Monday, March 9, 2009

Thoughts on the Watchmen movie

After long months of anticipation (I'm a relatively new fan, so I can't claim to have waited the many years that long-time fans can), apprehension over whether it would do the book justice, and worry over whether the movie would even be released at all, I made my way to the movie theater to watch Watchmen on Sunday. Thanks to its wide release (largest ever for an R-rated film), it was even playing at my small town's local theater, though I kind of wished it wasn't so I'd have an excuse to drive 40 minutes to a larger theater with a larger screen; as it was, my friend Lucy with whom I was going to see the movie was understandably not interested in driving that extra distance.

I really liked the movie. It has received very mixed reviews from critics, but I thought Zack Snyder et al. did a very good job with it. It was not the greatest comic book movie of all time, and it did not transform the genre, but it was an entertaining, satisfying adaptation that for the most part did justice to the complex characters and thought-provoking situations that were in the book. (Much of what I thought was great about the movie is also what I thought was great about the graphic novel). And I wasn't really expecting much more than that. I don't think Watchmen could have played the same role in film that it did for comic books. The two media are totally different, so what works wonders in one cannot be expected to revolutionize another. And their timings were also different--by decades. I wonder if the movie would have played differently if it had come out last year, i.e., before The Dark Knight came out last summer. Watchmen might have seemed more innovative to audiences; Dark Knight already gave us a taste of a dark and gritty movie about masked heroes (though not nearly so gruesome as Watchmen) with a healthy dose of moral ambiguity (though not quite as devastating as in Watchmen). After The Dark Knight, we simply may not have needed Watchmen as much as we might have last year. This is not to say that Watchmen doesn't go anywhere that The Dark Knight doesn't. It is far more brutal, the characters are I believe more complex (and there are more of them), and the stakes are much higher. But I'm also not saying that Watchmen would have been better had it not followed The Dark Knight; the movie as it is would have still had difficulties, like some of the viewers who had not read the book finding the plot to be convoluted and confusing.

So what did I like in the movie and what didn't I like? I really loved the opening credit sequence. It was beautifully done, showing key moments throughout the history of the masked hero; in most cases, these moments were captured in photos worthy of the front page of a newspaper. The montage was an efficient, effective way to show us that this was an alternate reality much like our own, except for the fact that masked vigilantes have become a part of the culture.My favorite clip was of Silhouette kissing the nurse at the end of WWII in the fashion of the famous photo of the kiss in Times Square. This was a great bit that wasn't in the book that helped to integrate the history of Watchmen into our own history.

One of the biggest changes made for the movie was there was no giant squid. They had made it clear in advance that the giant squid in the graphic novel would not make an appearance in the movie, likely so fans could prepare themselves to see a major change. I think it was a good choice; the squid would have worked less well in the movie than it worked in the comic book, and it helped to streamline the story in that they didn't have to bring in the genetic (and artistic) experimentation. Using the same science fiction established with Dr. Manhattan made the ending catastrophe... tidier. However, Veidt's genetically-engineered lynx Bubastis was left in the movie. Her sudden appearance after Veidt kills the scientists in Antarctica was a little jarring. "Whoa, where did that CGI cat come from?" I wonder if she was supposed to be introduced in a previous scene that didn't make the final cut. In any case, she was still out of place in the movie, because her existence was related to Veidt's genetic experiments that lead to the squid. Taking out the squid made her an unexplained anomaly. I guess Veidt needed someone to talk to and stroke as he sat in his chair watching all the TV screens. It would have been sad and lonely without Bubastis. And the fans might have missed her.

Another thing that worked better in the book than the movie but would probably have been missed by fans was the flamethrower. You know... Archie's flamethrower. It was silly in the comic book, but it was really, really silly in the movie. Especially since in the comic book, the frame with the flamethrower going off was done in lieu of showing any actual action. The movie was not afraid to embrace its R rating and show some action, making the flamethrower extraneous.

One of my favorite lines from the book is Jon's reply to Adrian when he asks if he did the right thing.
Adrian: I did the right thing, didn't I? It all worked out in the end.
Jon: "In the end?" Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.
As Adrian desperately tries to ask him what he means, Jon disappears. It is chilling. Adrian, for all his faults, truly has the best interests of human kind at heart, but he has just done something horrible and needs Jon's affirmation that it was the right thing to do. With Jon's emotionless and ominous response, Adrian and the reader both feel doubt and dread. Snyder et al. clearly liked this line a lot, decided they wanted it in the movie, but wanted it to have a more prominent position at the end of the movie. It is in fact the last line spoken by one of the major characters in the movie, just before the final scene at the New Frontiersman office. But the line is spoken by Laurie: "I know what Jon would say. Nothing ends. Nothing ever ends." The placement is nice, but the line loses its chilling kick when it is not delivered by Jon and not delivered to Adrian. I don't know how they could have gotten around that problem, but it was a slight disappointment.

Overall, I think the Watchmen movie is as good as I had hoped it would be. It had a great story and characters to begin with, of course. The long story was skillfully cut down to a reasonable movie length. The cast did a great job. Jackie Earle Haley was amazing, particularly in all the prison scenes. The action was brutal and stylized, and I thought it was pretty cool. I thought the slow-mo shots were used well, capturing the comic book feel. There were plenty of pleasingly-composed shots, just as the comic frames were well composed. The scenery and costumes were very good realizations of those in the comic book. I was very impressed with the job they did, and I came out of the movie feeling a bit giddy (well, and somewhat somber).

Watchmen had a hugely successful opening day on Friday, March 6, taking in $25 million. It was therefore a bit of a surprise when the movie failed to meet analysts' predictions (and failed to beat the opening weekend $70.9 million of Snyder's 300 two years ago) with a weekend total of $55.2 million. I bet it is pretty uncommon for a movie to make more on its opening Friday than on Saturday, though with a highly anticipated fanboy movie like this, I guess it makes sense; the fans want to be there on opening day. Without universal high praise from critics, I think it has been and will continue to be difficult for Watchmen to catch on with a wider audience; people who are not particular comic book fans may figure they already saw the good comic book movie last summer, and besides, this one is a gory R. Still, I would recommend this movie, provided that the viewer is not too squeamish (I have to say, even I wince at the sight of protruding broken bones or severed limbs). The action is exciting, the story is challenging, the characters are intriguing, and it's a good time overall. But I'd also say, Read the book.

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