Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Watchmen: misunderstood

A word of warning to those going to see Watchmen and expecting a typical superhero movie: Don't. You'll just end up confused and/or bored, and generally disappointed. Watchmen isn't X-men or The Fantastic Four or even Hellboy. Yes, there are men and women in costume kicking the crap out of baddies, but as far as comic book film adaptations go, Watchmen is more like Christopher Nolan's take on Batman: dark, cerebral, with a hint of the philosophical. But at least Batman Begins and The Dark Knight had the benefit of a familiar, classic superhero icon; as my brother pointed out, Watchmen may also be a classic, but it's not very commercial (not for "mass consumption", as he put it). And cult classics are never crowd-pleasers, especially in a country like ours where majority of audiences can't be bothered to exert the least bit of mental strain.

Those who have read (and loved) Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' graphic novel would be better able to understand and appreciate the movie, but surely fans will have differing opinions on whether or not director Zack Snyder (30
0) did the original material justice. I for one think he did pretty well, considering the many details he managed to cram into the 2 hour and 40 minute-long film (yes, that sounds unbearably long, but it's actually relatively short given that the story is culled from a 12-issue comic book series). Of course Snyder had to take out some stuff, and as a result the ending was necessarily altered. Purists can relax a bit though: the conclusion is preserved, just not the road taken to arrive at it. For the most part the film adaptation is faithful-- I read a New York Times review that panned it for being TOO faithful, using the comic books almost like a storyboard, bringing it to life panel for panel. What was omitted, I did not miss at all, being the same bizarre elements in the graphic novel that reminded me of TV's Lost, and served to distract from the main plot rather than contribute to it.

Casting was also well-done, particularly for the key roles of Rorscharch (Jackie Earle Haley from the Kate Winslet starrer Little Children) and Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson, who was also in Little Children, and the 2004 film adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera). Being the sadistic stickler for justice that I am, the uncompromising and unblinkingly brutal Rorschach was my favorite character from the graphic novel, and I was glad to see Haley played him to perfection, even with the inkblot mask on. In one scene, Rorschach finds himself cornered by the cops, and he cries, "No, no, NO!" in angry frustration and rising panic, berating himself for being so stupid to be caught in such a situation. Not a single glimpse of his face, yet Haley managed to convey so much with the delivery of his lines alone that it's easy to imagine what his facial expressions would be. I guess that Oscar nomination for Little Children wasn't a fluke. Meanwhile, I must give props to Wilson for putting on those unsightly pounds to play the out-of-shape Nite Owl. He not only succeeded in capturing Dan Dreiberg (Nite Owl's nerdy alter ego) physically, he also got his "good boy" gawkiness down pat.

Billy Crudup (still a looker after all these years), Harry Dean Morgan (the charming Denny from Grey's Anatomy) and Malin Akerman were also good choices for Dr. Manhattan, The Comedian, and Silk Spectre, respectively. The only one miscast, in my siblings' shared opinion, was Matthew Goode as Ozymandias. Not only did I keep picking up traces of his British accent, he was just too scrawny to play such an imposing character with a god complex.

I realize I may be one of few who actually enjoyed Watchmen, (and didn't even notice let alone mind the long running time), and perhaps that's because I really ate up the graphic novel. Those looking for a no-brainer action blockbuster will definitely not find it here. Stripped of its special effects and violence and latex body suits, it's a film about characters with complex histories and psychological make-ups, which could not have been delved into more thoroughly without turning it into a 4-hour long movie. At the same time, Watchmen touches on socio-political and dare I say socio-ethical themes that could be the subject of discussion and debate in any Philosophy class or political forum. And yes, the weird blue guy talks in vague riddles, making him sound more alien than he looks. Moreover, that the film is set in the 80s (with a way wicked decade-appropriate soundtrack) doesn't really help it register with viewers who never paid much attention during their History classes. Watchmen delivers a heavy, real, and relevant message about human nature, but sadly it will be lost on
mainstream audiences who will be too busy speculating if there will be a sequel. It's appropriate, really, that people won't understand a story about masked misfits maligned by the very society they are trying to save. As The Comedian might say, not everyone will get the joke.


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