Reel Society

Reviews for the latest movies in theaters and on DVD.

Watchmen

Watchmen
 
 
 

Review by Eoin O’Faolain

Hype can be a dangerous thing. While the right kind of hype, distributed across enough time, can spell big bucks in Hollywood, hype can also lead to disappointment. (Just look at the reaction of most to the fourth and unnecessary Indiana Jones film.) Watchmen, the latest adaptation of a work by graphic novelist Alan Moore, has had a shady history, spanning decades. Director Terry Gilliam was initially excited about making a version, but like most Gilliam dreams it dissipated into nothingness. Next (after tantalizing news that Darren Aronofsky was attached to direct) came Paul Greengrass’s inevitably gritty version that screeched to a halt due to financial difficulties and a change in studio upper management. Even this release had its fair share of difficulty, when Fox and Warner Bros went to court over who had rights to the story.

But the real difficulty lay in adapting such a wide-reaching meta-narrative. Set in an alternative 1985, in which the USA won Vietnam, Nixon is still the president, and the world holds its breath as nuclear warfare looms closer, the tale starts with the death of a superhero known as The Comedian. By the 80’s, superheroes have a bitter association, but the mysterious yet psychopathic and misanthropic masked detective known as Rorschach has a gut feeling that the murder will lead to something big. His investigation brings us to his associates, the Watchmen, including the aging Daniel Dreiberg, a bookish man who longs to return to his superhero identity as NightOwl; Ozymandias, the smartest man on the planet who is attempting to prevent WWIII by creating an alternative energy source; Dr. Manhattan, the only real superhero, a man made of energy who can control time and space and the sole reason for the USA winning the Vietnam war, and Laurie Jupiter, his girlfriend, who feels Manhattan is losing touch with humanity.

The comic book adopts multiple stories and narratives, all building not just on a series of characters relating to a single plot, but building a fully realized alternative world, all contributing to a sense of dread at the impending doom. But what’s most important is that the comic takes time to delve into the heroes’ lives and feelings, to elevate them beyond merely figures of action. To be able to recreate this in 160 minutes is no easy task, and it’s a shame that director Zack Snyder was allowed to take the reins on this. Snyder impressed with a tense remake of Dawn of the Dead, and then made the unintentionally hilarious 300, a vacuous film that would have been half the running time if the slow-motion sequences were played at normal speed. Neither of these films displayed the director’s understanding of character, and sadly this weakness is what lets Watchmen down.

Firstly, there’s the dialogue. After watching Sin City, you’d think that most directors would understand that there’s a difference between reading something, and hearing something spoken. A couple of the film’s lines are so hackneyed that you may cringe. But even that can be countered by respectable performances, which is sadly this film’s weakest quality. The film opens with a montage of TV reports, full of stiff performances (and not in the right, 80’s television way), complemented with the worst caricature of Richard Nixon you’ll ever see. It doesn’t help when only a few months ago, in Frost/Nixon, we saw the best portrayal of Nixon that ever will be seen. Then we’re shown The Comedian, an integral figure in the narrative’s progression (and characters’ past), played terribly by Jeffrey Dean Morgan. You expect someone like The Comedian to be a bit off-the-wall, at times manic, occasionally dangerous, and then at other times more sensible than you think, but on almost every occasion Morgan is too flat. I’ve heard robots deliver their lines better. Likewise, Matthew Goode, as Ozymandias, seems unsure about how to play this over-ambitious genius, and comes across as odd and uninteresting more than deranged yet brilliant. Malin Akerman wavers between passionate and wooden as Laurie, which is a shame as her character has more heart than anyone else in the story. Fortunately, Jackie Earle Haley manages to impress. His Rorschach is like a cross between Sam Spade, Dirty Harry and Travis Bickle, full of self-righteous hatred, his eyes fixed on the filth of the world. When in prison he screams that he’s not in there with the criminals, but that they’re in here with him, you start to feel concerned for your own safety.

And there’s more to like about the film. What director Snyder lacks as an actor’s director, he makes up for as a visual one. The film’s credit sequence is a marvel (excuse the pun), a montage of characters awaiting their photo opportunity, squeezing in as much background references to the history of this alternative existence as possible. And there are other fine moments of direction, especially towards the film’s denouement. The comic’s best chapter, in which Dr. Manhattan goes into exile and lives through his past and present simultaneously, striving to comprehend humanity, is perfectly orchestrated. Alas, Synder’s focus on visuals does not really suit Watchmen. It’s a character piece, and there’s much time-wasting on action sequences which are unnecessary. The death of The Comedian at the film’s opening is impressive in itself, but I felt the fight itself is only secondary to what it meant. Snyder feels too locked in these moments to grasp what Watchmen was trying to achieve, which was to rise above typical comic book action. There’s another scene where Night Owl and Silk Spectre storm a prison to rescue a friend, and rather than cut to the chase, we get a slow-mo fight sequence. And while you can’t have a blockbuster like this without action, the action sequences feel too gratuitous, too masturbatory, and too jarring with the film, to truly enjoy.

Music is a very personally important aspect of film. It can elevate the quality of some films (Gattaca, Trainspotting), or detract from the power of others (Revolutionary Road, anything directed by Oliver Stone). And Watchmen certainly falls into the latter category. The already-praised opening sequence is heightened by the slightly predictable inclusion of Dylan’s “Times They Are a Changing” (Dylan’s masterpiece “Desolation Row” is bastardized during the closing credits by emo rockers My Chemical Romance). The over-long (and slow-mo-ed) funeral sequence uses “The Sound of Silence” and it feels out of place. And the biggest faux-pas is employing Leonard Cohen’s deeply unsexy voice for the obligatory and laughable three-minute sex scene, in which “Hallelujah” blares over the soft-porn lighting of a sex scene that only needed to be suggested to get its point across.

Admittedly, the film does improve towards the end. The performances get more intense, the pacing swifter, the plot thickens more than molasses, and the script isn’t afraid to dash through its points. Comic fans will be surprised by an ending that is different from the original, and while a change feels right, what the screenplay comes up with doesn’t entirely make sense. It also doesn’t help when the film closes with a rather poor epilogue, the only real addition to Moore’s novel.

Watchmen was hailed as a work of art. While I’m no fan of comic books, I can understand the statement. Its depth and sophisticated use of multiple narratives (not to mention commentating meta-narratives, such as the Curse of the Black Freighter comic within the comic that the film has ditched) ensured that it was not only in opposition to the shortcomings of most comic books, but that it also demonstrated the unique qualities of the comic as a medium. In this film adaptation the director’s focus on style over character and nuance of performance, despite an attempt to shove as much information into the script as possible, has led to a film not just mediocre, but rather a genuinely missed opportunity in subverting the cinematic blockbuster in the same way. 

3 / 5 stars
 
 
 

Review by Mark Lengieza

This is a very hard film for me to review.  I was sold by the trailer when it was attached to The Dark Knight last summer.  I read the book a couple of months ago and I absolutely loved it.  It was fantastic.  It made me even more excited for the movie.  However, it also left me questioning whether Zach Snyder would be able to pull it off.

The answer to that question: yes and no.  I can’t help but reviewing this film in two separate ways:  firstly, as a film all by itself, outside of any other opinions I might have on the subject, and secondly, as an adaptation of the source material, and how well it pulled off Alan Moore’s novel on screen.

Of course, it is very difficult to separate these ways of looking at the film, especially after one viewing.  I found myself with very mixed emotions throughout.  Certain scenes I thought worked absolutely perfectly, while others didn’t come across so well.  I’m still not quite sure how I felt about it as an adaptation, and I can’t wait to see the extended director’s cuts that will be released on DVD.

As a film itself, I thought that the film worked.  I thought that there were quite a few amazing scenes.  The graphics, as to be expected from a Zach Snyder film, were superb.  However, there wasn’t really a need for so much blood in the movie.  I feel like it detracted from a few scenes that could have just been done more tastefully.  This movie is so much deeper than just a violent action popcorn flick, and some times it seemed that Snyder was trying to make it into one.

On the other hand, there were other scenes that Snyder’s ability to use the technology available was absolutely vital.  I don’t know if anyone else could have pulled off any scene involving Dr. Manhattan as well as he did, particular the scenes of him on Mars, which were letter-perfect.  The opening fight scene between The Comedian and his assailant was also very Snyder-esque, and worked very well.

I have heard complaints about some of the acting in the film, and I think they are unfounded.  I thought each character pulled off their character quite well.  Sure, Jackie Earl Haley was the best as Rorschach, but I don’t feel like I can say anything bad about any of the performances.  People complain about Nixon (particularly given that it came hot on the heels of Frank Langella’s mesmerizing role in Frost/Nixon), but his role is so insignificant that I didn’t really care.

Now, as an adaptation, I think the film did the best that it could.  It obviously couldn’t be four hours long.  I think that even being as long as this version is will hurt its long-term box office prospects, but it did capture most of the essential pieces.  Anyone who hasn’t read the novel will get the general idea of the story, meaning that Watchmen is not as “unfilmable” as many have said it would be.  However, a lot of the human element is removed from the film, which is why I can’t wait for the director’s cut which will have more. 

The part I felt that really didn’t honor the book in any way was the ending.  I fully understand that the book’s ending is hard to swallow.  I couldn’t even swallow it in print.  If it were left alone, the general public, especially those who are not big fans of the book would have said “well, that ending was more than a bit ridiculous” and it could have ruined their experience.  That being said, I do not like the direction they went with it.  It makes more sense than the book’s ending, but it just made me feel uneasy.  I feel like Alan Moore, given his history, never would have gone that direction.  I also feel like if you really think about it, it isn’t any more plausible than the real ending, so I think they should have just left it alone.  It didn’t ruin the film for me, I just didn’t like the way they turned it, and no, I’m not going to give it away here, go watch the movie!

All in all, I thought the movie itself was very good.  I think a lot of people are going to find that it is too long and that it drags at some points, but that didn’t really bother me.  I was more bothered that it wasn’t longer, so more could have been left in.  It certainly wasn’t perfect, and I don’t know how well it will connect with non-fans of the graphic novel, but I enjoyed it.  It wasn’t the best movie I’ve seen, but it was a good adaptation of an exceptional novel. 

4 / 5 stars

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