but I found the film worthwhile enough to merit repeat viewings.
        For instance, the opening title sequence, which is a masterpiece of moviemaking but has its share of flaws. It plays to the tune of Dylan’s Times are A-Changing instantly kicking of a nostalgic tone (though I was left behind). Introductions to the Minutemen (a previous superhero band) and various other characters and their fate are run by us as we smile at the awesomeness of the imagery. Look at Doc Manhattan shaking hands with John F Kennedy, and how it is immediately succeeded by the JFK assassination, with the secret gunman being revealed as The Comedian himself. One should wonder that Doc would surely have known JFK’s fate yet he didn’t warn him or act upon it. Such a predicament will follow one more time, with the same two characters, and it is a clever reference to the movie’s theme – Nothing ever ends. Does that mean Doc is a pawn in the hands of The Republicans always against the liberals? Does it mean that the film too is against liberals? You see, I can never believe that decision making can ever be done by a liberal. Forget about the fake ones that do the rounds every which where and amongst us, I’m talking about the true ones. Does the mass always need an authoritarian? I believe that is the case, and the film never gets soft for its audiences.
        There’re quite a lot of Easter eggs in there too, and I give a reference to some of them so that you catch some of these jokes. Watch out for what all Adrian Veidt is watching on his multiple screens in Antarctica. There’re among other things Rambo II (Vietnam), The Road Warrior (why? Fun perhaps) and a hard core porn flick playing. Pay attention to whom Veidt addresses to when he discussing his energy reactor with a group of industrialists.

The opening scenes find the old Nite Owl smashing some poor thug. Pay attention to the image I supply with the review, and wonder what the poster is behind and who that couple in the background is. During the opening scenes, you see a Silk Spectre I a.k.a Sally Jupiter on the side of a plane. Pay attention to what plane it is. And during those very opening scenes, towards the end, Veidt meets two weird looking dudes leaning on something right outside Studio 54. Who’re they? There’s an awful lot of winking going on here.
        But much of the film’s clever nods and innovations are in terms of images. I see that most filmmakers look up at films in terms of these images, and somehow speak of their underlying power. Their perception of the visual power assumes movies work much like art, in that if there is an awesome image it would be conveyed. It doesn’t work that way, for motion pictures work on imagery and not images. Blink and miss is not the way films are supposed to work, howsoever accessible DVDs with their forward-reverse features are. Mr. Snyder’s film is so imprisoned within the images of its source that it attains whatever life it needs to within the vicinity of them. He uses the images of the comic book not as a source of inspiration but as the storyboard itself, and that reins in all the weaknesses. One of the great elements of the comic source was to decipher what emotion the blots on Rorschach’s face conveyed from frame to frame. There is no such usage here. Folks who wonder that it would be a difficult task ought to see how The Wachowski brothers use the mask in V for Vendetta. There is little that is awe-inspiring, and most of it just works as narration and not an experience. I have already begun to forget much of the film. Consider The Dark Knight for instance, where visual strategies reek of genius in every frame, imagery that have written themselves into the general consciousness and history books.
        But I have read the book, and right now I believe that is a handicap. I was immensely entertained by the film, but I always felt that I was carrying a baggage I would rather have never subscribed to. I hope, dear reader, that you are free of that baggage that comes with living the graphic novel for a significant part of your life. I hope you walk into the premises knowing little and come out wondering. I hope to catch this film again and carve a stronger and firmer opinion of matters, and till then I envy you.
        And yeah, the crux of the matter is that Alan Moore has been proven right once again.

3 comments:

Amar said...

I liked the movie. But I think it was a bare nod for the adaptation of Alan Moore's fabulous graphic novel. Maybe it's the problem with me and this movie does not deserve a severe criticism. But I have always been in such a awe of WATCHMEN comics that I couldn't even tolerate the minor aberrations like 'location of the attack on Veidt' and theory behind 'the actual owner of the watch', which was responsible for bestowing supernatural powers upon Jon Osterman. Apart from such silly observations of mine, I think Snyder did a great justice while casting for the characters of Comedian and Rorschach. I, for a moment, thought they had just jumped out of the comics and enacted in the movie. No matter what, this flick will be in comic fans' hearts for a long time...That's for sure.

Atrisa said...

Hey I quite enjoyed it :) The effects were brilliant. I found it a little funny in places, didn't think it was intended to be though like the lovemaking scene in the spaceship :P

Snare Drum. Curtain.

!Teq-uila Del Zapata said...

well this entire experience is too drowning, the comic and movie itself.
Movie have its shortcoming but novel is beyond brilliant.