Tuesday, March 10, 2009
So, let me preface, I have never read the Watchmen graphic novel; in fact I had not even really heard of it before the film starting generating such crazy (slightly nauseating) buzz. Apparently it's big...huge...massive. It's a holy temple to some, and after watching the film I think I understand why, even if I didn't fully buy into the movie as a whole. Set in an alternate version of the mid-1980s, where Richard Nixon is in his fifth term as president and a Doomsday Clock ticks symbolically to nuclear devastation. It's the Cold War, and there exists a brand of retired superheroes. It's heady, audacious, incredibly dense stuff originally written by Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore (who as in the case of V for Vendetta, opts yet again to go uncredited), and for the first say 45 minutes of the film, it seems that director Zack Synder is up to the challenge. Then the film, seems to succumb to the limitations of the genre. The problem I believe is that the Watchmen mythology is a cult thing through and through, and Synder addresses the cult, but then proceeds to pander to the mainstream anyway. And so, what develops is a challenging piece of pop cinema, that's neither total disaster, nor complete triumph-- which is almost the worst position to be in with material with the potential to be so daring.
I can honestly say that the best aspect of the film is the opening title sequence, where a history of the superheroes are seen in snapshots, while Bob Dylan's "Times They Are a Changing." You see the first set of "Watchmen", or Minutemen and their decades long transformation. It's without question the wittiest and most engaging part of the film. Then again I'm a sucker for a good opening title sequence (why don't they seem to exist anymore) and have always been smitten with Dylan. I have to say that the first few minutes genuinely got my interested and excited about the possibilities-- could this actually be the next step in grand superhero films (like The Dark Knight), and not trash like Synder's own 300.
The actually story starts out with the death of The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan)- real name Edward Blake. He's one of the original "Watchmen" and has a penchant for crimes about women and killing hippies. He's been found and killed at the age of 67. At this point, the "Watchmen" are long retired, fairly reviled in town, and off to individual gloom. The Comedian's death inspires Rorschach (played with mad, feverish gusto by Jackie Earle Haley)-- a paranoid man in a white mask with roving ink spots who walks in the rain, all noir-like, and carries a Travis Bickle-style journal-- to reach out to his ex-Watchmen and warn them of a potential wacking of "masks." The rest of the group consists of Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), the smartest man in the world, and only superhero who sold out his identity and cashed in on it. Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), a giant blue governmental weapon (he ended the Vietnam War in a week) whose human form was mutated after a accident occurred when he was a young nuclear physicist. Dr. Manhattan is in love with Silk Spectre II (Malin Ackerman), a second generation super prone to tight latex costumes and whinning. The last group member is another second generation mask Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson), a bulking Superman type-- out of all them, he's the one true boy scout in a team of anti-heroes and straight out sociopaths.
The most inspired part of the film occurs in it's first half. It's mostly flashbacks and execution of the characters. It informs the characters and the complicated web of Gibbons and Moore's masterwork. From what I've heard, the only difference in text to screen is the a tweaking of the ending. This seems be a strength and weakness-- it works in opening the characters and events, but feels too trapped and bogged down by extreme faithfulness when the story starts reaching it's climax. I realize this is a double-edged sword, as the Watchmen cult is one of the most feverish of comic book nerds, ready with stink eye in toe at whatever indescritions Synder might throw, but it's weakness to those unfamilar with the holy text, and leaves it a bit cold. What does come across crystal clear is Synder must be pleased with the outcome-- many shots are framed are kept still for quite a while (notable since every other action film is sped up to extreme-- thank you Bourne films), which makes the experience slightly colder (at least for me.) What starts out as something promising and mammoth ends up not quite adding up to the sum of its parts and drifting more and more in a series of pretentious production design with Matrix rip off action sequences.
Much has already been made of some lukewarm reviews and and softer opening weekend than expected ($55 million), considering the huge hulabaloo centering Watchmen in the past year (personally I blame Comic-Con), but as much as there is complain about the overall film, I couldn't out and out hate it. There's something obsessive worthy about this band of parodied superheroes and anti-heroes that film sparks but never seems to be able to fully flesh out. There's some exciting set pieces-- a beautiful scene on Mars (where Dr. Manhattan goes in recluse) in the center of the film is exciting and more metaphysically challenged than superhero films allow themselves to go. And there's some genuinely terrific performances-- Billy Crudup makes the naked (yep, it's true, you see it all) CG blue guy part work-- he capabily brings pathos to this special effect. Wilson and Morgan come across equally charming in differing characters-- Wilson's boy scout is decent but smart, while Morgan's Comedian is slick and devious.
Haley's performance is brave in it's daring (how shocking that a film that reportedly cost $150 millions to make would bring about an actor so idiosyncratic and perfect-- again this is why I can't honestly hate too much here.) However my favorite performance in the film was one of it's smallest-- Carla Gugino of Sin City fame plays Silk Spectre I, mother and ex-superhero. Even in the smallish role, she seems to understand this universe moreso than anyone else, especially the vacant Ackerman. She plays the hell out of her damaged character and plays to the rafters-- it's a bit over-the-top, but perfectly pitched-- someone should give her a movie, now! And so, like I said, I can't completely hate these flawed, but interesting Watchmen. B-