Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Watched Watchmen

"Quis custodiet ipsos custedos." --Juvenal, Satire 6

Those who know Latin, or recognize famous quotes, might immediately pick up that this is the phrase I suborned for the label of my political posts. It's also the source of the name of one of the most critically acclaimed comic series of all time, "Watchmen." Yesterday, I got a chance to watch the new movie based on the comic series.

It's hard to know where to start with this, so I will just give the overall impression: it's mediocre.

Before I get to the faults, I'd like to mention the good stuff. They nailed the character of Rorschach, the central mover of the stories. Rorschach is a dark, dangerous, paranoid vigilante in the vein of Wolverine, but with the actual psychological burdens such a lifestyle would eventually produce. The actor managed to carry off a performance of contained danger that made him scary in action, and much, much scarier when the mask came off. Nite Owl, the obvious Batman analogue, was also portrayed well, though the performance was undermined by the actor's unfortunate resemblance to Chevy Chase from the Vacation movies. (Why didn't someone notice that and at least change his hair or something?) The actor playing the actual superpowered superhero of the story, Dr. Manhattan, gave an able performance under the CGI as well, but was also undermined by... well, I'll get to it in a moment since it's part of a larger issue for me. The movie also looks outstanding, with an enormous amount of detail in set dressing and staging. Just in the visuals, Watchmen makes The Dark Knight look stark and empty. And finally, the best of the good bits was the ending, which was actually better than the one in the comic, both in its scope and in its fit with the overall dark tone of the story.

With the good acknowledged, I have to run the movie down a bit. Not all of the cast was up to the emotional range and weight of the story. Sometimes it stuck a bit too close to the comic. Panel by panel recreation might be a great way to do fan service, but the inherant visual medium of the comics can lure a naive director into recreating pacing that works in a book but not in a movie. And finally, I get to my big rant: the movie has no visual restraint. The violence makes liberal use of over the top splatter gore. Japanese style horror movies use disjointed shifts in speed to create unease and nausea in a viewer, and that's exactly the effect some of the fight scenes' in-and-out slow motion had on me. The sexual content, with only one exception, added nothing to the story, and in the case of Dr. Manhattan's incongrous lack of modesty, greatly distracted from the actual acting going on. Let's face human nature, the first time you see Michaelangelo's David statue, his facial structure isn't what you see.

The comic was created with a CCA approval in mind, which drastically limited the content that could be depicted. As a result, the violence and sex in the book is implied. Dropping that self imposed restraint for the movie results in something that is so lurid it detracts from the actual content behind the spectacle. Watchmen the comic is a Cold War tale about the realization that our heroes are just people. It's a deconstruction of the superhero comic genre. It's a layered mileau presentation. Watchmen the movie aspires in places to these depths, but always gets pulled back to the turgid presentation of a grindhouse film. Given that one of the main themes of Watchmen was the realistic depiction of the world, it's an opportunity missed.

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