Friday, March 6, 2009

Feeling Blue

Any film that tried to truly capture the essence of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's Watchmen would by design have to be a massive, sprawling endeavor, overstuffed with ideas and ambitions. And director Zack Snyder has certainly produced a film along those lines, packed with philosophy, satire and a collection of delusional, depressed, needy and/or sociopathic "heroes." His film is nothing if not ambitious. Unfortunately, for every fascinating cinematic move he makes in this deconstruction of the super-hero genre, he also misses a mark in character, tone or storytelling.[bxA]

The film is a huge step up from Snyder's last film, "300," which was essentially a collection of wooden acting, bad dialogue and repetitive, mind-numbingly dull slow-motion action scenes. While all these elements exist in "Watchmen," there are also intriguing ideas, moments of inspired filmmaking and quality performances.

For example, Jackie Earle Haley delivers a nice mix of insanity, certitude and creepiness as Rorschach, a hardcore vigilante who looks a bit like a gangster or noir detective, if that noir detective covered his face with an animated black-and-white cloth.

The film takes place in an alternate reality mid-1980s, in which masked adventuring (to borrow a phrase from the comic book) came into being shortly after comic books introduced the concept in the late 1930s. They practiced their dress-up vigilanteism until recently, when congress outlawed all non-government-sanctioned heroes.

The United States certainly wouldn't outlaw its key to nuclear supremacy, the film's only character with actual super powers. This glowing, blue (and yes, usually naked) man, dubbed Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) to strike fear into the communists, came into being through an accident in a nuclear reactor. He won the Vietnam war, which led to five consecutive terms for President Nixon (Robert Wisden, who receives way too much screen time doing a bad impersonation while wearing horrendous makeup).

The first generation of heroes, as seen in an excellent opening montage set to Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changing," were killed, entangled in scandals or sent to the insane asylum, but another bunch emerged to take their place. None of them, however, could top the naked, blue hero, and stopped when it was clear that the public didn't want them anymore.

Rorschach is the only rogue vigilante who refuses to stop practicing his own brand of justice, with its narrow-minded, clear-cut vision of good and evil. When an unsavory hero known as the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) dies, Rorschach is convinced that someone has plotted to kill all the masked heroes, and warns his former colleagues, including his ex-partner Dan, formerly Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson), a Batman type with lots of gadgets who now lives a boring civilian life. Dan begins spending time with Laurie Jupiter, aka Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman), who got into the business because her mom wanted her to follow in her footsteps. Now she lives a cloistered life as the human liaison for her boyfriend, Dr. Manhattan.

Ozymandias, an Egyptian-themed hero dubbed the "smartest man on earth," retired and came out as Adrian Veidt, a celebrity millionaire succeeding in high-profile business ventures, including a line of toys based on himself and his crime-fighting partners. He and Dr. Manhattan are working on a free energy solution, an apparently altruistic enterprise that irks energy-minded businessmen for its "socialism."

If this seems like a lot to get through, even in 163 minutes, that's probably because it is. Snyder sometimes gets the pacing and balance right, but spends too much time on certain scenes, some of which don't need to be there at all, while racing through others. If a film is going to include a violent and disturbing rape scene, for example, it ought to follow the affected characters close enough to do it justice.

Snyder employs a wider visual arsenal than he did in "300," and nails certain scenes. The atmosphere of Rorschach's journal entires oozes a dark mood, and there are other examples of clever visual storytelling.

But he still loads the film with silly special effects and slow-motion shots that undermine the notion of ordinariness. His style is at odds with the realist tone that the story suggests. The point is that these heroes are just ordinary men, trying to be heroes in a world in which good and evil isn't so clear cut. But their fighting abilities are downright super-human. Characters jump around like cartoons and jump back up after their heads are violently smashed into walls. It's exactly the kind of caped porn that the film pretends it's deconstructing. Also, the attempts to recreate certain dual-story panels from the comics via cross-cutting comes off as out-of-place.

Snyder's greatest failure may be his inability to visualize Dr. Manhattan's perception of time. Unlike humans, he explains, he experiences all moments at once. But Snyder merely communicates this with a stock collection of flashbacks and no strong point-of-view or compelling editing structure. When this device serves as the basis of a major revelation—one that wasn't built-up-to very well to begin with—it comes off as completely clumsy and unconvincing.

The film's art direction is its greatest accomplishment. While obviously owing much to Gibbons's artwork and Moore's scripts (and a bit to "Dr. Strangelove" in Nixon's war room), Alex McDowell's production design brims over with strong atmosphere and clever details. In the one setting in which McDowell and Snyder departed significantly from the original design, Ozymandias's arctic retreat, the alterations not only look great, but actually fit the character better.

The adaptation restructures certain parts of the story, but is extremely faithful to its source material. Much of the dialogue is lifted verbatim out of the comic book—I've only read it once, but in several scenes I knew exactly what each character was going to say, word for word.

With the exception of Rorschach's narrated journal, most of the words play out as awkward and stilted on screen. Malin Akerman gives a particularly dreadful performance, delivering each of her lines with the conviction of a text-reading computer program. Patrick Wilson and Matthew Goode embarass themselves at times as well.

This clumsiness can partly be attributed to poor direction of acting—Snyder's films give the impression that he has a Lucasesque tendency to focus so deeply on his visual trickery that he forgets to pay attention to his actors' performances. But perhaps the screenplay should have relied less on Moore's dialogue, which may be better suited to the printed page.

When the screenplay does delve into original dialogue, it's uneven, and often reflects a desire to clearly spell out the film's meanings. The closing scene between Laurie and her mother features a particularly cringe-inducing line.

There are also some triumphs of adaptation. While I'm sure that some fanboys will disagree, the concept of the film's modified ending not only holds true to the book's vision, but actually improves it, efficiently integrating the characters and creating a cinematic pace. It's conceit is also more convincing than the comic's ending. The execution itself leaves something to be desired, however, with generic fight scenes and a conspicuous lack of the nauseating shock and horror that the scene demands. That mix of admiration of ideas and frustration with execution embodies the experience "Watchmen" delivers.

3 comments:

--UtahMixologist said...

Great review. One thing I don't get though, is why a superhero named after a cocktail should scare the Ruskies?

jim emerson said...

Enjoyed this review immensely. And the first comment, too -- a mixology joke!

Dr. Z said...

"Lucasesque" eh?