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Saturday, March 7, 2009

I Watch Watchmen. And Try To Write Coherently About it

Watchmen was one of the more challenging books I read last year. It is a demanding novel with many divergent plots, characters, and themes, and I had mixed reactions to it when I had finished it. Seeing the movie Watchmen today was like re-experiencing the graphic novel because it is particularly faithful to the source material. Revisiting the characters and plot of Watchmen actually made me enjoy the story more than I did immediately after reading the book. I already knew how the whole thing was going to end, and by now I've read plenty of other reviews and had time to actually digest the book. (My reaction to the ending at first was WTH??, and this time around was much more admiration of the brilliance).

Watchmen begins with a sequence I can only describe as "visually stunning" introducing us to the the history of costumed adventurers in the U.S., set to Bob Dylan's "The Times They are a-changin' ". We see the rise and fall of superheros, from the original Minutemen who fought crime in the 1940's who evolved the new group of Watchmen. Most of them are now living out their lives mostly in obscurity. Set in an alternate 1980's where Richard Nixon is still president, the Cold War is at its climax, and costumed adventuring has been outlawed for a few years now.

Watchmen is framed as a type of murder mystery, but in truth it is more of a character study than anything else. The novel gave us close up looks at not only the main Watchmen but also histories of most of the original MinuteMen. The movie wisely sticks to a manageable number of characters. We first meet the Comedian, who is tossed out of his high rise apartment window at the beginning of the movie. Rorschach (played with a particular intensity by Jackie Earle Haley), who has kept to his vigilante ways, investigates the murder.

The only character in Watchmen with any traditional super powers is Dr. Manhattan. He was once an ordinary person, but in a laboratory accident he was endowed with god-like abilities and glowing blue skin. Able to manipulate matter and see the future and the present, he has grown increasingly distant from his girlfriend, Laurie, AKA the Silk Spectre. After she catches him making love to her and working at the same time, she leaves him for the geeky and awkward Nite Owl. He's always held a candle for her, but who can compete with a being who single-handedly won the Vietnam War by exploding the Vietcong?

Watchmen has long been considered unfilmable because of the sheer amount of characters and the nonlinear plot. Based on some of the reviews out there (and Alan Moore's own opinion), there are plenty who think that this movie didn't get it right. I went to the movie uncertain what to expect.

But I went away absolutely amazed. I asked my husband (who has not read the book) if there had been any parts that were hard to follow along, and he said absolutely not. The movie is unusually faithful to the graphic novel, and all the familiar scenes are there. Dr. Manhattan's palace-thing on Mars. Each of the characters at the funeral, remembering who the Comedian was and reflecting on what he had actually stood for. The bizarre antarctic fortress where the ultimate plan is set into motion. Speaking of, although there was a minor change to how the ultimate plan is executed, in the end it doesn't really matter and it kind of works better than the graphic novel anyhow.

And those same questions and themes from the novel are translated well onscreen. What makes a hero? Are any of the Watchmen truly heroes? What motivates a person to dress up in a costume and patrol the streets at night?

Certain things translated even better on screen. Rorschach's mask, which we know in the novel to be a series of changing inkblots, is really cool onscreen. And the action scenes look cool in a way they can't in a novel. However, my one and only gripe with the movie lies in the action scenes. My personal preference is to not watch gratutitous violence, and parts of the movie were not only far more violent than the novel but also much more than they needed to be, period. Do I really need five minutes of Silk Spectre and Nite Owl chopping a group of gang bangers into pieces, when in any type of world approaching reality, the gang would have run off when they first realized that they were outclassed? One of the more effective scenes is when Rorschach dispatches a crime lord who was threatening him earlier. We don't see the actual act, just the blood seeping down the floor. Some other scenes with Rorschach could have shown similar restraint.

My approach was to just look away when there were scenes I knew were going to bother me. If you feel similarly to me, you are now forewarned.

Despite this, I found so much to like about the movie, I still highly recommend it. It clocked in at close to three hours, and it didn't seem to drag at all, unlike say, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, another recent movie I really liked. It is a movie that will satisfy fans of the graphic novel and entertain those who haven't read it yet. (Want some evidence? Here's my husband's review)

Have you seen Watchmen? What did you think?


Stephanie said...

See? This is why I didn't "review" the movie...I couldn't have done it in a coherent way...and you do a wonderful job!!

I LOVED the movie, as you know. It was actually a thing of brilliance....but I didn't read the novel. I was so pleased that I enjoyed it as much as I did!

Anonymous said...

This is almost word-for-word the review I would have written of the movie if I was feeling articulate about it. I was super excited about seeing the film, then got nervous after reading some less-than-stellar reviews. But, in the end I enjoyed it a lot.

I thought the music was great, and the first sequence was cool. The violence was a little over the top, and I had to look away for parts (most of Rorschach's angry scenes). The Comedian was played brilliantly; Jeffrey Dean Morgan did a superb job showing the dark side of that superhero.

I think knowing the ending helped me get what was going on, and I found it a little more satisfying this time around, although it's still disturbing. Overall though, I thought the movie was quite well-done and I'm happy I went to see it.


Chayenne said...

I really enjoyed the film and the graphic novel, although I wish that Tales of the Black Freighter had been kept in. My friend, who hadn't read the graphic novel, ended up being converted by the time we left the cinema. I thought it was really well-cast, except maybe for Laurie/Silk Spectre, who couldn't hold her own with the rest of the brilliant cast.

Nymeth said...

I haven't watched this yet - you wouldn't believe how lazy I am to leave the house sometimes - but reviews like yours are certainly encouraging. It really sounds like they got it right, or as right as possible when transforming something like Watchmen into a movie.

jessi said...

Great review! Rorschach is my favorite character, and I was really pleased with the way he turned out.

Rhinoa said...

I've heard some mixed reviews about the film. My husband wasn't impressed and said the acting was pretty shocking, but it is his favourite book and was bound to be a little disappointed. He was pleased it kept to the graphic novel, but felt the director showed no creativity putting his own stamp on it. On the other hand my other friend who hadn't read the novel loved it. I haven't yet read it (this year for sure) so I think I should see the film first so my impressions are not coloured beforehand.

mariel said...

Going to see it tonight, looking forward to it!

Lauryn said...

GREAT review, Kim! You captured the essence of the novel and its translation to film fabulously.

Having read the novel, I would have liked to see the whole story portrayed on screen, but I thought they did a great job of picking the most important parts and stitching together so it was still understandable to the Watchmen virgin. The opening sequence was brilliant!

Looking forward to the extended edition... :)

Kim L said...

Stephanie-why thank you! Do you think you will read the novel after seeing the movie?

sophisticateddorkiness-I agree! Knowing the ending somehow made it more satisfying. And I thought the Comedian was pretty brilliant.

Cheyenne-I guess I didn't mind Laurie so much. Meh. Hey, at least you can get the director's cut and then you'll be able to see The Tales of the Black Freighter

nymeth-They got it about as right as they could considering the source material. I mean, it isn't as if there were no flaws, but overall it was pretty darn good.

jessi-Rorschach was pretty intriguing. He was never my favorite character. I like Dan more as a character. But you don't mess with Rorschach, that's for sure.

rhinoa-the director could definitely be accused of not putting his own spin on things. Except for making things uber-violent, he did not add very much. However, I guess it didn't bother me too much.

mariel-I look forward to hearing what you think!

Lauryn-totally looking forward to the extended edition as well. Maybe we can have a viewing party when it comes out!

mariel said...

Yeah, hmmm. I liked it, but didn't love it. The acting wasn't too bad, I really liked Rorsach, but it didn't feel tense enough to me and the violence seemed a little over the top. I didn't get the same wow feeling that I did while reading the book. Glad I went though, and I would recommend other fans see it.

Trish said...

I literally closed my eyes during those two Rorschach scenes--the first with the kidnapper was way way way too much for me. Plus, some guy in the theatre obviously thought the movie was way over the top because he laughed the entire way through. But other than that, I completely agree with your assessment. It's always nice to see something so powerful translated so well to the big screen. I loved how faithful it was to the book (and prefered the movie ending better than that weirdo creature thing!). The End. :)