Tuesday, March 3, 2009

It's Almost A Little Too Faithful

3 out of 4

There are two perspectives that can be taken when seeing "Watchmen." One is from a person who has read the graphic novel and the other is from somebody who hasn't. Both perspectives have their own pros and cons. As someone having read the novel, disappointment is inevitable and yet there is much less confusion. For the person who hasn't read the novel, disappointment is avoidable and yet confusion is inevitable as a newcomer to this sometimes bizarre dystopia. It's hard to say which perspective actually gets the better end of the deal because, in all honesty, "Watchmen" was something that, if ever translated onto the screen, must have been done absolutely right. As such an intricately-woven, dense, and visionary piece of work that made Time magazine's list of 100 best novels, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' graphic novel felt like something that would be impossible to squeeze into a movie. And yet, here we are, looking at the adaptation from director Zack Snyder ("300") that can't be considered anything less than highly ambitious. The film adaptation manages to balance the negatives of both sides of the spectrum into something rather approachable without being too disappointing to fans.

You could say there is a third perspective, as well, and that is looking at this film as stand-alone entertainment while completely ignoring its responsibility as adaptation. In that sense, "Watchmen" proves to be a notably bold departure from the superhero formula. These are superheroes put against their own will and ultimate powerlessness.

There will be non-stop nitpicking about what Snyder decided to include and cut. The thing to focus on, though, should be how much he crammed in while still keeping the running-time under three hours. The movie handles the novel's political themes, layering, images, and backstories with surprising ease. Consider the opening-credit sequence where Snyder slips in the entire backstory of the Minutemen from the 1940s and beyond with all of their downfalls in between. It's a sequence that plays out as a series of snapshots in time with Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'" echoing in the background. It's a strong opening that's next to one of the novel's most iconic moments when the retired superhero, the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), is murdered to the sounds of Nat King Cole's "Unforgettable." Here introduces Snyder's risky yet effective choice of music throughout the film.

There are other scenes such as that, which are equally astonishing replications of pages out of the novel. These scenes may feel hermetically sealed in reverence, and yet, such is necessary in attempting to remain entirely faithful to the original images. These moments aren't forced, and the striking images hold a similar nearly lyrical quality that was found throughout the novel. As an admirer of the novel, such moments came as a warm welcome to me and even occasionally evoked chills. Snyder yet again doesn't shy away from the use of slow-motion, which he lovingly took advantage of in "300," but here it's thankfully much less gratuitous. Snyder doesn't make it all about the action sequences, either, which is not to say that they're not excellently choreographed. He allows breathing room for some actual narrative development, of which "300" was completely devoid.

After the demise of the Comedian, masked superhero-turned-vigilante Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) seethes with anger and resentment and sets his sights on finding out the conspiracy behind the Comedian's death. He believes somebody is picking off masked heroes and that he and his old friends may be next. Rorschach reads from his journal in a low, gruff voice that's a cross between Clint Eastwood and Christian Bale from "The Dark Knight." He covers his face with a white cloth covered in morphing black ink spots, and when his face is revealed, he's an even more vivid figure of torment. His former superhero colleagues include Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) and the sexy Miss Jupiter (Malin Akerman). There's also Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), the man who used his superhero fame toward corporate ends. Lastly there is arguably the most fascinating person found in the movie, and that is Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup). He's a man who, after a scientific accident, became a radiating blue, all-powerful human being who was labeled as the keeper of United States security.

The story of Dr. Manhattan provides the basis for political commentary in the film as an exaggerated Richard Nixon leads the country during the threat of nuclear annihilation from Soviet Russia relations. Frustrated with human existence, Dr. Manhattan exiles himself to Mars where he builds himself a marvelous glass structure. All the while, Rorschach still scrounges through the alleys of Manhattan searching for answers. Eventually, the superheroes are brought back into action and things continue to unravel from there. The first half of the film builds upon elegantly implemented flashbacks that are surprisingly coherent and flow with the progression of the novel. Upon breaching the second half, however, the screenplay accelerates as if Snyder realized he had to kick things up a notch. From there, the film catapults itself headlong to its conclusion.

This brings me to the issue of the movie's ending. There is a slight alteration, and all I can ask is why? It doesn't drastically change anything thematically, but it adds to the disappointment factor in that I was looking forward to the ending, an ending I remember so vividly from the graphic novel as another one of the most iconic moments. So, I'll inquire again, why the change?

When all is considered, especially in considering all that could've gone wrong, Zack Snyder's "Watchmen" is an admirable job well done and a pretty good adaptation that definitely has its standout moments. No, it's not the graphic novel, but nobody should be expecting it to be, either. The film adaptation holds true to what it needs to and succeeds with packing in a respectable level of the intellectual complexity and dark nihilism that has made the graphic novel such a classic. The movie is also visually captivating with an exuberant amount of astounding special effects. It certainly has the look of a graphic novel with a style notably signature to Snyder, which proves fitting to the source material. But, let me say this: Obviously a lot of attention went into animating Dr. Manhattan, which, in turn, means a lot of attention must have went to animating his, ahem, manhood, as well. Presented as too big, it becomes distracting. Presented as too small, then, well, same issue arises. And what discretion was used as to how many times Dr. Manhattan would be shown from the waist-up or full-frontal? It's a legitimate question, I think.

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