Watchmen castI followed Watchmen when it was first released, one issue at a time, back in 1986-’87, well before the collected edition appeared. It was must-read material at the time, and the month-to-month suspense was tremendous. In fact, I routinely ordered an extra copy or two just to pass around the dorm, as several friends of mine (not all comics readers beforehand) quickly got hooked on it.

It was groundbreaking then, and it still holds up today:  a formally innovative, intricately structured story, with a visual design that was painstakingly detailed and a backstory even more so. Self-referential, ironic, dark, and multifaceted, all its elements working together, both de- and re-constructing super-hero tropes in the context of real-world politics, psychological realism, and complicated moral themes. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons set a high-water mark for what comics can accomplish.

And now, after a long and circuitous process of development stretching over 22 years, Watchmen has finally made it to the screen. I saw it last night.

Where are my socks? I think they got knocked off somewhere…

This was a fantastic, gripping, engrossing movie experience. It had me right from the opening credits, which very effectively (and atmospherically) summarize much of the long-term background (presented only in text “backups” to the book’s main story) as a series of tableaux… overlaid by a period song that sets the mood perfectly, in a nod to Moore’s epigrammatic use of lyrics in the book.

There are similar nods throughout the film, as it evokes the book in a loving and attentive way, but without trying slavishly to imitate it. Director Zack Snyder has said he and the cast used the graphic novel as an unofficial storyboard, and it’s easy to tell. They’ve brought the book vividly to life.

For the record, like any movie, it’s not above criticism. I’ve heard the complaint that it lacks the subtext of the book, and that’s true to an extent:  it’s a movie, and even at 155 minutes it just doesn’t have the time for all the layers and careful stage-setting that Moore and Gibbons included. It’s a bit more linear than the book. But the central throughline of the story is there, as are the backgrounds and motivations of all the core characters, as are the troubling and thought-provoking themes.

While we’re criticizing, I would add that while the book does have its violent aspects, at several points the film amps up the level of graphic bloodshed depicted on-screen, a creative choice I could have done without. Also, while the cast of (relative) unknowns are all consistently good (and in particular Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach is absolutely spectacular), avoiding the distraction of recognizable “stars,” the one performance-related exception in my eyes might be Matthew Goode as Ozymandias:  he’s not bad per se, but he just doesn’t quite capture the sense of overpowering charisma the character needs.

There are a few bits from the book that don’t play quite as well on-screen; some of the voice-over narration, for instance. On the other hand, there are other areas where the movie exceeds its source material—notably including the action sequences, filmed in a lush and acrobatic style that is IMHO far superior to the sort of quick-cutting murkiness that marred, for example, Chris Nolan’s otherwise excellent Batman films.

Really, as criticism goes, that’s it. I’ve heard and read reviews complaining that it’s too long; that it’s visually flat; that it’s too caught up in flashbacks and non-linear storytelling… and I honestly have no idea what movie these critics saw. This movie has texture, both narrative and visual. Every scene contributes to the whole. It’s an elaborate construct, just like the book, and as the pieces are gradually assembled it’s a joy to watch them come together. There are moments that make you laugh, moments that make you cringe, moments that make you pump your fist… and every one serves a purpose. It builds a whole reality, as Moore did in the original (and as all the best SF does, really), around one central conceit that makes the world a different place.

Watchmen coverSnyder, his screenwriters, cast, and crew have done for Watchmen what Peter Jackson and company did for Lord of the Rings… which was also long considered unfilmable. It’s a case study of how to translate a work from one medium to another while maintaining the utmost respect for the source material. (The film does change the book’s climax a bit, but in all honesty it improves on it.) Judged strictly as a film, it may not be quite the masterpiece the LOTR trilogy was… but that’s praising with very faint damns indeed. And it’s worth noting that LOTR works better in the Director’s Cuts than in the truncated theatrical releases, cut for time just as this was… which leaves me looking forward with anticipation to this July’s DVD release of Watchmen‘s extended edition.

In the meantime, let me echo this woman’s advice:  you are totally going to see it. Don’t waste any time, just get to a theater. And after that, if you haven’t already done so, go buy and read the book. No excuses. You’ll thank me later.

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9 Responses to “The WATCHMEN movie: wow.”
  1. Andrew says:

    It’s worth being … that’s all you guys should know, after you’ve seen it you will surely have a lot of things to argue on … both good and bad, as with any top movie!

  2. Alan Moore, the author of V for Vendetta, is the same guy who wrote Watchmen. His politics are probably best described as “anarchist” rather than liberal or conservative, actually. Watchmen in particular, though… and this comes through in the movie too… is very deliberate about confounding expectations based on political preconceptions. Several of the characters seem to represent political archetypes, but each of them is convinced he’s acting according to higher principles… and each is both right and wrong at different moments. It’s a story that raises lots of troubling questions about ends and means.

    That said, much of the right really does seem to hate it with a passion (although Jonah Goldberg makes excuses for liking it “despite” (his simplistic view of) its politics). Perhaps that’s because it does raise troubling questions, rather than just offer simple answers. See my next post for more on this…

  3. phil from new york says:

    Commenting on a movie I haven’t seen based on a book I hadn’t heard of two or three weeks ago is more fun than writing about the Great Depression of 2009-2016. So allow me one more comment on the movie, which I see racked up an estimated $77 million over the weekend. Below is a link from a writer at Entertainment Weekly who thinks right-wingers won’t like the movie, which is a pretty good endorsement by itself for going to see it:

    http://popwatch.ew.com/popwatch/2009/03/watchmen-rush-l.html

    So if this guy is correct and right-wingers won’t like the movie, does that mean the story has a liberal message? I guess so if Nixon is in his fifth term and Woodward and Bernstein were bumped off. The article also mentioned something about Alan Moore liking the politics of the ’60s. That’s a topic near and dear to my aging heart.

    And, yes, Chris, I was in a bookstore within the past two weeks, but, alas, I have no recollection of seeing anything about The Watchmen. So I have you to thank for enlightening me, as you did for “V for Vendetta,” which I had never heard of either. But I really liked the movie and still enjoy watching the 1812-Overture ending when the movie is rerun on cable.

  4. Phil-
    Old as dirt or not, I have to surmise that you haven’t been in a bookstore in the last year ;-)… because the book (which has never gone out of print) has been prominently displayed everywhere and flying off the shelves in anticipation of the film. But, for a quick primer that avoids spoilers: Yes, it’s an alternate history in which culture and politics have developed differently (and not really for the better) due to the existence of (in general) costumed vigilantes and (specifically) that central conceit, one genuine superhuman.

    Some people have more trouble with alternate histories than others, as the writer of your link exemplifies. (Her query about Watergate, for instance, is actually answered in the film, as in the book, with an oblique reference to the early demise of Woodward and Bernstein, implicitly at the hands of a certain government-employed vigilante.) Personally, I usually enjoy them, not least for the way they undercut assumptions about “how things are” that we too easily take for granted.

    Overall, anyway, she’s right about one thing—it’s not for children (hence the R rating)—but wrong in her expectation that it would be just another “super-hero movie.” It’s far more ambitious than that. And no, it really doesn’t require one to have read the book in advance. (Ebert hasn’t, for instance.)

    Michael-
    Well, “a week or two” is just fine, of course. (Your local theaters drop tickets to half-price that quickly?) The point I’d underscore, though, is that this the kind of film that deserves to be seen on the big screen… waiting for cable or DVD would definitely diminish the effect.

    And it was *22* years ago now, you old fogey, you!…

  5. michael says:

    As one of the friends you introduced to the book *twenty years ago,* I’m looking forward to the film, despite Ebert’s positive review. But I see no reason to run, especially when in a week or two I can see it for half price. When the time comes, I hope my bladder can handle the nearly three hours I’ll have to spend in my seat!

  6. phil from new york says:

    I’m just a messenger here. I have no dog in this fight because, being as old as dirt, I had never heard of The Watchmen before I started seeing the previews on TV a couple of weeks ago, and I still don’t understand who The Watchmen are. But here’s a negative review of the movie I encountered at one of the political web sites I read. I take it that this person’s feelings are in the minority of those who have seen the movie. Maybe the movie sits better with people who read the “book”? I also saw someone saying he thought this would have worked better as a 12-part HBO series.

    I do have to say that I’m intrigued that this is a story about Nixon being in his 5th term? And we won the Vietnam War? Sounds like a right-winger’s wet dream, except for the fact that there never would have been a Reagan presidency.

    Here’s the link to the review: http://www.consortiumnews.com/2009/030809a.html

  7. It’s a question of aesthetics, I guess. I freely admit that I’m squeamish. I think the point about the blurring of “good” and “bad” was there in the book; it’s not as if it shied away from the subject, but its presentation of the violence was a bit more… well, “tasteful” isn’t quite the word, but at least “subdued.” And I’m taking into account that events written about (or even drawn) on a page are naturally less disquieting than those happening in visceral living color on screen. Given that fact, I question why it was necessary, even when the same basic events were depicted, to present them in a more graphic way on screen. The prison cell scene springs particularly to mind.

    Again, I’m not saying that any of the events per se were inappropriate to the story. It’s a question of what I want to have to look at (as opposed to leaving it to the imagination). This sort of thing is the reason I can’t imagine seeing Sin City a second time (and was grateful it was at least in B/W), and also why I completely avoided Snyder’s last picture, 300. Thankfully, Watchmen isn’t as gut-churning as either of those… but it did have its moments.

    Still… great movie. FWIW, Roger Ebert not only gave it four stars in a glowing review, but also blogged about its metatextual and metaphysical aspects after a second viewing.

    I really can’t wait to see the extended version; I know it has more of Hollis Mason, and among other things, I’m hoping it also has more of Rorshach’s interaction with the psychologist.

  8. phredd says:

    Yeah, I’ve seen some negative reviews and I’m not getting it. I saw it with two friends who, while totally nerds, had not read Watchmen, and they both enjoyed it and understood the plot and the themes just fine. First comment from one of them was, “That was fucked up!”, said with a grin. His second comment, “Great soundtrack.”

    I differ with you about the violence, which is unusual for me, as I usually detest graphic violence in films, but in this case I thought it served the film well, especially the bit where Dan and Laurie go in for a bit of the ultraviolence as the topper to their post-coital snuggle. Really takes the shine off of them as ‘The Good Guys’. I also felt that the gore actually served to anchor the human element of the film, strangely enough. Even Dr. Manhattan’s killing was horrible and ugly. There was no way to get around what these people could and would do, and did.

  9. Maggie says:

    Hey Chris – glad to know someone who’s opinion I respect likes this. Like you, I was a month-to-month fan – and I’ve been watching the movie previews and online notes wondering – am I gonna love it, or is it just going to piss me off?! Can’t wait to see it!

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