Friday, March 6, 2009

At Midnight, All the Agents ...

I'm just a few brief hours removed from a raucous midnight showing of one of the most hotly anticipated films of this still fairly young year. I know I've been all hot with the anticipating. Randy Jackson would call me "molten, steaming, french-fry hot!"

And now I've watched it. But should you watch ...

Watchmen (d. Zack Snyder)


That's been the conventional wisdom about Watchmen, the ground-breaking 1986-87 graphic novel (comic book) by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons. Any number of directors and screenwriters have taken any number of cracks at it over the years, only to have the property collapse. Sometimes the reasons were monetary or political or legal. But always there was the sense that the thing on the page was too big, too dense, too packed with information, with history, with characters, with clever ideas. The shear amount of crazy, impossible, raw stuff in the story was the single greatest stumbling block.

If Zack Snyder's adaptation does nothing else, it puts the lie to the notion that Watchmen is unfilmable. But it is also destined to be Exhibit "A" in any future case made for the difficulty of translating such intricate and specific work to another medium.

The tale of Watchmen begins in the 1940s as a group of (sort of) civic-minded individuals begin battling crime in outlandish and gaudy costumes. In the alternate timeline posited by Watchmen, masked avenging is a kind of fad that has its brief moment in the American consciousness, then fades to trivia. Or rather, would have faded to trivia, if not for the fact that a one-in-a-bazillion chance accident occurs and places a real live super being in our midst. "The Superman exists," a newscaster intones, "and he's American."

In the wake of the original crimefighters of the 1940s, The Minutemen, there arises a new generation of costumed vigilantes, The Watchmen. They grow wildly unpopular as official law-enforcement, feeling redundant, goes on strike in protest. The government responds by banning vigilantism -- while conveniently keeping a few operatives active for its own clandestine use -- and the heroes drop off into retirement. Well, most of them anyway. When one of their own is murdered, they re-enter the fray and their investigations will uncover a dire scheme whose scope is barely imaginable.

Encompassing almost fifty years of an elaborate alternative past from the pre-World War II 1930s to the heart of the Cold War in 1985, it's easy to see what daunted more than a few adapters. Any film adaptation would of necessity have to make sweeping cuts to the labyrinthine weave of the story.

Snyder's strategy is about as all-inclusive as any sub-three-hour version of Watchmen could possibly be. He crams most of the key touchstones of the Watchmen mythology into his film and depicts the surfaces beautifully, with a loving attention to visual detail.

Beginning with a near panel-for-panel recreation of the key plot moment, the murder of the costumed adventurer and government agent The Comedian, Snyder then lays out the 1940s era backstory of the piece in a credit sequence featuring tableaux of the highlights (and lowlights) of that first group of adventurers, The Minutemen. Wittily twisting iconic imagery -- a lesbian heroine celebrates VJ day with a girl-on-girl back-bending kiss, ala the famed Times Square shot of a sailor greeting his sweetheart, for example -- it's the film's audacious high point.

Similarly well handled is the beginning of the investigation into the Comedian's murder by the grubby masked detective Rorschach. He sizes up the crime scene, then sets out to warn his heroic brethren of his theory that someone is gunning for former costumed adventurers.

In these early scenes, the film gets the pacing just about right, giving Rorschach room to sniff around for clues while effectively introducing the rest of the cast. But as the film goes on, the size of the original story begins to weigh on it and events rush along faster and faster, barely acknowledging their plot import or their motivational significance. Gradually, the movie stops being Watchmen and starts becoming Watchmen's Greatest Hits.

The main victim of this acceleration is Matthew Goode's Adrian Veidt, aka Ozymandias. He is perhaps the story's most enigmatic character, the one whose motivation and backstory pose the most problems (in no small measure because the graphic novel implies that everything he says may well be hogwash). Acclaimed as "The World's Smartest Man," he has taken his costumed persona and created a multi-million dollar marketing and media empire around it. In the film, we get his story in fits and starts, skittering across it like a jet-ski across a choppy ocean.

Given similarly short shrift, Malin Akerman as the second-generation heroine Laurie Juspeczyk, aka the second Silk Spectre, also suffers from the story's necessary compression. In the graphic novel, she comes to her personal epiphany only after a lengthy rumination on her life. Here, it's magically jammed into her head. And it doesn't help matters that Akerman's performance is more than a little wooden.

But the rapidity of the plot doesn't completely sabotage everybody. It would be difficult to imagine a better Rorschach than Jackie Earle Haley, even if his character's motivating backstory is also hurried along to its conclusion. Grumbling his clipped lines with a throaty rumble and accomplishing the difficult feat of conveying expression and emotion through a full-face mask, Haley's performance makes me wish that the fullness of Rorschach's story had been allowed the time it needs to breathe.

Patrick Wilson as Dan Dreiberg, the second Nite Owl, effectively conveys the frustration of a man no longer permitted to do the thing he does best. That frustration becomes sexual frustration as well, and one of the movie's most glorious sequences shows him overcoming both in a blaze of fire and virility.

As the super-being Dr. Manhattan, Billy Crudup spends most of his screen time buried under lashings of blue computer-generated flesh. He uses an even, sad voice to convey both his character's loss of humanity and his waning regret of same. His backstory is also a highlight for the film, as he eerily interacts with JFK and other government types while coldly acing the Viet Cong at their behest. A character who could have been nothing but a big, blue, naked joke, Crudup's Manhattan is instead truly alien and strange.

Also on hand are Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the Comedian and Carla Gugino as the first Silk Spectre, Laurie's mother. Both have moments, but the depths of their characters are never truly plumbed. We get more of a sense of them from the opening tableaux than we do from their scant scenes.

And so, Watchmen ends up being a mixed bag, full to busting with more plot than any movie is likely to put across effectively, yet undeniably eye-popping and at times even exhilirating. No longer can one accurately say that the book is unfilmable, but there's a good case to be made here that Snyder bit off a great deal more than just about anyone could chew.

Still, all movies these days should suffer from the sin of too much ambition. All too many display the opposite affliction. I may be grading a bit on a curve here, but I think the good in Watchmen slightly outweighs the bad. With its morally ambiguous worldview, that seems appropriate.

3 stars.

No comments:

John and Dave talks Oscar nomination predictions