Monday, April 13, 2009

Watchmen (Zack Snyder, 2009)

Moore, not less

(Warning: story discussed in close and explicit detail)

There's no two ways about it--the opening credits to Zack Snyder's Watchmen is impressive as hell, evoking as it does both the stillness of comic books and the solidity and depth of the film frame; for about two or three minutes a perfect fusion of both mediums is achieved.

Then the rest of the movie starts. The picture is two hours and forty-two minutes long, which I think is roughly a hundred and sixty minutes too long. It's an overproduced, ploddingly literal yet at the same time flagrantly unfaithful adaptation of Moore's comic book.

Most of the plot points and main characters are here. Richard Nixon and John Kennedy put in an appearance; so do airships and electric cars. The Tales of the Black Freighter comic book and the friendship between the two Nite Owls are gone, and I can see how they needed to be set aside, to reduce the running time (that said, Owl's reaction to his mentor's fate summarizes in a single scene the core of vigilante psychology--and how this kind of thinking will subtly if inevitably lead to abuse).

But if Snyder knows the words to Moore's masterwork, he seems to have missed the melody--nuances have been lost, entire concepts turned upside-down, or simplified to an appalling degree. The '80s United States shown here is more stylized than accurately captured--yes, this is supposed to be an alternate reality, but a recognizable alternate reality. To emphasize dark seductiveness (glossy clothes, bright metal, smooth stonework, yard after yard of sheet glass) over a familiar and recent time period is to throw that aspect of Moore's work out of whack.

Same goes for the fight sequences--instead of quick and dirty scuffles, onscreen they become slow-motion ballets; instead of realistic staging, we have elaborate moves, even some fancy martial-arts choreography. We don't get the sense of ordinary people wearing masks and beating the crap out of each other; we get super-heroes, and Moore's comic wasn't (with only one notable exception) about super-heroes.

Along the way Snyder has jiggered with the characters, not necessarily for the better. Adrian (Ozymandias) in the comic had a more thoughtful, more apparently compassionate presence (he actually looked despondent when Ed Blake (The Comedian) set him straight about the fate of the world); here his chilly visage screams "Masterminding sociopath! Do not trust!" Dan (Nite Owl) and Laurie (Silk Spectre) bloodied noses and perhaps broke a finger or two on paper, but they did not snap limbs, and at no point were they seen using criminals as human shields, to be shot to death. Making Dan and Laurie killers makes no sense--they would in effect be no different from sociopaths like Rorschach, or Ed Blake, and Moore's overall moral scheme would collapse into seething nihilism.

Jackie Earle Haley's Rorschach does a decent job as Walter Kovacs--as Rorschach unmasked. When he has his 'true face' on, Rorschach tends to nod with every syllable, as if afraid audiences will think his voice comes from out of the thin air (he looks like a sock puppet nodding at every syllable); Jeffrey Dean Morgan's Edward Blake chews scenery with scraggly gusto, but fails to get at the humanity Moore suggests can be found at the bottom. Malin Akerman as Laurie defines woodenness--she only looks good when compared to Carla Gugino as Laurie's mom, Sally Juspeczyk, who seems both stiff and annoying at the same time.

I usually don't look to the performances to either sink or redeem a movie nowadays, but the characters Moore drew are so rich and meaty it's a shame not to take advantage of what he had accomplished. I think it's a measure of how misguided this movie is that the comic's emotional climax, the confrontation between Sally and Laurie over Sally's past, goes over like a collapsing Vegas hotel--two undoubtedly pretty but talentless actresses, mouthing lines too emotionally complex for them to comprehend, much less deliver with the proper nuance and subtlety.

Of course we knew where Snyder's priorities were much earlier. The crucial debate between Jon and Laurie on Mars about the importance of saving the Earth, which comically keeps turning into a therapy session on Laurie's messed-up life is turned onscreen into some kind of Vulcan mind meld, with Jon sucking the images out of Laurie's head--presumably to save on running time, so Snyder can have Laurie and Dan cross a prison hallway in glorious slow motion, bashing criminals right and left (a sequence Moore and Gibbons pretty much disposed of in a few panels on paper).

Tellingly the film's most successful character is its least human. As Jon Osterman, Billy Crudup manages to suggest the otherworldliness of a man literally above humankind's relatively petty concerns--but you have to figure Snyder would score with him. His thinking is alien, hence no interpretation artistic or otherwise is needed to make him fascinating. He's mainly a super-powered plot function, meant to get the narrative going and solve certain story structure problems.

Finally, there's the story structure. I'm actually not a big fan of Alan Moore's Watchmen; I think the text supplements that follow eleven of the twelve issues are largely unreadable (there are exceptions--Sally Jupiter's clippings and Ozymandias' (Adrian's) interview are minor character-sketch masterpieces), the basic plot too absurd and unwieldy to take seriously (it figures that a masked hero would think of saving the world that way). Moore's best work is possibly From Hell, his epic meditation on Jack the Ripper and 19th century England (with breathtaking art from Eddie Campbell--rare case where the artist's work fully matches the beauty and subtlety of the writer's prose).

But Moore's comic is an impressive achievement mainly for its intricate plot, divided into twelve segments. Snyder has to dispose of the twelve-chapter structure, certainly, but doesn't replace it with anything that would at least suggest the source material's level of complexity. Snyder could have picked from Moore and Gibbon's staggeringly extensive library of symbols and repeated motifs to construct some kind of visual parallel and commentary on the story (on those terms alone Moore and Gibbons' work stands above Snyder's).

Take the motif of sphere and spatter. We first see it on Ed's smiley button, the blood splat an affront to the button's yellow smoothness. We see that bubble motif repeated again and again, in various forms, for every main character--Laurie (the perfume bottle/snow dome); Dan (his dusty goggles, the Owl Ship's windshields); Adrian (his domed tropical garden). Even Sally has her own bubble, of sorts (Moloch's solar mirror weapon).

I think Moore's treatment of the bubble motif in Laurie's story gives us an idea of what the recurring image means--a memory, in effect, an encapsulated emotion or idea (or illusion, if you will), waiting to be burst. In Laurie's case it's the memory of her childhood, relatively happy if fatherless (when she learns who her father really is, the perfume bottle/snow dome shatters). The goggles/windshield represent Dan's memories of his adventures as Nite Owl, safely put away under a layer of dust and nostalgia (Laurie's finger--and later, hand--disturb that layer of dust). Adrian's dome represents the extent of his scientific powers (a tropical paradise in Antarctica); a random gap in the surrounding snowdrift reveals the life living beneath that dome. When Adrian opens the dome, he's bursting his own bubble, his own created empire, to make way for a new world.

Later a triumphant Adrian faces an orrery, representing his New World (Solar System?) Order. Jon stands half-inside, half-outside the large sphere; he vanishes, leaving blue smoke and the fateful words "nothing ever ends," the mist of his vanishing filling sphere and surrounding air--implying, perhaps, that life (random chaos, willful action) persists in marring celestial perfection. That forces are at play that even now will bring down Adrian's masterwork.

Each time we see a bubble, a glass dome, a lens, a smiley face, some portion of encapsulated space or air (or innocence) is variously burst, or opened, or smeared, or stained with blood, or violated in some way. Each tries to keep his or her memories/ emotions/illusions pure and intact, but everything from epiphany to murder keeps intruding and time, however delayed or suspended, flows once again.

Even Jon has his illusion, in this case an entire world. While Laurie talks to him of the urgency of the situation and primacy of human life, Jon drones on and on about the red planet (I personally found his little lectures on the grandeur of Mar's landscape fascinating). It takes Laurie's own example to remind him of an even greater wonder, the infinite variety and unlikeliness of human life--when Jon's crystal palace crumbles, it isn't just Laurie's illusions collapsing, but Jon's as well.

Ed's smiley button is an interesting case--a crucial one, I think. It's basically the face Ed presents to the world as The Comedian--a face that, knowing Ed's personality, relentlessly responds to the world's madness and despair with the same bright, cynical smile. When confronted by a massive but workable plan to save the world from that madness and despair, Ed's practiced cynicism cracks, the crack represented by the bloodstain on his smiley button. The comic's final image is that of Ed's smiley face making its final bow, tying its marred circular image with Adrian's foggy orrery, and reminding us of the failure of Ed's cynicism. Of the impossibility of any kind of certainty ("nothing ever ends") with regards to anything and everything that has happened before. The only certainty is change and flow.

Significantly, the one major character without a sphere or bubble or illusion to burst is Rorschach. Faced with ultimate answers to imponderable questions, he doesn't hesitate; he knows what to do and does it. "What would you call that, I wonder," Adrian muses. "'Blotting out reality,' perhaps?" Rorschach's view of the world is dark enough and flexible enough to take the secret master plan in stride; you might also say his insanity--which I'm guessing in Moore's mind reflects the world's insanity--is bigger than any mere plot to kill millions of people.

Cute theory, no? It's something you can piece together little by little, gazing down on a copy of Watchmen; I'm not sure you can do the same with the movie (for one Snyder doesn't bother to re-create Adrian's domed garden, or the snow-spatter on the dome's surface that ties it to the blood spatter on Ed's smiley-face button).

Maybe the saddest aspect to all this are the fanboys saying "I don't want to read the book, it might spoil me for the movie." "What?" I want to exclaim. "You have it all backwards. The movie will spoil the book for you; the movie is nothing compared to the book." The movie is a poor substitute for Moore and Gibbon's comic, maybe not the greatest ever made, but certainly one of the more intelligent ones, towering high over Snyder's multimillion dollar stumble. I urge anyone who hasn't read or seen either and is planning to do both (or just one of the two) to go for Moore, not less.


Anonymous said...

A fair and well-reasoned and well-explained review showing good insight. Well done!

Noel Vera said...

Thank you sir! Would appreciate knowing your name...

Anonymous said...

Justifies the movie and the comics.


-Me says Mesa Boogie Yourself, ESP Man!

Noel Vera said...

Comics--somewhat. Not my favorite comics (arguably Maus) or my favorite Moore (From Hell), but not bad.

Movie? Fughedaboudit.