Saturday, March 07, 2009

B.W. At The Movies: Watchmen

OK, here's the deal. If you want to save the cost of a movie ticket and the popcorn and such, just break out your copy of Watchmen the graphic novel and read it again. Because, except for the omission of the Tales of the Black Freighter comic-book-within-a-comic-book and random scenes here and there, and with a rewrite of the climax to make it more realistic, what you're holding in your hands is the storyboard and most of the screenplay of the movie that opened Friday across the US of A.

Is that a bad thing? No, not necessarily. We're talking about one of the most ground-breaking comic books in the history of comic books, a 12-page miniseries that proved once and for all that literature could be created with pictures, word balloons and four-color printing. To see the story up there on the silver screen, lovingly recreated in all its dark and brutal glory with actors who look just like the comic book characters (well, most of 'em anyway) is a fanboy's dream.

In fact, if director Zack Snyder had tampered any more than he did with the story, Watchmen the movie could have been a great disappointment. It's a great story. And I'm hard pressed to think of any major detail that was left out of the film — most of the negative reviews I've encountered say that Snyder was actually too slavishly devoted to the source material, and I understand where they're coming from. That's the main reason the movie clocks in at 2:43: Snyder put the whole story up on screen. It could stand a little editing, maybe — but the beauty of the Alan Moore-Dave Gibbons masterpiece is that so many little details are necessary to the big payoff.

And Snyder fixes what I always believed was Watchmen's jump-the-shark moment. For months in 1986 and '87 (the story was released one chapter a month for a year), we readers were transfixed by what was clearly a complicated plot to perform a mysterious and unrevealed dastardly deed, including the often-gruesome murders of people who got too close to the truth. When the big payoff came in the 11th and 12th months, it revolved around fooling the world into believing that a gigantic monster from outer space had attacked New York. You know when Ralphie finds out the secret code is a crummy commercial for Ovaltine? For all its brilliance otherwise, that aspect of Watchmen always left me with a feeling akin to Ralph's.

With all due respect to Alan Moore, Snyder's substitute hoax is much more believable. Like the resolution of The Dark Knight last summer, Watchmen's revised ending still leaves me unhappy and a tad empty, but the movie version fits the story better in my humble opinion.

On the other hand, there's something over-the-top disturbing about Snyder's depictions of violence. This first bothered me when I saw 300, another film where Snyder devotes himself to recreating a well-known comic book. I didn't understand why the camera needed to linger so long on decapitations and dismemberments, and I don't understand the many similar choices in Watchmen.

For example, in Moore's story a child molester is tied up and left to die in a fire. Snyder's cinematic translation kills the molester with an up-close-and-personal, grimly realistic cleaver to the top of the head — not one chop, but at least three. Bullets shred flesh and leave gaping, bleeding holes. Maybe this is good — maybe people need to know, for example, that wounds left by Wolverine's nasty claws are going to look nasty; in other words, comic-book violence is not very comical when depicted realistically. But nearly three hours of this is more than enough.

So what do I think, when it's said and done, about Watchmen the movie? It's a damn fine piece of work, and I'm glad one of the great 20th century novels has been delivered virtually intact to a broader audience. I've seen reviewers complain that the long, unrelenting story ultimately left them cold — but in a way, that may be indicative of the film's success, because it's a cold story about what is ultimately a cold and calculating act of horror that succeeds and goes unpunished (or — remembering that final, lovingly recreated final scene — will it go unpunished?). This film may make people think about the kind of world they want to tolerate, and that would also be a good thing.

I liked the movie a lot. I do think I might have preferred a cinematic interpretation of Watchmen as opposed to essentially a live-action reading of the book. But then I might have joined a chorus that said the cinematic interpretation was a misinterpretation. So on balance, I'm glad this very good movie is what got made.

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