11 March 2009

Filmbook: "Watchmen" (2009)

I think I would've gotten around to reading Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' alternate-history graphic novel eventually if it hadn't been made into a movie, but it's hard to be sure. Its greatness had been extolled to me, but maybe not enough for how engrossed I ended up being in WATCHMEN. Its density could be overwhelming but I got caught up in the lives of these should-have-beens, their seemingly pointless existence on the fringes of a society that doesn't really need them any more. The Watchmen are the anti-superheroes; they aren't even convinced of their own greatness, so how can they convey it to anyone else?

When I walked out of the theatre after a matinee of Zack Snyder's "Watchmen" last weekend, I wasn't bowled over by the whole thing, nor was I disappointed. I went in envisioning a gory spectacle that would not be able to capture the complexity of Moore's original work, and I was right about that. (Actually, it was less gory than I had been dreading, even though every punch and smash is delivered at an unendurable volume.) I was surprised by how good the acting was, for the most part*; director Snyder gambled when he decided to cast non-marquee actors for all of his major parts, and it paid off with a nuance you don't normally see in a big-budget superhero movie.

A little further away from it now, I see the movie has one unbelievable hole in it, which I didn't notice because my mind filled it in for me in the theater. Like an optical illusion, where your brain convinces you to see something that isn't there, I failed to notice that, despite the much lauded opening credits, people who see this movie are never told how the Watchmen came to be (besides 30 seconds with Hollis) and why they can't be that way any more. Of course I already knew that going in, so the film could make sense for me without that missing piece, but I can't imagine how someone going in knowing nothing about the graphic novel would be able to make sense of what they were seeing. There just aren't enough clues, except maybe in Doctor Manhattan's case because we see his whole origin story (so to speak). Yet I have read reviews from people who hadn't read the graphic novel and still liked the movie, so maybe this isn't as big a problem as it seemed to be fore me.

There are several other things that didn't quite work for me about the movie, like how early the villain was telegraphed, but I must point out: The scene in the spaceship with the Leonard Cohen playing is probably the worst thing of its kind I have ever seen, or at least in the past 5 years. And the music is only a small part of that (most of the cues were obvious in a funny, kitschy way, like the Muzak at Adrian Veidt's office). Everything about that scene except the ship floating was ridiculous. I couldn't even laugh, I was too ashamed for everyone who apparently decided that this would be a moving way to connect these two characters. To paraphrase the immortal words of "Ghost World," it was so bad it went past good and back to bad again.

Filmbook verdict: Read the graphic novel (please!) and if you're going to see the movie, see it in IMAX.

*Exception being Malin Akerman, who I realize was probably cast to appeal to a different demographic than mine, but... goodness.


Elizabeth said...

IMAX? Really?

I think I would have enjoyed the film significantly more if the volume in the theater I saw it in weren't dialed up so high.

I had not read the book (Morgan kept telling me that it was probably too creepy for me (and since I have about a bazillion times as many books I want to read as I will ever read, not getting around to one in particular is not much of a hardship), but for some reason he thought that the film would not traumatize me), and I found the plot somewhat confusing, but no more so than any other superhero movie (out of which I frequently walk wondering why the villain's plan had to be as elaborate as it was).

Ellen said...

The volume was really high, but I thought the vistas were incredible in IMAX. I felt like I got lost in some of those scenes in the best way. (Of course the format worked against me when Snyder frequently cut to close up and I found myself studying the inside of Akerman's nostrils.)

But did the film traumatize you?

Elizabeth said...

No, perhaps surprisingly. (I'm normally a flyweight when it comes to gory violence. And nihilism?) My ears did hurt, though.

It seemed too silly to be traumatizing. (And I think that scene on the spaceship was supposed to be silly.)

Ellen said...

I confess there were a few scenes where I had to look away but I expected much worse from the director of "300." If that scene on the spaceship was silly, it failed at that for me; the whole geek-fantasy aspect of it made me simultaneously bored and angry.

Did Morgan like the movie? A certain longtime Watchmen fan I know said it was the worst movie he had ever seen.

Elizabeth said...

He really really liked it, but he says he had very low expectations.

Also, that might have just been excitement: I was so excited to see "The Phantom Menace", for example, that it was not until later that I realized what an awful film it was.

Wade Garrett said...

I still haven't seen it. Based on what I know about the movie, I think the casting is really good, except for perhaps Malin Ackerman, who has the body to play the Silk Spectre, but, based on her previous performances, she doesn't seem to have the fire in her eyes that the character requires, or which, for instance, Catherine Zeta-Jones had in The Mask of Zorro. Billy Crudup was an inspired choice, though.

Ellen said...

WG - I realize Ms Akerman was cast to attract a demographic that, shall we say, is not mine, but I would have traded almost anyone for her in this movie. There must have been somebody who was good looking and more talented who would have signed on.

I didn't give the recasting much thought but because she doesn't get enough work, I'm throwing out the name Emily Blunt. I will now wait for someone to improve on my suggestion.

Elizabeth said...

I'm with Ellen on this one. I don't go to see movies in order to see hot bodies; I go to see acting.

Also, I think it is just about impossible to get a job in Hollywood as a young actress without a hot body anyway.

And: why can only young actresses get any work? Couldn't you get someone to play the 67-year-old Silk Spectre who could plausibly pass for 67?

Ellen said...

I think there was a conscious choice made across the board to cast actors younger than their characters in 1985 and then age them up, but it wasn't all even -- Jackie Earle Haley is 47 now, Rorschach is 46; Jeffrey Dean Morgan is 42, the Comedian is 61 at the beginning of the movie.

(Apologies for the inevitable errors which will result from my having sourced all these on the fly via Wikipedia.)

I seem to remember the ageing makeup on Carla Gugino being particularly frightening though in IMAX.

Elizabeth said...

At least they made a few comments about how astonishing it was that the Comedian was in as good shape as he was, so I could buy that one.

But, if it didn't want to cast age-appropriately, couldn't a multimillion dollar blockbuster at least invest in a competent makeup artist?

Elizabeth said...

But even the best makeup can't make up for poor acting: if you're playing a 67-year-old, you need to move like a 67-year-old, not bounce around like a 25-year-old.

And sure, she's a superhero, so maybe she's superenergetic, but then it just looks like she's not old, not that she's an old superhero.

Elizabeth said...

In my first-year humanities course in college, we were reading The Winter's Tale, so we had the obligatory assignment of acting out a scene from the play.

The kid who played the king was using a butterknife as a prop to represent a sword. I told him that if he wanted people to believe it was a sword, he was going to have to act like it was very, very heavy. He said, "But I'm strong!"

The result was not that he looked like a strong king masterfully wielding a heavy sword (two feats of acting cancelling one another out, which is what he was aiming for), but that he looked like a kid with a butterknife (because that's what he was, and he didn't give the audience any reason to think he was anything else).

In the same way, a young woman pretending to be a superenergetic old woman just looks like a young woman.

Ellen said...

Your points are all well taken, and I think the character would have bothered me more if she had had more screen time. When I think about Silk Spectre 1 I think of her in flashback, not in the present. Nor do I really blame Gugino for her scenes in the present being so unmemorable; that's a fault of the screenplay and direction.

That was a nice re-direction with the Comedian, though.

Wade Garrett said...

One general problem is that most female superheroes are good-looking and athletic. Most actresses with the sort of 'hot bodies' Elizabeth mentioned tend to look more like playmates than athletes. Consider Angelina Jolie; she's a beautiful woman but with her hourglass figure and enormous boobs she didn't look very convincing jumping and climbing in the Tomb Raider movies. (Disclaimer: they were on tv and I was really bored. Don't worry, I didn't pay to see them.)

I would have cast, say, the actress from Kill Bill Vol. 2 - the blonde one who rode on the windshield of the car. That woman was cute, but she was clearly athletic (I think she's actually a stuntwoman instead of a trained actress) and it lent enormous credibility to her action scenes. To many actresses in superhero movies walk like they are on a runway. What's the point of that? They would be better off walking like decathletes.

Ellen said...

I think the woman you are talking about is Zoe Bell, and I've heard she's also very good in "Death Proof" (haven't seen it). I didn't like "Kill Bill Vol. 2" but I like your point about the athleticism.

That said, my problem with Malin Akerman is still with her acting and not her looks; the two months of physical training she did for the movie couldn't really help her in that department.

Wade Garrett said...

You're right, i misspoke - she actually acts in Death Proof; in Kill Bill she is just a stuntwoman. But we're definitely talking about the same person. Death Proof and Planet Terror are really fun rentals, by the way.