Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Film review: 'Watchmen' is one Moore failure

Patrick Wilson (center) as Night Owl II
and Malin Akerman as Silk Spectre II, in Watchmen.

By John Thomason

It its quixotic journey to the big screen, Alan Moore’s visionary graphic novel Watchmen has been stuck in development hell for more than 20 years.

During that time, the names of so many big-name cult directors were attached and dropped (paging Mr. Gilliam, Mr. Aranofsky, Mr. Greengrass) that eager fanboys barely had time to wipe the drool off their keyboards before the next tease was aborted. Gilliam declared the comic book unfilmable, and he should know about these things more than anyone.

Of course, in Hollywood, “unfilmable” is as unutterable a word as “conservative.” The negative ninnies who dare express the impossibility of translating literary complexity into cinematic formula generally don’t have lunch in that town again. As the governor of Louisiana might say, in Hollywood, Americans can do anything!

Except, apparently, make a decent film out of an Alan Moore work.

We’ve been down this road before. Thinking about the film adaptations of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and V for Vendetta, it’s easy to see why the hirsute wordsmith refuses to put his name on any film version of his comics. In the case of Watchmen, he’s said that he won’t even see the film.

He’s not missing much. There are problems with the production that are so inherent that almost nobody could get them right, proving Gilliam’s assertion. Namely, it’s hard – nigh, impossible – to translate a 12-volume series into 163 minutes without sacrificing some of the depth.

The Watchmen comic is especially unique for combining straightforward – and very funny – prose into its animated paradigm, which adds more detail to the characters’ personalities and backstories. One cannot expect to see all of this on the screen, and nitpicky superfans bemoaning the lack of their favorite panel just need to get over it.

But even if we can’t expect an art film, the result shouldn’t have been this intellectually bereft and insultingly simplistic. It’s sad, but wholly unsurprising, to see a groundbreaking comic turn into the routine genre exercise that Zack Snyder (the director behind another graphic novel adaptation, 300) has given us.

Don’t expect any subtlety from the crude marionettes that Moore’s once-three-dimensional, baggage-laden characters have become onscreen. Moore’s graphic novel deconstructed superhero iconography, presenting a parallel, mid-'80s America in which the streets are as filthy and infested as Sweeney Todd’s Fleet Street, Nixon has been elected to a fifth term and the country teeters on the brink of nuclear war with the Soviet Union.

It’s so teeter-y that “End is Near” signs are ubiquitous on the grimy streets of New York (which here is a studio backlot in Vancouver, but I won’t tell anybody) and a doomsday clock is poised at five-till-boom.

The once-strong superheroes that kept the country safe have been marginalized by the police, some settling for retired anonymity while others work as government spooks. But when one former leader of the Watchmen superhero collective is thrown out of the plate-glass window of his high-rise, the rest of the group gets suspicious. Is someone targeting superheroes, or “masks,” as they call themselves? And what does it have to do with the ever-growing Red scare in Russia?

At the behest of Rorschach (Jackie Earl Haley) – the grizzly-voiced vigilante with a shifting inkblot for a mask – the broken group manages to put aside their differences and eventually come together to solve the mystery. There’s Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), a glowing scientific mastermind who acts like a cross between X-Men’s Xavier, Magneto and Beast and looks like a lost member of the Blue Man Group.

There’s Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode), a pretty boy who revealed his secret identity and runs a successful private enterprise. There’s Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), a retired egghead who develops owl-themed gadgets and harbors a crush on Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman), an also-retired member involved in a souring relationship with Dr. Manhattan.

Their adventures coincide with the social commentary of the time, which includes caricatures of public figures such as Nixon, Henry Kissinger, John McLaughlin and Lee Iacocca. But don’t be fooled – only adolescents will find any brilliance in the movie’s jackhammer-subtle rhetoric. Chock full of hip cynicism and “aren’t we brilliant?” moments of self-congratulation, the political pulse of this Watchmen adaptation makes the condescending lecture at the end of The Dark Knight seem profound.

Besides, director Snyder was obviously more attracted to the sex and violence than anything Moore might have had to say. The gore is gruesome, unpleasant and largely ineffective, settling for an artless medium between documentary-like realism and Tarantinan cartoonishness.

This, coupled with a frank sex scene, makes for a hard R, even while the dialogue is so juvenile that it’s hard to imagine adults falling for it. While Moore’s Watchmen took a medium usually associated with kids and created a mature adult entertainment, Snyder’s Watchmen is a work that should be made for adults but is targeted to an audience that can’t legally buy a ticket.

I won’t say that Watchmen has no business being a movie – but it has no business being this movie.

John Thomason is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

WATCHMEN. Director: Zack Snyder; Screenplay: David Hayter, Alex Tse; Starring: Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffery Dean Morgan, Carla Gugino; Studio: Warner Brothers; Release: Friday


Anonymous said...

I kept thinking that the guy who played the Comedian was Javier Bardem (I found out later that it's actually Jeffrey Dean Morgan), but the two actors definitely look alike

Anonymous said...

Yes, he looked like a cross between Bardem and a huskier Robert Downey Jr.

- John Thomason