Friday, March 6, 2009

Watchmen: Tick-tock...

Watchmen (2009) • View trailer for Watchmen
Four stars (out of five). Rating: R, and quite generously, for nudity, profanity, sexual content and urelenting graphic violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.6.09
Buy DVD: Watchmen • Buy Blu-Ray: Watchmen (Director's Cut + BD-Live) [Blu-ray]

Fans of Alan Moore's Watchmen are in for a ripping good time, because director Zack Snyder's big-screen adaptation of this seminal 1980s graphic novel is geek paradise.

The film is impressive faithful to its source material, and at just shy of three hours, Snyder and screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse have plenty of time and a massive canvas on which to reproduce all the important details, large and small, that made Moore's ground-breaking deconstruction of superheroes so memorably engrossing.
Having decided to defy the government's ban on their activities, the costumed
heroes Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) and Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman) derive
considerable pleasure from quelling a prison riot while searching for one of
their comrades.

You will not, however, find Moore's name anywhere on this project, which claims simply to have been adapted from the work by Dave Gibbons (the original 12-part comic serial's artist) and "DC Comics." The notoriously eccentric Moore, no fan of the film industry  despite what I'd argue are honorable big-screen renditions of his other works, From Hell and V for Vendetta  refused to allow his name to be used to help sell this film.

Hey, his loss.

Watchmen belongs to the recent trend that reasonably questions whether super-powered beings automatically would be virtuous beacons of integrity. Obviously, they wouldn't all be; a certain percentage of any subset of humanity would include those with opportunistic streaks and even criminal tendencies.

Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely ... or, to employ one of this story's catch-phrases, Who watches the Watchmen?

Moore's saga, obviously written in a white heat of rage prompted by his perception of where the world was going in the 1980s, takes place in a slightly altered universe where "Masks," as superheroes have been dubbed, began operating in public during the WWII years. Oddly, they're a mostly American phenomenon, which generates considerable nervous tension on the part of other world powers.

When President Nixon later calls on the Masks to help the United States win the Vietnam War, the Soviet Union's perception of American arrogance escalates a nuclear missile build-up that prompts worried scientists to set their "doomsday clock" to scant minutes before the midnight of annihilation.

(In a deliberate nod to Dr. Strangelove, a scene in Nixon's war cabinet shows various generals cheerfully acknowledging the necessity of insane levels of collateral American lives lost, when  not if  this war begins. One can hear the echo of the grinning George C. Scott, as he ruefully admits that we'd "get our hair mussed.")

Nixon wins a third term in office, and the United States of this 1985  when the bulk of this story is set  has become darkened by fear and paranoia. The U.S. government's "big brother" scrutiny all citizens has made ordinary folks frightened ... and mean. People get mighty ugly when they become convinced there's nothing to lose.

(Frankly, Moore was 20 years ahead of his time. His vision of lofty American imperialism  which seemed like cynical fancy when written  now feels like a blueprint for the recently departed Bush administration.)

As a further means of neutralizing any opposition, this Nixon administration has outlawed all Masks. Their vigilante justice  and their symbolic ideals  no longer are needed. Indeed, the society that once revered them has grown to fear and despise them.

The Watchmen, as this collective band of extraordinary individuals dubbed themselves, have largely vanished. Some have died; others retreated to alcohol or lost their minds entirely. A few dropped their disguises and became public figures.

The story begins with the mystery that fuels much of the narrative's momentum, as Edward Blake, better known as The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), is attacked and thrown through the window of his penthouse apartment; the fall kills him. Blake never went public with his alter-ego, so the police treat the incident as a routine murder.

The shadowy Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), when he arrives later to go over the scene more methodically, senses that somebody has begun a campaign to exterminate the Masks.

Rorschach, so named for the face-concealing stocking mask that pulses with ever-changing inkblot smudges, rejects the government ban on Masks; he answers to his own higher authority, and continues to fight what he considers the good fight. Rorschach shares his views about The Comedian's fate with the near-omniscient Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), who eschews clothing and pulses with blue nuclear fire, and Laurie Jupiter, once better known as Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman).

Manhattan blandly rejects the notion of conspiracy, but in truth he can't be persuaded to care much; his incredible powers have removed him so far from humanity's concerns that he has a disturbing tendency to equate people with insects: We live, we breed, we die.

Laurie, although Manhattan's constant companion, is finding that even she can't reach him; he can't even be bothered to devote his full attention when they make love.

Elsewhere, the kind-hearted Dan Dreilberg (Patrick Wilson, quite good as the film's moral center) spends his time visiting old friends and wondering how it all went wrong. Although willing to abide by the law that no longer allows him to prowl the city as Nite Owl  an intentional riff on Batman  Dan chafes at this restriction; it makes him uneasy, and leaves him feeling impotent (in more ways than one).

Finally, Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode, wonderfully haughty), once dubbed Ozymandias, has turned his genius intellect to public good and corporate gain, by merchandising his former heroic self as a means of funding his many altruistic deeds. With Dr. Manhattan's help, Adrian hopes to perfect an alternative energy source that will forever remove our reliance on fossil fuels; Adrian hopes that if everybody in the world has enough food and resources, then nations no longer will have any reason to war on each other.

Snyder, Hayter and Tse use the core murder mystery to introduce and subsequently focus on each of the Masks, employing flashbacks to highlight origins and other key moments in the lives of these unusual characters. We quickly discover that The Comedian was little more than an opportunistic bully, only too delighted to employ his powers to humiliate and kill; Nite Owl, in complete contrast, has the naively impassioned ideals that galvanized so many during the 1960s counter-culture movement.

Rorschach is by far the most complex and fascinating character, both by design and in terms of the way he's played, with such mesmerizing conviction, by Haley. Although even more brutal than The Comedian, Rorschach suffers the soul-deadening agony of a man who knows that, in order to combat evil, he has allowed himself to become every bit as bad. But he struggles to confine his, ah, methods to society's unapologetic parasites.

As was true of Moore's original graphic novel, this film adaptation has it both ways. "Bleeding-heart liberals" frequently are held up for scorn, as symptomatic of the "peaceniks" who'd help destroy the American way of life, but the storyline is just as critical of the fascist behavior of The Comedian and this world's Nixon.

The point is that political extremism in either direction is wrong-headed and potentially fatal, and as Watchmen accelerates toward its apparently unstoppable apocalyptic conclusion, we're left with few answers.

Except the conviction, which eventually blossoms into rebellious action on the part of Nite Owl and Silk Spectre, that  in the words of Edmund Burke  all that is necessary for the triumph of evil, is that good men (and women) do nothing.

Production designer Alex McDowell (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) must've been like a kid in a candy shop on this film, and he certainly delivers; all of Moore's fabulously imaginative concepts have made it to the screen, as has his dystopian image of New York. (Think the Los Angeles of Blade Runner, gone even worse.) Even Dr. Manhattan's telekinetic abilities are rendered with utter conviction.

Costume designer Michael Wilkinson has taken equal care while reproducing the designs from Gibbons' original comic book work, but it goes deeper than that; I get the strong sense that all the primary cast members were hand-picked because of their intrinsic resemblance to the characters as pictured on the four-color page.

Moore's most devoted readers will appreciate how Snyder meticulously brings some of Gibbons' more iconic panels to vivid, three-dimensional life. Although that also was true of director Robert Rodriguez's 2005 handling of Sin City  as it carefully reproduced Frank Miller's often disturbing artwork  that film's reliance on its fully CGI backdrops turned it into a complete fabrication.

Snyder's approach to Watchmen, on the other hand, feels disturbingly real-world.

The only problem  and, sadly, it's fairly significant  is Snyder's fanboy reliance on exploitative and wholly unnecessary Grand Guignol levels of gore. The notion that this film skated by with an R rating makes a fresh mockery of the entire system; Watchmen wallows in contemptible gouts of blood, guts and obscene cruelty to the human body.

Sorry, but we don't need to watch an ax being repeatedly buried in somebody's skull, nor do we need to witness somebody's arms sliced away with a power saw, and we sure as hell don't need to recoil as two hungry dogs fight over a hacked-apart little girl's half-chewed leg and foot.

Given its preponderance of weighty themes and socio-political issues, this adaptation of Watchmen deserves to be taken seriously ... most of the time. But Snyder repeatedly damages his film's credibility by making us wallow in such slime. Haley (for example) is a strong enough actor to have conveyed the moment that forever changed Rorschach, without our having to watch every wet detail.

That aside, Watchmen deserves to take its place with The Dark Knight, as encouraging proof that superhero stories on the big screen  as on the printed page  really are growing up.

And it's darn well about time.

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