Thursday, 12 March 2009

Watchmen: film review

So, further to previous Watchmen-related posts, I saw the film at Exeter Vue yesterday.

Overall impression: a superb film, with some qualifications.

It's a film where reaction will strongly depend on how well you know the graphic novel. As I do know it, I can't really fault it the majority of it as a visually perfect adaptation. To a large extent it was clearly story-boarded straight from the Watchmen book, with only minor alternations (parts removed include the pirate-comic countertext, and the plot threads about the newsstand vendor, the prison psychiatrist's home life and the bickering lesbian couple, as well as altering to no real detriment - and even logical improvement - the precise form of apocalypse toward the end).

All that said, if I didn't know the book, I'd have still enjoyed it but have been sitting Googling afterward to help put the pieces together. The film starts with the murder by defenestration of a grizzled middle-aged man (despite his evident ability to defend himself) - his death is the focus of the whodunnit/conspiracy plot that is the film's main thread. It then moves into an exposition of the backstory via film clips and photo-tableaux - I suspect mimicking Annie Leibovitz, who's among the characters though I didn't spot her 1) that outlines an alternate 20th century in which Nixon, having won the Vietnam War, is still president in 1988. We see triumphant group photos of costumed heroes, one image posed as The Last Supper; a battle in a speakeasy; the same heroes with a cast of famous people such as John F Kennedy, Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, and no doubt many others I missed; a raving man in moth costume dragged to a hospital van; a dead costumed hero in the doorway of a bank; an evidently lesbian heroine seen kissing a nurse at the WWII victory celebrations, then the crime scene of their murder; the Kennedy assasination (where we see the window man, younger, as the gunman on the grassy knoll); the March on the Pentagon scene followed, in this reality, by the National Guard firing on the Flower Power protesters; a Wagnerian helicopter attack accompanied by a giant blue man (who turns out to be "Doc Manhattan", the only character with super-powers); and the same blue man reflected in Armstrong's visor taking his photograph on the Moon...

This was all a clever and visually spot-on creation, but there would be the problem. If I didn't know the background, the rapid dump of information would have been insufficiently explicit that I think I'd have been floundering on what exactly was the scenario when the story proper began. I think I'd have still enjoyed it a lot, but I go with Alan Moore's comments to the effect that there's a major problem with altering the medium; with a comic you can go back at your leisure "nice and cozy next to a fire, with a steaming cup of coffee" to re-read and correlate, but with the film it comes straight at you in a continuous stream. On that basis, the film probably works best watched as beautifully-developed accessory material, an additional experience for those who already know the background inside-out.

I found the overall atmosphere surprisingly dark and violent compared to the graphic novel. Visually, it confirmed my impressions on seeing the ‘Watchmen’ Trailer to Comic Comparison: film and comic colourings are stylised in different ways, and unless a film-maker chooses to go radically against realism (as in the vivid Dick Tracy) the cinematic appearances of, say, dark rainy city streets, a funeral in rain, and the surface of Mars are bound to be fairly downbeat.

As to the violence, film necessarily fills out sequences told quite sparingly; for instance, a whole fight that is the book is told via a few frames, and it also has more impact when brought out of the flat, silent print format. That said, there were signs of the urge to up the action in action sequences; for instance, a break-in by Nite Owl II and Silk Spectre II to a rioting prison, achieved in the book largely unopposed by the use of sonic "screechers", was turned into a pitched martial arts battle. Instances like this, and their general failure to use minimum force, weakened the book's distinction between these (marginally) more humane characters and the violent and uncompromising Rorschach.

The acting overall was very good, with any tendency to star-spot removed by a relatively low-key cast. Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach and Matthew Goode as the effete Ozymandias were particularly well cast; and Billy Crudup, despite the jokes (Unreal Nature's Julie Heyward pointed me to Anthony Lane's beautifully vicious New Yorker review, Dark Visions, that described his character as "buff, buck naked, and blue, like a porn star left overnight in a meat locker") produced a subtle characterisation, even under all the ńĆerenkov-like CGI, that brought out perfectly the other-worldliness of Doc Manhattan. The point is perhaps lost on reviewers not au fait with the graphic novel that Doc Manhattan goes naked not as exhibitionism but because, having been transformed into a godlike entity who is increasingly drifting away from understanding human concerns, human taboos no longer matter to him.

Anyhow, excellent film on balance, and I recommend it. Don't drink gallons of tea before going in, though; you'll be there for 162 minutes, not counting the usual half-hour trailer material that most cinemas have these days. See the official website for sampler material.

Addendum, 17th March: Felix just sent me a clipping of Peter Bradshaw's Guardian review, whose print form appeared under the header Get cape. Wear cape. Flail. It's a very fair assessment that's unusual among the UK newspaper reviews in catching, whatever the film's faults, the richness of its historical/cultural mix. I also rather like the spoof on YouTube spoof, Saturday Morning Watchmen.

1. Yes. Having Googled her work - particularly, her Killers Kill, Dead Men Die, a series of film noir scenarios shot with Old Masters chiaroscuro and what appears to be high dynamic range - I think it was a definite homage.

- Ray


  1. Reviews that I've seen (other than Lane's) have been overwhelmingly positive. PZ Meyer loved it.

    I will be looking forward to seeing it when it comes out on DVD -- and I will then be able to let you know if it makes sense without any prior knowledge of the story beyond what you've told me on this blog.

    I really liked Ironman (the movie) and I had no prior knowledge of that one.

  2. I'll certainly get out the DVD to study the intro. I'm grateful to it over a side-issue: getting me to look more closely at Annie Liebovitz's work (I knew the Vogue covers and the b&w portraits, but had never seen the Vermeer-meets-Hopper work). Some of it has skated well off the edge of kitsch, but I still like it.

  3. I think most people who like her, enjoy Liebovitz for her cleverness -- even slyness. She's amazingly inventive.

    Unfortunately, I think she's become trapped in it. She's hired to be clever and her employers don't want to see anything that is other than slyly clever.

    I like to look at her stuff just for the intelligence of her method. And I admire her for ... just being Liebovitz.