19 March, 2009

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

So here's the thing.

Back in 1999, a full ten years ago, I came across an internet article talking about some comic book superhero movie that work was (at that time) progressing on. I'd never heard of the book before, knew nothing about it, but the article revealed one piece of information that interested me. Terry Gilliam (a director that I have admired for years now) had been attached to make this film back in the mid-1990s, before pulling out saying that he thought the book was unfilmable. The article quoted Gilliam talking about how much he loved this book, how incredible it was, even if he did feel it couldn't be captured on film. This intrigued me, and the next day I went to the library and hired a copy of the book.

And this was how I discovered Watchmen.

Now, I need to emphasise, I am not a comic book reader - the last time I had read a comic book, I was ten years old, and back then all I would read was the occasional Asterix, Tintin, and Archie. It's quite a jump from Asterix comically punching Roman soldiers to the Comedian being thrown through the window of his skyscraper penthouse, and reading Archie dithering between Betty and Veronica is about as far from the Comedian raping the first Silk Spectre as you can get. And the most dastardly of criminal plots uncovered by Tintin doesn't come close to the horrors of chapter 12. So reading Watchmen was quite a shock to the system.

But what a great experience it was. Once I got used to the idea of actually reading the pictures as well as the words (which was quite an adjustment), and learned to sit and soak in the artwork, I found the reading experience to be unlike any other I've had. The book challenged me, frightened me, excited me. And while I may not have had the full grounding in comic book vocabulary or history to fully grasp even half of the techniques being used in the book (for instance, it wasn't until someone pointed it out to me that I understood that issue 5 actually reflects back on itself, and it took about three readings before I actually understood how the Black Freighter actually commented on events), nevertheless the book astonished me. I've returned to the book three or four times since then, and am constantly blown away by the new things I'm discovering or noticing. It's a really extraordinary read.

It's interesting to see the film coming out in the aftermath of The Dark Knight, because the Nolan Batman films (which, incidentally, I really do enjoy) at least purported to be a realistic portrayal of the Batman character as he would exist in our world. And that's fine as far as it goes, but the extraordinary thing about Watchmen is that it tries to honestly portray what the world would be like with costumed heroes. It challenges this strange idea that people who, for whatever reason, decide to dress up in costumes to fight bad guys are suddenly imbued with some great moral core principles that govern their actions. After all, people in general are guilty of anger, lust, avarice, even when we're not wearing a mask and people know who we are, so why should the anonymity of a secret identity suddenly create some perfect moral being? The end result is that Watchmen (both the comic and the film) "look" more like a comic book superhero story than the recent Batman films do, but at the core of the story it's a much more realistic and honest story.

So how did I feel about Watchmen the movie? Overall, I loved it. I really loved it. It had it's flaws, which I'll get to a bit later, but overall it's really great. I never would have imagined it possible to get a film this close to the book. I had always thought it inevitable that when Watchmen was made, it would be softened, made less ambiguous, easier for the average audience. Instead, the moral ambiguities are preserved - we get a film where a character like Rorschach is presented as a seriously-disturbed emotionally-scarred psychotic vigilante sociopath, yet he's (arguably) the moral core of the story. The book is shockingly disturbingly violent, and the film preserves that and then some (but I'll get onto that). And the book's complex storyline and structure (with frequent diversions into flashbacks, that aren't strictly necessary for the plot but which are pivotal to develop these characters and this world) are well-presented and honest to the book. I mean, we really did get a ten-minute presentation of Dr Manhattan's backstory, and they actually work to retain the fractured presentation of the story that tries to replicate the experience of being a person who does experience all points of his life simultaneously. The exciting thing is that Zack Snyder had a lot of power after the success of his film of 300, and he used that power to make a movie that was phenomenally close to the book. When you hear about the types of changes that the studio wanted to make to the story (spoilers in that article), to say nothing of the more notorious scripts that have been written in the past (one script somehow omitted the Comedian's death that starts the whole story, another changed the ending to revolve around an assassination of Dr Manhattan creating a time paradox!), these are changes that would have ripped the soul out of the film. So it's nice that we had a director who was in a position to say No to those suggestions, and get away with it. Now there is a hell of a lot cut from the story - the book is really densely packed, and it would be impossible to fit is all into a film's running time - and as I was watching I was disappointed certain scenes and characters didn't make the film, but I was surprised how well it held together without that material (although if I had been new to Watchmen, the lack of explanation for Rorschach's mask would really have bothered me). That said, I look forward to the director's cut, which should have a lot of that material restored. And while some of the acting isn't that great, Billy Crudup, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, and Patrick Wilson are excellent, while Jackie Earle Haley's Rorschach is about as perfect a performance as you will find. The end result is a Watchmen that is pretty much as good as it could ever be, and a lot better than I think it would have otherwise been.

But since I'm a grumpy bastard, I tend to find it more interesting to talk about what I think the film did wrong. And this is where I get back to the violence. The book is violent, bloody, gory, and the film reflects that, but there's a sadness and emptiness to the violence in the book that's not in the film. Unfortunately, Zack Snyder seems to enjoy the violence a bit too much, which does make the action scenes more exciting to watch, but seems to lose a bit of the point. Add to that the fact that the book is very clearly about ordinary people (with the exception of Dr Manhattan) with no special powers or strengths. Yet all the way through the film, we see fight scenes where the human heroes display strengths that go beyond simple fighting skills - one kick from Nite Owl II will not only break bones, but cause the broken bone to burst through the skin, while in the opening scene the Comedian not only manages to punch through walls, he stands up to impossible punishment before his death. In other scenes, the violence really goes over the top - in the book one character has his throat slit out-of-shot, and we just see the blood gushing over another character, where in the film we watch as he has both of his hands cut off with an electric saw. And to the degree that they made the action overly gratuitous and unrealistic, that's the level to which I was disappointed by the violence. (Although I do approve of the change to the death of the child-killer - it may be (a lot) more graphic than in the book, but the book's set-up would have played in the film as derivative of the Saw films, and I actually liked the idea of treating the child-killer like a dog by killing them all in the same way.)

One issue that really was a minor problem, but it bothered me through the entire film - the makeup work in the film really was appalling. Old-age makeup to artificially age an actor always looks bad, but even by that lowered standard, the makeup to age Carla Gugino is ghastly. But worse than that, anyone made up to look like a real-world personality is just awful. Particular attention has to be paid to the makeup used to make Robert Wisden look like Nixon. I can understand the temptation to try to make the actor look like the person they're portraying, but the problem is that the makeup looks like it was designed by someone who only had 1970s political cartoons as reference material. This means the actor still looks nothing like Nixon, but now he looks nothing like Nixon but with a comical and distractingly huge nose. Which was unfortunate, because every time Nixon was on screen, I found myself thinking less about what was happening, and more "what is up with that nose?"

And it's another small point, but I hated that they renamed the Crimebusters as the Watchmen. The name Watchmen was never used as a name for the core group, it's a lot more complicated than that. The title refers to the famous quote "Who watches the watchmen?", and that question really is the core theme of the story. I can understand why they would make that change, they felt they needed to explicitly justify the title, and it's really not a big issue to change one name to another, but it is still disappointing.

But my main issue with the film was with the ending (and I would like to emphasise that on the whole, I did like the ending as well, despite a few qualms). And this discussion obviously involves spoilers, so I'll hide the text as white-on-white. If you've read Watchmen, or seen the movie, or both, highlight the white space below.

[highlight from here] So, as anyone who followed the making of the film knew, the ending was changed. Veidt was still the villain, his motivation (to force peace between the US and USSR) was the same, and his plan was ultimately just as successful, but the mechanism used by Veidt was different. Basically, "the squid" wasn't in the film. And it was an entirely understandable decision, and one I agree with. The book's ending would really have complicated the book and already lengthened an already unusually long film. After all, to set up the squid, they would have needed to take time establishing Veidt conducting research into psychic phenomena, teleportation, and genetic engineering (and the ongoing presence of Bubastis is a slightly confusing element in a film otherwise without genetic engineering), as well as needing to add a lot of other foreshadowing and hinting to ensure that the squid doesn't feel like it came out of nowhere. And they had pared the book down to its bare essentials already, they really didn't have time to add that material. And, even if they had included it, I really doubt that the wider movie audience would have accepted the squid ending. To be honest, it works in the book, but only just - there's no way it could have worked in the film.

And thus we have the ending where Veidt frames Dr Manhattan for the attack. And as a concept, it works really well. But they seemed in the film to be uncertain exactly how the attacks motivated that peace. There was an initial reference to the two sides banding together to fight the threat of Dr Manhattan, but where that was the motivation in the book (coming together to fight an unknown foe), it didn't quite work in a film where Manhattan is both known and known to be beyond being stopped by any human technology. A few scenes later, there was another scene where reference was made to there being peace for as long as people think Manhattan is watching. And that makes more sense - especially with the change to launching attacks on multiple cities. People would perceive it as Manhattan basically being the parent telling both sides to "play nice", and fear of the consequences motivates the peace. I've heard some people suggesting there would be some resentment against the USA for creating Manhattan in the first place, and maybe there would be, but I think people would be too afraid of Manhattan to actually take action against the US. So I think Ozymandias' plot works, even though the film itself seems a bit confused about the actual reasons why it works.

What really doesn't work is our first glimpse of New York after the attack. I remember when I first read the book - you turn to the first page of chapter 12, and it's the most shocking thing. You just find yourself confronted with the most disturbing image of death and carnage I've ever seen. You try turning the page, but there's no escape, more bodies. Page after page, no words, nothing but graphic pain and suffering and death, for a full eight pages, a quarter of the chapter just filled with bodies everywhere. It's appalling to read. By contrast, the film has us seeing New York basically as a hole in the ground that we see for five seconds before leaving. It's conceptually shocking in the way that someone killing half a city is, certainly, but it doesn't come close to disturbing the viewer in the same way the complete graphic carnage of the book did. In the film, it's just an abstract idea, "kill millions to save billions". In the book, we see the millions of bodies, and the question about whether their deaths were justified is made so much more real.

And I was disappointed that Nite Owl II saw the death of Rorschach. One of the things I love in the book is this sense that we never actually see the real Rorschach - he's always hiding behind a mask, either literally or (during the prison scenes) figuratively. We only ever see the real Rorschach, the pain and anguish he's been carrying, right at the moment of death as he demands that Dr Manhattan "do it". And the only person to see the real Rorschach was Dr Manhattan, the man who killed Rorschach and almost immediately left Earth forever. Having Nite Owl II see the death destroys that sense of Rorschach being completely alone when he died, as well as that idea that no-one in the world will ever have seen the real Rorschach. And that's a sad change.
[stop highlighting]

When Gilliam talked about the unfilmability of Watchmen, he said he thought the only way it could be filmed was as a five- or six-hour mini-series on a cable network like HBO. And in general, I agree with him - a six-hour mini-series on a network like HBO that was able to include the sex and violence really would have been great, allowing them time to fully explore the story, the characters, and the world. But Snyder has shown that the film is filmable, and he got bloody close. The film's not just a retelling of the story, they really did manage to explore the characters in a way I never would have expected. If we had a director with a bit more restraint (say, Darren Aronofsky, who was attached to the film at one point), working from pretty much the same script as the eventual film, we would have had a perfect Watchmen. But then again, maybe that film wouldn't have been made without Snyder and his 300 success allowing him to put his foot down and say No to all the bad ideas that would have turned it into just a generic superhero film. Who knows? As it is, we got a bloody good film, and one that, for all my criticisms, really did leave me speechless, in awe of what I had seen. I look forward to many repeat viewings. I look forward to the release of the director's cut, restoring so many of the little moments, details, and characters I did miss. It's not as great as the book, and if you've never read it, I urge you to rectify this as soon as possible. But the film captures Watchmen, in all its brilliant and disturbing nature. And for that, I'm very happy.


And you've almost certainly seen this, since everyone who writes about Watchmen seems to be required to post this video, but in case you haven't, here's a rather amusing video in which someone tries to imagine what a toned-down kid-friendly Saturday morning cartoon version of Watchmen would have looked like. It's pretty hysterical.

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