A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Watchmen (Director’s Cut)

April 23, 2010

Watchmen (Director’s Cut)

How do you review a movie that was widely agreed to be unfilmable? Terry Gilliam – one of my personal idols and favorite film-makers – famously decided that he couldn’t make this book into a movie. As a huge fan of the original book I’m obviously going to spend a lot of time talking about the transition from book to screen. I very much wish that I could have watched this movie with somebody who has not read the book yet. I want to know if it has the same emotional impact as a film as it did as a book to me. The book, when I read it back in the eighties, blew me away. And continued to blow me away for years to come as I re-read it and discovered all the little details and parallels and foreshadowings that Alan Moore layered into it. Really, the book is one of the greatest pieces of dramatic storytelling I can recall ever reading, with it’s ultra tight writing, astonishing world building, and apocalyptic tone. But since I’m so familiar with the world and the characters and the story I’m not blown away by the movie. Watching the movie is not like discovering an awesome and frightening alternate reality for me, it’s more like coming home to a place I’ve known for years. I wish I knew if the movie was capable of that earthshaking emotional punch to the gut.

I can’t say. I can only say that it doesn’t have that effect for me. For me the movie is a very different experience. Zack (Visionary Director of the 300) Snyder has done an admirable job capturing all these images and moments from the book. It feels like a betrayal to his monumental accomplishment that I spend so much time noticing the minutia that are different in this version. The rounded electric cars and lightplugs don’t show up until the very end of the film, instead of being present from the very first shot. The Comedian’s gruesome scar simply isn’t in the film at all. At the end of the scene in Vietnam where Jon recollects the Comedian gunning down the pregnant woman in the book Jon is lost in thought standing half through a fallen table, an early sign that he’s losing the ability to even pretend to be human any more, but in the movie that detail is missing.

Ironically I find that my favorite moments in the movie are the bits that depart most from the book. The radically altered (but thematically similar) ending is great. It makes the whole alternate universe easier to accept. The opening credit sequence, although I don’t agree with the way it lays out the entire alternate world for the audience rather than letting them discover the differences gradually as you do in the book, is a fantastic bit of film-making and really draws you into the world. The final reveal of Roschach’s origin is more visceral and less cerebral than in the book, but I like it better. (I’ve always felt that the book ripped off the climax of Mad Max anyhow.) The line “Men get arrested, dogs get put down” is NOT in the book, but it is so perfectly Rorschach, and it works so perfectly well for the moment. Better than the book in my opinion.

Ahh. We’re just now watching the moment when Jon arrives in Mars. With the Philip Glass Soundtrack from Koyaanisquatsi (which was the reason we put this movie in tonight.) This segment, and the bits with Rorschach in prison, are the parts of the movie that most evoke for me the feelings I got reading the book. Yes there are a lot of major cuts to make the bits work on film. Gone is the fat man who steps on Janey’s watch – which was the reason Jon went back into the intrinsic field experiment. Gone is the gradual over-the-decades decrease in Jon’s clothing (fully dressed in a suit, then with his full purple costume, then with his thong, then eventual complete nudity) which parallels his lost humanity. But the feeling is the same. The sequence feels truly alien and inhuman. I like that.

The general feel of the meld of computer animation and motion capture that transforms Billy Crudup into Doctor Manhattan is fantastic. His performance is so disconnected and aloof, but also so vulnerable and lost. It’s perfect. And Jackie Earle Haley is unbelievable as Rorschach. He does Rorschach’s raspy voice precisely as I heard it in my head. Him screaming “give me back my face!” is one of those instants where the movie and book are absolutely perfectly in sync. I love it.

However, there is also a lot in the movie that does not work. There’s a lot more violence than is necessary, for example. The battle that Laurie and Dan have in the alleyway is full of extreme moments that just don’t work for me. They throw the knot-tops around like rag dolls, as though they have super strength. The whole point of the book is that aside from Jon all the heroes are just normal people who, for whatever reason, decide to go out and fight crime. They don’t have any special powers, just whatever training they’ve picked up. The same thing sullies the end of the movie. There’s a rock-em-sock-em knockdown fight at the conclusion that detracts from the true power of the moment. Indeed I generally didn’t like Matthew Goode’s performance as Ozymandias. He doesn’t seem tortured enough. He comes across as effete and ineffectual, not as “the smartest man on earth.” Which probably explains a lot of why I didn’t get much of the feel at the end of the movie that I wanted from it.

I think Zack Snyder is more in tune with the vision of Frank Miller than with Alan Moore. Alan Moore wrote a book full of gritty realism (even if it took place in a slightly different reality than our own.) There’s a moment in the prison break when we get a still image of a man with both his arms cut off – it’s not in the book (there he just gets his throat slit.) It looks like a moment from 300 or Sin City – not like anything I’d expect from Moore.

I also miss all the lesser characters from the book. In this director’s cut you do see the street corner with the news vendor and the kid reading the comic book, but you don’t get the feel for all the people who’s lives are intertwined there. Again, it hurts the emotional impact of the end of the movie that you don’t get to know the policemen and the taxi driver and the psychiatrist and his wife and all of them. I guess that’s part of why the book was unfilmable. There’s just too much – it’s too dense. The book is an amazing masterpiece that uses its medium to the greatest possible extent. In order to move it to the cinema it has to be distilled, reduced. Maybe in the process it’s inevitable that it lose its soul.

Still, for a movie that should have been unfilmable, I think Zack did an admirable job. I may not get the gut feeling that I had back in the day, but it’s great to see all these characters realized in film. I often wondered how it would look so see Rorschach’s face in a big budget film, morphing and squidging. It’s not perfect (it should have no gray, just black and white never mixing, isolated from each other and uncompromising – which was what attracted Rorschach to the material in the first place) but it’s still pretty damned cool.

ETA: I want to say something as well about the scene with Hollis Mason’s death in the Director’s Cut. This one little scene, which wasn’t even in the theatrical release, hit me more emotionally than the whole rest of the film. It’s another departure from the book in that it presents all these flashbacks of Hollis and his career as the Night Owl, but it’s one of those great departures that is almost better than the book in some ways. Melancholy and beautiful in a sad end-of-an-era way. If only the whole film could have hit me that way.

April 23, 2010 - Posted by | daily reviews | , , ,

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