Sunday, March 08, 2009

Watchmen: What Lies Beneath

I went to see the movie version of 'Watchmen' this weekend. I'd been looking forward to it ever since I first saw the first preview, and some of the critical reviews that came out over the past few days further whetted my appetite for what I thought would be an amazing movie experience.

When I walked out of the theater, though, I didn't find myself particularly overwhelmed.

When I walked out of the theater after seeing the first Spider-Man movie, I was jazzed -- director Sam Raimi and lead actor Toby Maguire had nailed the essences of both Spider-Man's character and his unique appeal to comic fans. When I walked out of the first Lord of the Rings movie, I was even more excited -- so much so that I couldn't restrain myself from going to pick up Tolkien's full series of books and reading them through to the end, just to find out what happened next. I went back and saw 'Return of the King' in the theater at least five different times, that's how excited I was about that movie.

I expected to have a similar reaction to 'Watchmen', but I didn't. In retrospect, I think I understand why, and at the same time begin to see why Alan Moore is so disparaging of the work derived from his own graphic novel.

(Warning: the rest of this essay will contain a number of SPOILERS, both from the movie and from the graphic novel -- if you're reading this and haven't seen one or read the other and still plan to, be warned.)

The movie started off on an extremely promising note -- an opening montage set to Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A'Changin'" that catches up the audience with the major events of this alternate universe and gives them some background for the events that will follow. The montage was very well done and left as many questions as answers, with the unspoken idea that the movie would answer at least some of those unspoken questions.

As the movie went on, it became clear that the creators were hoping to capture the same sense of respect versus modification for the source material that the makers of the Lord of the Rings trilogy did with the works of JRR Tolkein; just as the LotR movies completely left out the character of Tom Bombadil (but slyly incorporated the scene where Bombadil saves the four hobbits from an animate tree as a scene for Treebeard to save Merry and Pippin), the makers of Watchmen left out the entire 'Tales of the Black Freighter' story-within-a-story, though they did have a couple of visual references to the characters who supplied the main tie between that story-within-a-story and the main story, a young black man reading a comic book while resting near the newsstand owner from which he had 'borrowed' the book. Of course, if you hadn't read the graphic novel, you had no idea of those characters' significance, and this wasn't the only moment in which this was true in the movie.

The best example I can give of a series of events that were meaningful for those who really knew the graphic novel versus those who'd never heard of it before seeing the movie was in the choice of music for the film. Each of the twelve 'issues' of the original DC Comics series had a title, and each title had a quotation at the end which helped explain the title within the context of the events of the issue. Some of these quotations were taking from songs, and it seemed like whenever possible, the filmmakers used those songs in the appropriate place in the movie. (Example: the issue where Nite Owl and Rorschach go to Antarctica to confront Ozymandias used a quote from Jimi Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower", and sure enough, the strains of Hendrix's tune played as Nite Owl tried to land Archie in the ice-strewn wasteland of Antarctica.

These call-outs (or perhaps they'd be better described as 'easter eggs') certainly helped make the movie more interesting for someone who'd already read the graphic novel. (Though I had a conversation with a fellow who obviously hadn't read the graphic novel, and was thus confused over the choice of Jimi Hendrix in what otherwise would be an obvious action sequence.) The easter eggs, though, didn't overcome what would prove to be the biggest problem with the movie -- one that's best described with a somewhat clich├ęd phrase: following the letter rather than the spirit of the source material.

The filmmakers took great pains to make certain that those who'd read the graphic novels would see many (if not all) of the moments they'd identify as key to the story -- Rorschach's investigation of the Comedian's apartment after the latter's death; Nite Owl's and Silk Spectre's fight with knot-top gang-bangers during Doctor Manhattan's press conference; Nite Owl being unable to 'get it up' in his own home when seduced by Silk Spectre, but having no problems later after a brief interlude of costumed heroism; Rorschach's time in prison; Doctor Manhattan's internal dialogue on Mars where his origin is revealed, and his subsequent discussion with Silk Spectre while flying above Mars on a grandiose clockwork crystal of Manhattan's own making; Ozymandias's apotheosis. Many of these moments, however, were robbed of a greater thematic impact because of other decisions made by the filmmakers to stick largely to all the details of the given plot. (Not that I can complain too much, given that even with the trimming of much of the thematic elements of the tale, the story still came in at nearly two hours and 45 minutes.)

Let me show you what I mean with most of these moments:

- The gang fight shows us not only that Silk Spectre and Nite Owl are, even after years of inactivity, still able to kick major ass, but also provides a hint of the eroticism that vigilantism means to both of these characters. This is a subject that becomes more obvious later, with the scene in Archie after rescuing the 'civilians' from the tenement fire.

Yet a key quote from the graphic novel, one given by Rorschach to his prison psychologist, is left out of the movie, and suggests that similar if not precisely the same motives drive all the Watchmen: "We do this not because it is permitted. We do it because we are compelled."

- This leads naturally to Rorschach's time in prison. In the graphic novel, the psychologist is a much more fully realized character in his own right -- he initially spends a lot of time trying to get to know Rorschach because he thinks it'll be a boon to his career if he makes a breakthrough and takes the notably sociopathic vigilante and manages to reform him. Instead, Rorschach's tale persuades the psychologist of the inherent bleakness of the human condition, which ultimately costs him his comfortable marriage as he interprets the compulsion he inherits from Rorschach through his own experience as a healer.

In the movie, though, he's a cipher at best, and a spear-carrier at worst; we learn nothing about his own backstory or character, and as such when we see him in New York at the moment of Ozymandias's apotheosis, there's no real impact associated with the knowledge. You have to have read the graphic novel to understand why his death (and those of the newsman and boy at the newsstand, for that matter) have any significance at all.

- This leads us to Ozy's apotheosis, and his master plan. Within the context of the film plot, it makes sense that, instead of a bizarre plot to convince the world of an imminent invasion of aliens from another dimension, instead Ozy takes a project that Doctor Manhattan was helping him with and uses it to convince the world that Doc has turned against humanity. Removing this from the film removes yet another subplot from the graphic novel, and also makes the absence of the Tales of the Black Freighter story make sense.

I have two problems, though, with the way the filmmakers handled this change in master plan. First, the original master plan from the graphic novel required only a single attack, on New York City, to unite the world -- and if you think that's overly optimistic, may I remind you of the initial response of the global powers to the attacks of 9/11, which suggests that Moore was fifteen years ahead of his time in predicting the global response to terror. The new plan required the fake Manhattan attacks to occur all around the world, because an attack by Manhattan on New York City could be interpreted as the good Doctor simply exacting his revenge on the nation that 'used' his services for so long. In addition, in the graphic novel, when Ozymandias proves to the other Watchmen that his plan has succeeded, there are news reports from all over the world announcing plans for peace and cooperation -- in the movie, there's nothing but Richard Nixon talking about the need for peace and security against this new 'evil', which again, if one remembers the neo-conservative response to 9/11, suggests that this 'utopia' that Oxymandias worked so hard and sacrificed so many to achieve could be undone by simple greed and ignorance on the part of government leaders. It's a far less satisfying apotheosis in the movie, because history has shown us that the plan, as presented, might not work as anticipated.

Which itself would be fine, if the second problem didn't exist. In the graphic novel, once Ozymandias has convinced the Watchmen of his triumph, he retires to his orrery to ponder his next move. He's visited by Doctor Manhattan, who explains that he's leaving this universe for one 'less complicated'. In a final admission that he's not as confident as he just portrayed himself to be, Ozy asks Jon if he did all right, if his plan will work out in the end. Manhattan replies, "Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends," which leaves Ozy puzzled and disquieted. In the movie, the line is given by Silk Spectre to Nite Owl, and is even prefaced by the phrase, "I know what Jon would say..." The scene happens miles away and some unspecified time after the event, and isn't even completely in the context of Ozy's triumph, which robs the line of much of its symbolic and thematic punch.

Now none of this should be interpreted as me thinking that the Watchmen movie was bad -- I did enjoy it, and would certainly consider seeing it again. And it's very possible that, though I can imagine the movie being so much better than it was, that to get there the thing would have had to have been four hours long, or perhaps even split into two films, with no guarantee that enough people would be excited enough after the first movie to stick around for the second.

It's just that I found myself hoping for an experience like that of 'Return of the King', where I'd end up paying retail to see the thing four of five times in the theater because it affected me that much, and it surprised me that as I walked out of the theater, I didn't feel much affected at all.

The movie captured the letter of the graphic novel, but not its spirit.

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