Friday, February 20, 2009

(ALMOST) Spoiler-Free Review of WATCHMEN

I had a chat with the impossibly lucky and incredibly well-versed Matt Harper over at MTV. He is the resident comic nerd over there, and with a degree in Cultural Studies, he actually has a fair amount to say about movies. So, of course, his opinion is pretty valid when it comes to comic book cinema, so I bugged him about his experience having a super-secret peak at the highly anticipated Watchmen movie out next month.

Ok - quick rundown: Watchmen is written by Alan Moore and is a graphic novel, and it kind of exploded a lot of ideas about comic books being about tits and guns. It takes place on the eve of a Soviet attack on the US, and a bunch of half-washed up "costumed adventurers" dealing with the problem of not being wanted anymore. There are no superpowers, except for Dr. Manhattan, who is a literal Atom Man, further deepening our nuclear-age anxiety, and Dr. Manhattan is the US's greatest protection against invasion. And costumed adventurer and war hero The Comedian is dead, so schizo/moral-upholder Rorschrach investigates if someone is wiping out heroes to cover-up something much larger than Soviets.

Zack Snyder, of the divisive "300", has undertaken the movie - and clearly the Soviet anxiety will bring up comparisons to 9/11, etc. Fans are torn: this is like filming "War and Peace" for Russian Lit enthusiasts, "Neuromancer" for hackers or even The Bible. Really.

So I gave Matt a few questions, and he had more than insightful answers, so here is a first glimpse from a real authority:

Battledroid: Zack Snyder is gratuitous, slick and overly produced. Does this help Watchmen, or does it take away from Alan Moore's grittiness?

Matt Harper: Ok, you kind of guessed one of my criticisms...some of the gritty realism of 1980's New York is lost in the slick translation. That being said, i have to give Snyder tons of credit for not holding back with the dark tone of the movie. It is 100% a hard 'R'...lots of gory violence and graphic sex. (Note: there is one particular violent scene that is missing...I’m sure many people fans will notice and complain about its absence, but Snyder has promised that it had to be cut for time, and will be in the director's cut)

Courtesy of MTV

Battledroid: Give me a brief plot outline:

MH: Dont be lazy! Read the book. There's your plot outline. Seriously. (There is one main divergence, and a few small omissions, but generally they all make sense...)

Battledroid: What actors did an incredible job? Who shined? Who was hard to take and why?

MH: Jackie Earle Haley was amazing - its jarring to hear Rorschach speak for the first time...but you get used to it quickly. And there is one particularly line in the prison that Jackie Earle Haley “nails” (and interestingly, is not spoken by Rorschach directly in the book). Malin Ackerman is a bit weak, but a lot of her scenes are with a CGI character...although, I should also mention that I find the Laurie’s character completely annoying in the book, and i think some of the changes they made to her were an improvement character wise anyways.

Battledroid: The genius of Watchmen is the self-referential glorification of comic book history and the tension between Golden/Silver/Modern age ideals. How did the movie deal with flashbacks? Was it effective? Did the comic book-ness lose out on the big screen, or were you still able to make those connections between the comic book archetypes and the movie? Or did they characters become "action heroes"?

MH: Obviously some of the flashbacks had to be cut for time...the character that suffered the most in this respect was Nite Owl...BUT where Zack Snyder really succeeded was in creating a totally believable and immerse world/history. There is so much detail in every shot. So yes, Dr. Malcolm Long has a much smaller, and less interesting role, but he's still there at least.

As far as whether they become "action heroes"...Snyder has embellished a lot of the action sequences...but I understand his reasoning for this. But I think he's managed to keep a lot of the realism, pathos, and moral ambiguity of the characters, so in this respect, they are never *fully* glorified as heroes...if anything they are small, narrow-minded, and ultimately ineffective - exactly as they should be. (My one caveat is that I cant fathom how Silk Spectre is such a good fighter...even after being retired for a decade, and wearing high heels...but that was a problem I had with the book as well, so whatever [BD NOTE: Laurie doesn’t smoke in the movie!!!])

Courtesy of MTV

Battldroid: Rorschrach: Was he portrayed as a good guy or a bad guy? Hollywood needs one, and Rorschrach is neither...

MH: I *kind* of agree with that statement...but Hollywood also loves a badass. Rorschach is portrayed exactly as he is in the book. He sees himself as a morally superior avenger, others see him as a psychopathic vigilante. What I’ve always loved about Moore’s book is that every character has a different moral outlook on the world...yet all of their outlooks are flawed. And thankfully this is something that Snyder hasn’t
Messed with.

On that note though, I think this movie is going to be very hard for non-watchmen fans to relate to simply for that reason - there really is no character for the audience to identify with...

Battledroid: How awesome was Bubastis? Seriously.

MH: Seriously? Um, good I guess, but not in very many scenes at all. Ozymandias still kills him though!

Courtesy of MTV

Battledroid: My favorite interaction in the whole series is between the kid and the newspaper vendor. Did that happen?

MH: Yes, but no. It was shot, but is not in the movie (though you can see them in a few shots). Snyder has promised that in the fall, a super-long edition (3:30 I think) of the film will be released, which will include those scenes with Bernie and Bernard, as well as the Tales of the Black Freighter interstitial.

Battledroid: Can you talk in depth about one really wonderful, exhilarating sequence, i.e. the highlight of the movie? Where did it drag?

MH: Hmmm. Its hard to pick out just one moment, really. I guess the origin flashback for Dr. Manhattan - but I think that's mostly just because I love the character, and i think they pretty much nailed him. I guess its not the highlight of the movie, but it stands out in my mind at this moment

Also, the title sequence is “amazing” and perfect.


Aaaand, I guess the scene that drags is the conversation between dr. Manhattan and laurie on mars...mostly because this is a long conversation, and Malin Akerman isn’t that great. (although I should mention that they cut down the conversation noticeably...including my favorite line from the whole convo [NOTE: The line about everyone being a puppet on strings, Manhattan is only able to see his]). Oh also related to that scene, her realization that the comedian is her father is kind of lame in the movie...


Battledroid: Will fans love this movie? Will the general populace? How does it compare next to 300? If you were Grumpy Old Crazy Alan Moore, what would you think?

MH: If they are reasonable, yes. It’s really hard to imagine anyone doing a better job adapting this book. So if a fan isn’t happy with this movie, chances are that they wont be satisfied by *any* adaptation. Will the general populace?…Doubtful. I saw the movie with a few people who were unfamiliar with the book, and they hated it. Its really hard to approached if you don’t know what you're getting in to. Which is sad, because it really is a pretty good adaptation.

And as for crazy old Alan Moore? He would probably hate it too...not because it disrespects, or does disservice to his masterpiece, but because watchmen was written by him *specifically* for the printed much of the book's storytelling techniques exploits the printed medium, so ultimately a lot of genius of the book cannot be completely and faithfully translated to any other format. (And also because Alan Moore really is a crazy old man at this some of his recent work if you don’t believe me)

Again though, Zack Snyder has done as good a job as is humanly possible. I think people should think of the movie as a monument to the book...or a companion piece. What is accomplished by the film is amazing and breathtaking, but is not meant to, nor does it, replace the book by any means.

I should add that overall, Watchmen is the most faithful comic book adaptation i have EVER seen...there were so many moments that i literally felt like panels had come to life...[NOTE: He also said this about “300”]

Again, like I said, I think people should judge it somewhat separate from Moore's work...keeping in mind that there are some things that are just impossible to translate from the printed page.

Indeed Matt Harper, indeed.

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