Friday, March 6, 2009

Watch Pun Watch


You know what I thought this was like, adaptation-wise? American Psycho. An "unfilmable" text, adapted in a way that amplified the ironic and parodic elements of the original at the expense of its more serious aspects. And an excellent film as a result.
Vast numbers of people are already reviewing this movie to death, but I haven't yet seen anyone point out that Watchmen is funny. And that's on purpose: it's supposed to be funny. It's serious too, but there's a thread of irony that's essential to the fabric of the whole. All very dark, very deep, but: by stretching and inverting superhero tropes the way it does, Watchmen (book & film both) is essentially a kind of parody.

(This is even more true for the film than for the original novel. There's a deeper suspension of disbelief when you're reading words and absorbing pictures; the absurdities are suppressed. But when it's live-action, a movie about costumed crimefighters can't help but highlight the strange and the ridiculous. And that's before you even get to the more obvious jokes – moulded nipples on the costume body armour, Rorschach's "Dark Knight" voice...)

Do you believe me? Just because a work explores some deep and serious ideas doesn't mean it isn't funny at the same time. I think a lot of people are uncomfortable with acknowledging that, but it's true. When done well, that's part of what makes a good work so great: the humour can lend verisimilitude, and bring entertainment value too.

I love the original graphic novel, but I haven't read it for several years. (That was on purpose: I didn't want the differences between book and film to be too obvious to me, to be too annoying.) I went in with fairly low expectations. Based on the reviews I'd read, I was expecting that the movie wouldn't gel somehow; that it would duplicate the graphic novel's look but not its mood, that it would tell the events but not the story. The characters wouldn't seem right. It would be unsatisfying. That's what I was expecting.

Are you interested in my opinion?

Watchmen entertained the hell out of me. I thought it worked as a dark parody of superheroes (and of superhero movies), it worked as a compelling and unorthodox film narrative, it even worked as an action-romance with philosophical scaffolding. And I thought the fight scenes were awesome – seriously, some of the best movie fight scenes I've seen. (And that's coming from someone who usually hates any use of slow-motion, and who was only half-heartedly a fan of the action sequences in 300.) The music was great, too. (It's the musical choices that go a long way towards establishing a good subtone of parody throughout, too; I'm talking to you, Leonard Cohen's synth-heavy 1980s version of Hallelujah.)

I feel like I really need to talk about Watchmen with someone who watches a lot of movies, but hasn't read the graphic novel. Even better, someone who isn't especially familiar with comicbooks and superheroes generally. What on earth does this film seem like, to someone like that? There's so much bizarre excess in this movie, it's such an unusual brew of wild ideas... how does that play, to someone who has never read a superhero comic?

One thing in particular I thought interesting: by adapting the original text so faithfully, the first third (or so) of the film ends up with a narrative structure that's extremely unusual for a blockbuster. The way the story shifts from character to character and back and forth in time, exploring backstory and shifting perspectives (and all the while advancing the plot) – it's done in a way that's quite unusual, I think. There have been a lot of "ensemble"-type movies in the recent past, so many now that it's almost a subgenre of its own – I'm thinking about films like Magnolia, maybe I Heart Huckabees or Syriana or Crash, maybe even Pulp Fiction. All very different in tone, but I hope you know what I mean when I say they're similar in structure: multiple characters, interweaving storylines that build to a connected climax. You know what I mean. Watchmen has multiple characters and interweaving storylines that build to a connected climax, too.

But Watchmen is different to those films. It explores the characters' backstory and "origins" in ways that other ensemble films don't, I think. Following the pattern of the original text, the stories of the different characters are actually told differently, using narrative forms that reflect who they are. The segments with Dreiberg and Jupiter have a different feel to Rorschach's origin-told-via-psych-evaluation, which is different again to Manhattan's origin-told-via-simultaneous-time. Ensemble films often have different characters and different stories, but I think it's unusual to see different narrators used in this way. It works really well, too. It's a credit to the creators that it's never distracting, confusing or clunky – Watchmen is always a single film, not several different films cut together. (Or not to me, anyhow; again, I really need to talk to someone who knows the film but not the book! This is what I get for going to see it on opening night, when nobody else has seen it yet...)

There is a lot to this film, substance and style both. From sly easter eggs like "Good luck, Mister Gorsky" and the use of Apple's 1984 ad, to more subtle jokes (like the ironic/obvious musical selections), this is a film absolutely crammed with interesting details. The cast are great; in a couple of cases, they're excellent. If I wanted to nitpick, I'd say the very final scene was just slightly off – something about the pacing, maybe? – but even in the original book, that was a scene that never quite worked for me. Some people have said that the film doesn't evoke the Cold War feeling of imminent nuclear holocaust clearly enough; for myself, I thought that it was evoked well enough. But I might be more familiar with that sort of Cold War mindset than some people, I've been thinking about it a bit lately..?

I want to see it again. It's a great story, well told and thoroughly entertaining. It's funny!
In summary: see this film. If only so that I can talk to you about it.

--the Cinematic Thoapsl


  1. I would have appreciated seeing just one good shot of Rorschach's 'The End Is Nigh' placard in the movie. If we don't get to see how the looming Soviet threat affects the man on the street how can the audience relate to it? Though I suppose the director's cut will probably resolve that issue.

    I'm curious to know what Dr Manhattan's backstory in the film would seem like to someone who hasn't read the comic - whether it would actually reflect Manhattan's experience of time or it would appear to be a run-of-the-mill narrative of sequential events. I'd say most if not all of the cues in the comic that give the reader a sense of concurrency (forgive the terrible word) have been stripped from the adaptation. I don't remember seeing a whole lot of cross-cutting, for example.

    Who cares? It's a great movie I know I'll like a hell of a lot more the second time around, when I don't have to feel interrupted every time it deviates from the source material.

  2. Yeah - I did notice a few "End Is Nigh" placard shots, but they weren't as obvious as in the book, I think.

    I agree with you about the Dr Manhattan stuff, too - I don't think the film makes it clear that it's his godlike perception of time at work, and not just memories... but I imagine that the sequence probably works well just as a narrative anyhow. It's good stuff.

    I can't wait until more people have seen this. (& it deserves to be seen by a lot of people:)

    And I just read that apparently the director's cut might get a theatrical release later in the year, too! I'd pay to see that for sure.