Monday, March 09, 2009

I watched the Watchmen

And here’s what I thought about it. Assume spoilers.

Look at any review for the "Watchmen" film that was just released, and you’re definitely going to find some very familiar themes, especially regarding the movement of the comic to a film medium. Long has this story been considered beyond the capability of film translation; credit this to its deep narrative, its focus, its shifts in thematic approach, or just its subject matter, i.e. no one wants to see their superheroes sullied with human fallibilities. At least, that was the thinking in 1985.

I sat in the audience at a showing of "Watchmen" last Saturday, and I have to say that I’m divided on what to think of the film itself, but I will go on record as saying that "Watchmen" will, at some point in the future when a bit of hindsight can lend some clarity to how the film is viewed, be one of the most important films when discussing literature-to-film adaptation. Minus some very marked departures from the graphic work, mostly in the ways of dismissed or minimized subplots, the movie was a very faithful adaptation, and I dare say that this is probably as good as any filmmaker could do, given the weighty subject matter.

I do want to discuss two major differences between the film and the comic that I have issue with. I preface these comments with the admission that I’m by no means a fanboy who picks apart every difference between film and written word, and I’m not going on some tirade or call to arms a posse for Zach Snyder’s head on a stake. Yes, the ending of the film is different from that of the book (and really, would a giant squid monster have made any more sense than if they just pinned all of these shenanigans on Dr. Manhattan?). Yes, the film sacrifices some of the subtleties of the book, while at the same time adding subtleties to its overall message. But these things are to be expected when filming literature; seriously, Frankenstein the book was very different from Frankenstein the 1931 Karloff film.

The birth of Rorschach, a very poignant moment in the Watchmen story, is mishandled, in my opinion. It’s understated, but someone who’s read the story may pick up on the difference right away. In the book, Rorschach is handling a family’s kidnapping case, when he stumbles upon the kidnapper’s home; here, he finds that the stolen child has been murdered, and her body has been disposed of by way of dismemberment and her parts have been fed to the kidnapper’s dogs. When the kidnapper intrudes on Rorschach’s investigation, Rorschach in turn is confronted by the indecency that man is capable of, and the indignation with which man views life, innocence and justice. The film actually goes one up on the written work during the buildup of Rorschach’s point of no return; the criminal first expresses faux innocence (“I didn’t do nothing”), then anger that Rorschach killed his dogs, then he confesses his crime and demands to be turned over to the police (from whom, at the tipping point, the kidnapper realizes would grant him a leniency that Rorschach will not), before finally laying blame for his actions to "an illness ... I’m sick," a common tactic of many criminals who seek to shift responsibility of their behaviors away from themselves.

Rorschach has none of this. In the film, he takes the hatchet that the kidnapper used on his victim and hacks away at the criminal’s skull. In the book, he cuffs the kidnapper to a permanent fixture in the home, gives the hatchet to the crook, and sets fire to the house around him; the idea is that, in order to save himself, the criminal will have to hack his own arm off, and therefore Rorschach has in essence given the kidnapper a better chance than the murdered child had. “Rorschach died that day.” But the former scenario lends a lot in the way of inconsistency to Rorschach’s character; Rorschach engages in point blank, first degree murder, putting him on no greater level than his felonious victim. The character of Rorschach, up to this point in the film, has been developed as being far greater a dispenser of justice than this scene makes him out to be; the scene in question is not the birth of Rorschach, but rather the birth of Mindless Punisher Clone Vigilante #4080 from the Image Comics Character Bible circa 1992-94. However, the Rorschach of the comic is the embodiment of true vigilantism: An individual imposing his own moral codes upon what he views as a lawless civilization, and, in dispensing said justice, he does not go beyond the bounds of what the law allows. Hence, criminals are injured, crippled, demoralized, deconstructed, and incapacitated, retired from their criminal careers in a method far better than apprehension and incarceration could impose. In the birth scene in the book, Rorschach merely apprehends the kidnapper; it’s the kidnapper who is responsible for his own demise, by not having the temerity to sever his own arm in an effort to save himself. This is the kind of ambiguous morality that is imposed by the killer in the film “Saw;” in fact, this entire scenario could be said to have inspired the main crux of the first film in that franchise, and, for this reason, could explain why this direction for the scene was excised.

On the subject of Rorschach himself, there comes a point in the film where Nite Owl, a former long-time partner of Rorschach’s, confronts Rorschach about his approach and outlook on life and those around him. In keeping with character, Nite Owl then apologizes for his outburst, an exchange which adds a nice nuance to the scene as it is a departure from the origin material. However, Rorschach again breaks from his heretofore established form and bonds with Nite Owl, referring to him as a good friend, commenting on Nite Owl’s integrity, and shaking his hand. The scene again paints Rorschach out of character; the theme of Rorschach’s character is his sharp juxtaposition with the character of Dr. Manhattan. The two represent very distinct polar ends of a spectrum of human identification. Dr. Manhattan, godlike in his abilities, omniscient and nigh-omnipotent, grows farther and farther removed from humanity with each passing moment; he laments his evolution into something more, but acknowledges that despite all of his power, he’s powerless to stop what he must become.

Rorschach, on the other hand, benefits from the least in powers and abilities from all the characters in the story. Nite Owl, Ozymandias, Silk Spectre, the Comedian: All have some ability, some skill, or some advanced device that sets them apart from the rest of society. Rorschach has none of these, save that he is the only character that obscures his whole face with a mask; when he refers to the mask as his “face,” he’s not far from true. But it’s this departure that puts him just as much at odds with humanity as Dr. Manhattan. Of course, Rorschach is far from godlike; in fact, he’s just as human, if not more so, than the poor meatbags that the heroes are defending and protecting. He’s the most like society, and yet he’s the farthest removed ... except, of course, for the most godlike.

Inconsistencies with the most iconic character of this epic tale aside, the film addresses the story’s main point quite well, i.e. what would superheroes in the real world be like? And the heroes are extreme examples of the society around them: Amoral, antisocial, asocial, developmentally or emotionally stunted, fetishists for violence or roleplay, narcissists, nihilists, and humiliatingly insecure without their powers, their masks, their costumes that they see as imbuing them with the permission to impose their moral codes on humanity under the guise of "justice."

The film lends voice to the social moorings of today quite well, despite being set in 1985 ... or maybe because it’s set in 1985. This is a point that I find missing in most reviews, be they positive or negative; it appears that the majority of reviewers find that the setting of 1985 is alienating, or that the Cold War is too anachronistic a topic to apply to our current understanding of the world around us, here in the much more enlightened twenty-first century. And yet, in this alternate 1985 America, the World Trade Center towers stand boldly in the background as Ozymandias holds a press conference. When Ozymandias unleashes the final part of his plan – the annihilation of millions in a concentrated worldwide attack – it is to bring the world together, not destroy it. He’s right when he says of himself, “I’m not some comic book villain.” No, he’s something much more: He’s a businessman. As the heroes survey the damage caused by Ozymandias’ machinations, and time has passed with the beast of war pacified, Veidt Industries – Ozymandias’ company – is handling the cleanup of the disaster. The only thing missing from this doomsday scenario are the American flag car decals, Haliburton, an invasion into a country that had no involvement in Ozymandias’ plan whatsoever, and young men and women dying in a desert over a lie. I wonder if Zach Snyder may be a member of the 9/11 Truth Movement?

Like I said earlier, this film warrants hearty discussion in the realm of film adaptations of literature. Sure, there’s the comic book movies like “Spider-Man” and “X-Men,” and “Batman” and “Superman,” all of which brought concepts and characters to the screen to be enjoyed in ways that were thought far out of reach. Those dealt in light, popcorn fare, with little to say on subjects beyond what we can get from any other horror, science fiction, action-adventure, or comedy film. “Watchmen” does something a lot more complicated, I believe; it takes a dense, introspective narrative from a medium that still struggles to this day to find a sense of legitimacy, adapts it to a different medium (and therefore to a different type of audience), and makes the message fit the time, such that all that was topical when the story came out is just as much an issue today.

Some of the film’s message could be difficult to grasp for those who haven’t read the story on which it’s based; those individuals should be in turn inspired to pick up the original story, get brought up to speed, then rewatch the film. The story is much more than “good guy vs. bad guy;” it’s “us vs. them,” with a scorecard that seems to change with each scene. In other words, it’s more like living in the real world.

Three count.


Will said...

I did enjoy the movie. I had never actually read the comic so my review would be based on the movie alone.

I thought the acting was okay. I loved Jackie Earl Haley's performance as Rorshach. I also liked the chick who played Silk Spectre for obvious reasons and it has nothing to do with acting.

The movie is long. I do not know if it needed to be that long, but I guess to satisfy the fans of the comic Zack Snyder wanted to get it true to the comic as possible so it catered to a long run time.

I want give anything away since you may not have seen the movie yet or read the comic.

On a strict entertainment scale, I will give it 2.5 out of 3. Not the best movie based on a comic, but worth your time.

On a side note, there is a trailer for a new Tarantino movie (directed or produced or wrote- not sure) that looks promising even if it does have Brad Jolie, I mean Pitt.

Nate said...

I changed the original post from the announcement of my forthcoming review to the review itself, to preserve Will's comments, in case anyone's wondering.

And yes, Silk Spectre is one damn fine naked chick.

Nate said...

Ach! Totally forgot to add this, since the ills of society are exactly the kind of thing that is under discussion here:

Some dude brought his 3-4 yr old child (I think a son) to the movie. This was a film that displayed:

- Gore, by way of dismemberment and violent conflict;
- Full frontal nudity (up to and including Dr. Manhattan's swinging blue Day-Glo junk) & a fairly graphic sex scene;
- Pretty heavy-duty profanity, the likes of which I wouldn't be comfortable exposing a 3-4 yr old to; and,
- Themes of a violent, antisocial nature that even an adult might have a hard time filtering out during tough global circumstances.

When said child said at one point, "I want Momma!" a few members of the audience shushed them down, until the father took his kid down the theater hall and whispered - loud enough for the audience to hear, of course - "Shut up!"

I wanted the shushers to throw in an admonishment of this guy's parenting, but apparently social bravado extends only to "sh."

Rev. Joshua said...

I just recently read the Watchmen and didn't find it all that compelling so I doubt I'll see the movie, but great review.