Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Watchmen (Part I)


Finally got to see it last night, once I recovered from this damned sinus infection.

What did I think of the film? Well, to borrow a word - well, a grunt - from Watchman's Rorschach: hurm.

To say it's a bad film would be untrue, but the theatrical cut is messy and flawed, and Zack Snyder's vision (not to mention tweaks) of Moore & Gibbon's story is brutal, uncompromising, and often frustrating. He proves to be alternately both completely right and completely wrong for the material, depending on which character and/or plot line he's following.

Judging from the articles and interviews I've read about the film, Snyder seems to view the theatrical cut as something he has to put up with until the full film - including The Black Freighter story, the theatrical cut's most welcome omission - can be released on DVD.

I've got nothing against extended cuts. I haven't watched or missed the theatrical cuts of The Two Towers, The Return of the King, The Wrath of Kahn, or Hellboy since the extended versions came out on DVD. But every one of those films, as released in theaters, told a complete story - something this movie fails to do.

Nor do I have a problem with adapted screenplays changing or streamlining the source material. The problem with the current cut of Watchmen is not that too much was omitted, but that the wrong things were cut or left in.

Let me go through a quick list of where the movie stumbles, merely from an adaptation standpoint, starting with scenes and characters that should have been cut or received less screen time.

The opening fight: Awesome. I'll give Snyder one thing: he can film a fight. He uses angles wide enough to take in the action and holds on an image long enough to comprehend it. It's astonishing how rare that is these days. But the exposition before the fight and the fight itself could have been half the length and still retained the same power.

The opening credits: Best part of the movie. It's actually the perfect length, with the one of the few music cues that work. But it was just so awesome that it deserves some praise. It has the single best image in the movie: Silhouette grabbing a random woman in the streets of New York during a WWII victory celebration and kissing her, recreating one of the most famous pictures from the era. Fucking brilliant, that was.

Hollis Mason: In the theatrical cut, he exists for one purpose: to introduce the second Nite Owl, the Keene Act, and Richard Nixon. He could have been excised from the story entirely, since all of those elements are presented in subsequent scenes. It would be a painful cut, since the two Nite Owls were my favorite characters in the graphic novel (I identify with boy scouts - go figure), but if the filmmakers aren't going to complete his story, then he shouldn't be in the film.

The scene could have started with Dreiberg saying a quick goodbye to Mason and leaving his garage - as a quick shout-out to fans - and heading directly back to his home and a confrontation with Rorschach.

The Comedian and the Pregnant Vietnamese Woman: Another hard cut. It's an ugly scene (not meant as criticism - just what it is), but one of the most powerful moments in the original story. But the two important beats in the scene - how much of a bastard the Comedian is, how Dr. Manhattan is losing touch with humanity - are established in other scenes. The attempted rape of Sally Jupiter and, you know, assassinating John F. Kennedy clearly establishes The Comedian as someone you wouldn't want to have milk and cookies with.

Drieberg's "What Happened to the American Dream?" Line: Wow, that one was almost as bad as Darth Vader's "NNNNOOOO!!!!" (which, to be slightly off topic, didn't stick in my craw the same way it stuck in the craws of others). It's a scene that needs to be in the film, but the final version is so awful that it needed to be cut, trimmed, or re-shot.

Ozymandias's Alexander the Great Speech: Almost every mistake that Snyder and company make in adapting Watchmen involves Ozymandias. Between Matthew Goode's "I need to see your papers" accent, his constant menacing stare, and moving the Alexander the Great speech to the first half of the movie, the character now screams "Villain!" in a way he did not in the graphic novel. Here, he comes off like a classic Bond villain instead of a tragic character who is willing to do evil things for the good of humanity (if you choose to see it that way). The speech could have been removed entirely with nothing lost and a lot gained.

Rorschach's Origin Story: I knew there wasn't time for the full origin story, but this section doesn't feel right, even though the writers cleverly condense the emergence of the full Rorschach personality while keeping Alan Moore's original dialog. In the film this sequence comes at a point in the movie when the very last thing that's needed is another flashback.

Personally, I wouldn't have even told his origin story, only keeping the first half of the scene where Rorschach lies to the psychiatrist about the images he sees in the ink blots, cutting each time to what he really sees. We would get the gist of his origin (the trauma of his childhood and the psychological toll of looking evil straight in the eye) through just a sequence of images. Also, it would further illustrate that Rorschach will not compromise his integrity no matter the personal risk, an important beat to establish for the end of the film.

Bubastis: I imagine this is the only complete "what the fuck?" moment for those unfamiliar with the source material. In the theatrical cut, the creature serves no purpose, except maybe to show what Ozymandias is willing to sacrifice for his beliefs - which doesn't work, because there's no established emotional connection between the two. The character's other function is to foreshadow the graphic novel's big-ass squid, which isn't even in the film. So why keep it in?

Also, it's pointless CG, which must have cost a shitload of money with absolutely nothing gained. I'm sure the character will have a proper introduction in the extended cut. This is the worst example of the "oh hell, it'll make it to the DVD" mentality that runs through the entire movie.

Way Too Much Nixon: Seriously, what the fuck is up with Nixon in this movie? I can't imagine any way for this character to have been more miscast, for the makeup to be any more cheesy, and for it to generate any more unintended laughs. Even in the comic book, Moore and Gibbons wisely kept him in shadow or in profile, to help keep the idea of Nixon in his fifth term as something you could see as both deathly serious and darkly humorous.

Like the "American dream" bit, trimming, deleting, or redoing the Nixon bits would've made a stronger film. Nixon in his fifth term is a joke...but it's very, very scary joke. And it's not in the least bit scary here.

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Done with this rant for now. More coming soon.

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