Monday, March 9, 2009

The blind Watchmen-maker

(Spoiler-free review.)

Alan Moore famously considers his creations - all of them - unfilmable. Having watched the latest, much-touted effort, I think I see what he means.

It's easy to see why Hollywood loves to adapt comic books. After all, the original artist has already done not only the scriptwriting but also the visualisation, much of the hard work of costume and lighting design, and quite a lot of the photographic direction. You might think this would make the two media a good match.

But somehow it never quite comes together. Comic-book movie adaptations have run the gamut from acknowledged disasters (The Hulk, Catwoman, Daredevil, Batman & Robin) to merely lacklustre movies. I really wanted to like such massively hyped efforts as The Dark Knight, Spiderman, V for Vendetta - but I really didn't. And after watching Watchmen, I think I know why.

The story of Watchmen - the book - unfolds like a magnificent origami decoration. It's told in an intricate non-linear structure to which the medium is beautifully adapted - cutting and chopping between storylines is not merely smooth, it's practically inevitable. At the end of each chapter there are several pages of dense text to read, creating background and atmosphere for the main story. There's a whole story within a story - one (very) minor character spends his time reading comic books at a newsstand, and we also get to enjoy the adventure story he's reading as a bonus. And Moore skilfully weaves all these strands - even the comic-book story, which is a rattling good yarn with pirates and sharks, death and undeath and insanity - into the baroque tapestry that is the Watchmen Experience.

The movie takes some of these same threads, and tries to string them together into an epic of naïve idealism versus entrenched, institutional corruption. Somehow, the multi-dimensional tale of the book has been reduced to a cliché. The budget may be bigger than Mr Smith Goes to Washington, but the story really isn't, not any more.

In the reducing process, it's succeeded in making the story dull. There's simply not enough left to fill 163 minutes. Jimmy Stewart took just over two hours, and frankly even he drags sometimes.

Here, the action scenes and the sex scenes take on far inflated importance. Take, for instance, the episode where two of our heroes (in plain clothes) get ambushed by muggers. In the book, the fight scene fills a total of five frames, interspersed with wordy frames of Dr Manhattan's fateful TV appearance. In the movie, we're treated to what feels like a full minute of choreographed, gratuitously brutal violence. Evidently the producers felt the story was dragging at this point.

And they were right. Their error was in thinking that the fight would improve matters.

In a vain attempt to soften Alan Moore's righteous wrath, the producers have tried to follow the source material slavishly (with a few notable exceptions). The thing is: what works on the page, doesn't work on film.

Back to the abovementioned fight scene, for instance. On paper, the fraction of a second it takes to glance at the fight before getting back to the interview contrasts with the time it takes to read the speech frames. The effect is that you're reading the speech while looking at the fight. But rather than running the speech over the silent film of the fight, here the director - with a devastating failure of imagination - literally cuts between scenes.

Laborious. Tedious. Dull.

Many of the more memorable lines are lifted directly from the book. That's fine, except that half the time the actors don't seem to understand their own lines. In a comic book, the words and the artwork are used to create the character. Onscreen it's the actor who creates the character, and sometimes the words no longer fit.

I call this "Christina Ricci syndrome", after her memorably detached performance in Sleepy Hollow. The characters of Dan Dreiberg and Adrian Veidt, in particular, suffer from it: two major figures who simply don't seem to be in the same movie as everyone else.

(And what is it with Dreiberg's glasses? An eight-digit f/x budget, and they still can't make it look like the lenses actually refract light?)

Where the script does depart from the book, it makes matters worse. Now that the Cold War is a fading memory, the film feels it has to go to great lengths to Recreate the Era of Nuclear Paranoia. In doing so, it is both gratuitous - every channel and every paper is filled with end-is-nigh doom-mongering - and intellectually dishonest (fielding Richard Nixon, as a president who has somehow weathered not merely Watergate but also the 22nd amendment - as all-round scapegoat and shorthand for unchecked corruption). Thus this part of the story is reduced from an imaginative fable to a political cheap shot - and a very dated one at that.

Another failure: in the book, Laurie (Silk Spectre II) smokes. (That's why she accidentally fires off Arcimedes' flamethrower - she mistakes it for a cigarette lighter.) In the movie, she doesn't smoke, and just presses the button for the hell of it. It wouldn't be a big deal, except that the movie makes it so by sticking so closely to the appearance, costume and words of the characters in every other respect. Now, of course, it's practically illegal for a sympathetic character in a movie to smoke; but this was the 80s, and that's the era the film is supposed to be capturing.

I wish Zack Snyder, who pleased a lot of people with 300, had shown just a little more courage and cut out some of the back story. Who cares about the involved history of the Minutemen, the Comedian, Silk Spectre, and all the heroes who died long before the story begins? Let it go. If you can cut out the undead pirates, you can cut that too. In the book it adds depth and weight. Onscreen it's just confusing and distracting.

Lots of people, mostly I'm guessing those who don't even remember the 1980s, seem to like this movie. That probably means Snyder will get to make more. God help us.


Ruby Apolline said...

Ah, I'm so glad you posted this. I was leaning towards not going to the movie, in part because I hated 300, so now I won't.

I just reread Watchmen yesterday and again wondered how on earth something that complex would work, given how Snyder, in my mind, couldn't even deal with the minimal complexities of 300. Talk about cliches and reductionism. Also, I absolutely hate his now signature slo-mo followed by fast-mo jump cut filming. A little of that goes a long way and I think he uses it to mask the weakness of his story.

V for Vendetta was similarly disappointing. The movie version had its moments (the waves of citizens dressed as V) but the moral ambiguity of vigilantism, the difficulty of having a central character be, essentially, a cipher, was not handled well.

I liked Batman Begins, but not the second one. The only other comic book movie I like and I like it a lot) is Sin City.

vet said...

I didn't see 300 myself. I was put off by the combination of fulsome praise from people whose opinions I don't respect, with criticism from those I do.

Slow-fast motion - yeah, there's quite enough of that in Watchmen. A friend with whom I saw it commented: "The director should be forbidden from watching another John Woo film, ever."

Batman Begins is another one I missed. Ho hum. Maybe there might be some half-way decent comic-book movies out there after all. There are movies I quite enjoyed (Blade is the one I can think of right now), but none that I'd want to own on DVD.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your comparative critique.

Having read some other reviews of Watchmen, I've got to add my bit too!

(Andy Sayers' review is informative)

My opinion of Watchmen: Forgettable. Walking out of the theatre, there was nothing to stick in my memory banks.

Oh yes, Silk Spectre II is a perfect portrayal; I found her just as irritating in the comic book.

True, the physical casting was very fine - so lovely to see Rorschach...that is, Walter Kovacs. Scary dude. Strange that they couldn't get Nixon right.

It is great to see Matt Frewer in a major action movie. If only he had more screentime.

If only the script was more coherent.

The plotting would have muchly benefited from "showing, not narrating". This may have required the screenwriters to add more originality, so it is a good thing that they didn't put in more cliched scenes.

Some reviewers speak of the morality question raised in the last 20 minutes of the movie, but if they'd been a reader of good Science/Fantasy or pondered philosophical conundrums, the question has already been answered but no one likes the answer.

I'm not the producers' target audience. I found nothing engaging in the movie.

The cast of actors did a fine job. If only they'd had an interesting script. Or director/editor.

The better thought-provoking and disturbing movie to watch would be Dark City (1998); this one really prods the idea of what it means to be human. (Again, this 'human' question has already been answered and no-one likes the answer.)

Anyway, it's over now.

There once was a group of people
Who guarded the flock of sheeples.
Some in rags,
And some in tags,
And both the group and flock are creeples.


vet said...

I agree, the physical likeness of the actors to their characters in the book was amazing. (With the curious exception of Veidt/Ozymandias, who didn't look much like himself at all.)

I read the review you linked to, and it's my opinion that Mr Sayers is altogether too forgiving. As with The Golden Compass, I'd rather see no film at all than this distorted effort.

I'm delighted to see you citing Dark City, which has long been a favourite of mine. Zack Snyder should certainly be forced to watch it a dozen times, until he is able to say with conviction: "Action is Not Everything".