Friday, March 13, 2009
It isn't a kids movie!
D. Zack Snyder
Could it be done is what the comic fans were asking? Could anyone pull off making a film of the classic comics of WATCHMEN? Many that who have read the comics thought that the material was simply unfilmable. In many ways they were right the complexity of the material, married with the high number of characters and back story made this something that one single movie would be extremely difficult to make happen. A mini series for HBO might have been better. But to my shock and surprise "visionary" (more on that later) director Zack Snyder has done the unthinkable. He made a Watchmen movie, and it is faithful. And not only faithful it is really, really fucking good.
Though it seems very few people have noticed. If there ever was a movie that people had their knives out for it was this one. The comic fans were split between those who were excited to see their beloved book coming to the screen and those who were mortified to see the holy tome being butchered by Hollywood. Then there is the mainstream movie goer who is not accustomed to something of this scope and depth. They want explosions every five minutes, they want rapid fire MTV style montages and hot guys with their shirts off prancing around to get jobs modeling underwear. Instead they get a movie where the first hour or so is just extended flashbacks explaining who the characters are and their motivations. A rich tapestry of character motivations, mixed with a new alternate history in which the film takes place. All of which is confusing to people not willing to put forth just a little work to follow it. People whose brains flunk out if there isn't something "happening" every thirty seconds. Then you have the angry parents. The dimwits who are pissed and screaming because this ISN'T for kids. No fucking shit. Why'd you bring 'em in the first place. The film is clearly rated R, the trailers were pretty dark and clearly showed a film that was not going to be compromising. Reviews stated all over that the film was filled with graphic violence, nudity etc. But still numb skull parents brought kids because they saw superheros in the commercials and the ads. That's all they needed to know. Superhero's. That's it. So basically you've ended up with a movie that will please almost no one at the end of the day. A movie that many people had decided before ever seeing it that it was a bombastic piece of shit. A lot of that came from the advertising claiming that director Zach Snyder is a "visionary" only after directing two films, one of which sucked balls (DAWN OF THE DEAD) and one that was mediocre but entertaining (300). The genre fan community turned on this film because of that hype.
So the real sad story is that the film succeeds where everyone expected it to fail. Snyder manages to be incredibly faithful to the source material, right down to minute details in set designs and backgrounds. The casting of the film is so dead on that you feel like these were the characters you have been reading all these years. Especially Jackie Earl Hailey as Rorschach who almost steals the movie and Jeffrey Dean Morgan as The Comedian who is completely dead on. Big props to Billy Crudup too who manages to do a lot with his voice, since even his eyes are covered in make up, and make Dr. Manhattan feel very real. At the end of the day this is a character piece and if the the actors weren't top notch then it wouldn't work. But that is not the case here and it works beautifully. There is no camp in the performances, everything is played straight and to the bone making it feel lively and real.
A lot of people have shit on Zack Snyder's "style" saying it has ruined the movie but he actually has that reigned in very far in this film. Yes he uses a lot of slow motion throughout the film, which is now a trademark for him. But I would argue that slow motion intensifies a lot of the effect on screen, elongation sequences, so we fully catch what is happening. It also makes them feel more like experiencing a comic book panel in that we have time to absorb more of the information being presented on screen. Snyder's other "trademark" was shooting on green screen sets, which this movie has much less of than one would expect since it is set in the real world, though an alternate take on the real world. Instead there are some beautifully designed sets and the world designed here seems like a very concrete one. I've heard people bitch that Snyder used to much voice over narration, but that is right out of the comics, almost word for word in fact. I would argue that Snyder actually earns his "visionary" status with this film in the opening credits sequence which manages to run us through both the alternate history of America we are experiencing as well as the history of Superheroes and Watchmen. It is a brilliant sequence that divulges a tremendous among of information but does it stylishly and in a captivating way.
Not everything is perfect in the film. The music choices are clumsy and sometimes downright wrong. During a brutal Vietnam sequence where Dr. Manhattan and The Comedian are ruthlessly slaughtering people in the name of God and Country the musical choice is Ride of the Valkyries which sounds great on paper, but in the film it doesn't work. The piece is much too majestic and proud to fit the carnage of the scene. Something much darker was needed. Also there is a scene of Night Owl and The Comedian descending into a mob to break it up and The Comedian snaps and begins hurting people, shooting them etc. Another ins tense sequence. But the choice of music this time is "I'm your Bogey man" which sounds like it should fit because of the action on screen. But it doesn't. At all. Instead it contrasts the action to the point of distraction. Also during the final confrontation when the Night Owl and Rorschach have figured out what has gone down their big plan is to jump in and take on the "villain" in a fight when they know just how capable he is. Especially considering both of them are basically mortal guys, that seems rather foolish no matter how badass they are. I also was a little taken a back by how brutal The Comedian's attempted Rape of Sally Jupiter was. In the comic it is unpleasant and brutal, but in the movie it is even more ramped up and violent with her getting the living shit beat out of her on top everything. The problem this poses is that it makes other turns of the story even harder to accept and deal with, where as in the comic they were difficult, here they are much, much harder to believe. But all of this is minor quibbles for a film that seeks to do more than any blockbuster does. This is a film that challenges on many levels, brings up issues of social consciousness, parodies the virulence of both superheros and the pro war idiocy of the 80's (and last 8 years for that matter). It questions if peace is really even possible and at what cost. And most importantly it assassinates our preconceived notions of how we have been trained to accept movies should work and behave. For that it is an important film, and therefor doomed for failure.
And that's why I love it.