Monday, March 16th, 2009
So I saw Watchmen five or six days ago.
It’s probably important to preface this review by saying this was my very first contact with the Watchmen franchise. I went into the movie more or less blind to the universe, and obviously that makes my experience and reception of the film potentially very different than that of people intimately familiar (and likely more enamoured with) the content.
The graphic novel may be good, I don’t know, but the movie is in many ways a bit of a mess. This is supposed to be an adaptation of a graphic novel– keyword: ADAPTATION. At this, the screen writer and directer failed and failed hard.
Comics don’t translate to the screen directly. B-plots, flashbacks, and character side-stories that work so well broken down in chapters of a graphic novel create a myriad of problems in a film. The story jumped, started-and-stopped, and flash-backed all over the place, often with little warning and even less necessity. What resulted was a film that was often confusing (especially for an audience with no background knowledge of the source material to fall back on), too long, and poorly paced. I left the theatre not entirely sure what had happened or why, who had done what, or even when they might have done it. Even the names ‘Rorshach’ and ‘Ozymandias’, which are easy enough to recognize on the page, made following the story more complicated. I had to ask a Watchman-steeped friend what Adrian Veidt’s superhero name was after I walked out of the theatre, due to the bare minimum attempt made to enunciate this complicated, unfamiliar, unusual word and explicitly connect it to the character in a meaningful way. The director and screenwriter may have been intending to stay as true to the novel as possible, but the static replication they produced muddied the thematic waters much more than any creative interpretation might have; it was clear the director didn’t have any better idea of the point of this movie than I did. The screenplay badly needed to be re-written by a clever, creative problem-solver, then attacked with a red pen several times over. The direction likewise suffered, boxing the actors into disjointed stepping stones of grandiosely hollow tableaus.
In fact, the best part of the movie was the opening sequence: a series of actual tableaus with poignant (if entirely obvious) underscoring and brilliant art direction that set the mood and introduced the universe. It is a poor experience indeed that draws you in then unceremoniously kicks you back out again.
The acting was all over the board. Jackie Earle Hayley as Rorshach was intense and captivating, Billy Crudup’s Doctor Manhattan was appropriately distant despite the unconvincing CG, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Edward Blake was at least menacing enough to be going on with. Malin Akerman and Patrick Wilson as Silk Spectre and Nite Owl were one dimensional, flat, and never convinced me they were doing more than reading lines off pages. And Matthew Goode as Ozymandias seemed comically out of place in the Watchmen universe, as if a Saturday morning cartoon character had wandered onto set and been somehow trapped there.
And the makeup…! Don’t even get me started on the travesty and insult to makeup artists everywhere that was Carla Gugino — the first Silk Spectre’s — old age makeup. As far as Nixon goes, I’m not sure if they were intentionally going for caricature there or not, but either way it didn’t work. At all.
Much has been made in other places of Doctor Manhattan’s bits and the R rating this film received, and I honestly didn’t find the nudity distracting or out-of-place. In all honesty, I found the strange black underwear-thing he sometimes wore far more distracting than glowing blue genitalia, but whatever. I’m one of those strange ultra-liberal people that doesn’t understand the way western society freaks out about nudity. I much prefer the honest depiction of the male nude form to the Ken-doll that was the Silver Surfer, personally. I don’t understand what our society finds so scandalous about nudity and probably never will.
The violence in the movie was… I don’t even know. Schizophrenic, anyway. Excessively violent scenes added for shock value (Rorshach and the clever) followed honestly well-done and chilling moments (the swinging bathroom door in the prison). I was informed Doctor Manhattan was supposed to be the only character with real super powers, yet somehow everyone was able to smash marble counter tops apart, kick holes in solid stone walls, and leap up drainpipes like frogs. …eh? It ranged from overly stylized to comic-book caricature to truly grisly to ho-hum. Apparently consistency was not something anyone was too fussed about.
The musical choices were overly literal and never suited the tone of the scenes they underscored, either as compliment or foil. Theywere jolting, over-powering, and more often than not completely under-cut and made ridiculous the scenes they were paired with. In particular, Simon and Garfunkle over the funeral scene, Nina’s Red Balloons over a dinner sequence, and certainly the overused Hallelujah over the sex scene probably boil down to misguided attempts at being clever.
Speaking of the Silk Spectre/Nite Owl sex scene, I’d like to take a moment to appreciate just how utterly and completely awful it really was, with or without the underscore. It definitely falls somewhere in the top five worst sex scenes of all time. I’m hoping for a Razzie. We should start a campaign.
I have significant issues with the way rape, the victims of it, and the perpetrators of it are depicted in this story. This is so obviously written by a man who thinks of rape as something that happens to other people, and its use as a plot device is extremely offensive to me, as if it were something so casual to speak of and use and toss in as one requires it. It is irresponsible social story-telling to suggest and encourage this kind of male fantasy where the perpetrator of rape earns nothing but a slap in the face, as if sexual aggression was just a natural stepping-stone to a consensual sexual relationship. I also tire of the double-standard for costumed super heroes that puts the male characters in the protective armor necessary for the job and the women in thin, scantly-there lycra suits that would be unsuitable for a windy afternoon nevermind combat. At least Wolverine and Cyclopes were subjected to the same tight leather suits that Storm and Jean Grey were in the X-men movies.
In closing, there was very little to redeem Watchmen in my eyes, yet I left the theatre confounded by friends who seemed to think it was just brilliant in every way. I’m sorry, what? Did we just see the same film? Did you see that random purple tiger with horns? Did I just fall asleep and dream the last three hours?