At the Movies: Watching “Watchmen”

Since I was so apathetic over the Oscars, I’ve decided to put more effort into my movie-going so that I’m prepared to be elated and/or outraged next February.  This is the first step towards that goal.  Beware the spoilers…

Friday night MVPete and I saw Watchmen.  I should immediately say that I have never read the graphic novel.  However, I think not being a religious observer of the material worked to my benefit.  My later research shows that changes between the source and the adaptation abound.  No doubt that would have bothered me.

I can say, though, that seeing the film on opening night, in a room full of people who most likely knew the original inside and out, was the perfect way to see it.  The kind of energy that an event film like this generates makes watching the film so much better.  And while I had few expectations for Watchmen myself, I was happily sharing the vibe of those around me who had waited for this day for so long.

So, the verdict from a Watchmen virgin?  To parse some famous verse, the film came in with a bang and left with a whimper.  For the first hour, Watchmen is an outstanding murder mystery; a genuine film noir, probably the most impressive I’ve seen since L.A. Confidential.  The opening title sequence brilliantly places us in this alternate 1980’s America, and the next sequence is a brutal, exquisitely framed murder.  This first act follows masked man Rorschach as he takes up the case, introducing the viewers to the remaining Watchmen along the way, via reunions that are thick with history and the flashbacks that show just how heavy that shared past is.  It’s totally engrossing.

Then, for reasons I can’t entirely recall, the focus shifts from Rorschach to Dan (Nite Owl II) and Laurie (Silk Spectre II).  We follow these two second-generation superheroes as they both try to get their mojo back (in more ways than one).  Now, Watchmen has earned a reputation for being the atypical superhero story.  Yet watching these two get back in the saddle was old hat.  The same arc can be seen in the second act of The Dark Knight and most of Spider-Man 2, among others.  Later on the film, the revitalized Laurie has to pay it forward and convince her pantsless paramour, Dr. Manhattan, to step up and save the world.  It doesn’t feel any more genuine, important, or unique than any other “pick yourself up” plot, despite the urgency in-story.

By the time the Watchmen have identified and located their betrayer, the film has been going on for over two hours.  It’s during this showdown that the wheels finally come off the film, primarily because it abandons any pretense of existing in a world that is intended to be uncomfortably close to our own.  One of the few things I knew about Watchmen before seeing it was that while the main characters were “superheroes”, they did not have “super powers”, with the notable exception of Big Blue.  These were supposed to be flesh and blood mortal human beings, albeit ones with costumes, gadgets, and superior hand-to-hand fighting skills.  So when director Zack Snyder decided to stage the final fight scene with characters repeatedly throwing each other the length of rooms, I’m left wondering what he can bench if he thinks this is within the boundaries of the possible.  When we learn that Ozymandias was the one who killed The Comedian, flashbacks of the murder are rendered laughable because of the fact that The Comedian has already been established as 6’2″ and a solid 225 lbs.  Ozymandias looks like he belongs in an L.L Bean catalog.

Another reason that the climax generates no excitement is that Ozymandias’ intentions are never made terribly clear.  There is some talk about his desire to bring peace to the world via the necessary slaughter of a few million innocents, but I was never once buying it.  I had no reason to believe that this man wanted world peace so badly.  This is largely because the performances in Watchmen range from mediocre to dull, with Matthew Goode’s Ozymandias firmly at the latter end of that spectrum.  Patrick Wilson brings some everyday schlubby charm to Nite Owl, but he is by no means a leading man or capable of carrying a film, or even an act of it.  Anyone could have played Laurie, as Malin Akerman was utterly forgetful.  Jeffrey Dean Morgan is enjoyable to watch as The Comedian, only because he’s chewing the scenery any time he’s on camera.  Carla Gugino has some excellent albeit fleeting apperances as Laurie’s bitter, battered mother.  The best performance in the film comes from Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach.  Even with his face concealed for 90% of the film, he gives a more layered, arresting performance than any of the others.  Perhaps Billy Crudup could have done more if he hadn’t been airbrushed away by the digital artists at Quantam Creation FX, Inc.

As for the design, I admire that they stuck close to the original artwork.  The film had a very individual and distinguishing look.  Yet while I applaud Snyder for coloring within the lines, I have to ask what he really intended by having Dr. Manhattan be stark naked for virtually the entire film.  I understand that’s how the character was drawn.  I even understand why the character sees no need to wear clothing, unless he’s making some kind of public apperance.  But for all its academic and historic value, surely Zach Snyder knows that this film is being marketed to and being hotly anticipated by that fervent male, 18 to 24 year old demographic–never mind the underage high school boys shitting their pants at the prospect of somehow getting themselves into an R-rated superhero film–and surely Zach Snyder knows that nothing is funnier to that crowd than a penis.  Any time Manhattan was shown in anything beyond a medium close-up, there was audible giggling from around the theater.  It’s not a good idea to have Manhattan monologuing and arguing the Big Ideas this work is so renown for in the nude if the viewers you are trying to enlighten can’t tear their focus away from his super Smurf schlong.

With a cast of below-average nobodies (who are likely destined to remain that way), a story that takes some unecessary and distracting turns (I’m still wondering exactly how and why that prison riot got started), and a conclusion that is as limp and underwhelming as…well, you know…, I give Watchmen a resounding “meh”.  For a project that had for long been referenced as being “unfilmable”, there was nothing I saw on screen that couldn’t have already been done.  Sure, the effects would have been less convincing; but there were and are more capable directors, more talented actors, and more creative designers out there in Hollywood.

The League of (Extra)Ordinary Gentlemen
The League of (Extra)Ordinary Gentlemen

~ T

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