The Motion/Captured Review: ‘Watchmen’

02.24.09 9 years ago 40 Comments

Warner Bros.

“Watchmen” has been part of my life for most of what I consider my adulthood.  I still remember holding the book for the first time, looking at that striking smiley face graphic, flipping through and being confused by what I was seeing.  At that point, in 1988, I was still flirting with getting back into comics.  I had a pretty serious collection when I was a kid, and during one of our many moves, an entire refrigerator box full of comic books and Fangorias and Mad magazine and even a few contraband Playboys went “missing,” vanishing into thin air.  Broke my heart, and it convinced me to grow up and stop collecting comic books.

So my first year at college, there was this sort of flea market every Wednesday afternoon at the student union, and one guy had a book stall where he always featured a number of graphic novels.  And sure enough, my geek DNA reasserted itself and I started buying them occasionally.  One of the first ones I fell in love with was a “Swamp Thing” trade paperback I bought written by Alan Moore.  I was so impressed with the way he took this potentially silly character and invested it with real soul and made it about something.  I decided to keep my eye out for anything else the guy had for sale that had Alan Moore’s name on it, and so when I picked up that one especially thick graphic novel, and I flipped through and saw the weird naked blue guy and the pages and pages of text and the pirate stuff and, sure enough, Alan Moore’s name on the cover, I knew “Watchmen” was heading home with me.

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And there is no way the me I was at 18 could have imagined that 21 years later, I’d be standing at the Beverly Wilshire hotel, ten feet from a row of costumes worn by Rorschach and Nite Owl and Silk Spectre II and Ozymandias, playing a “Watchmen” video game set before the book, waiting to talk to Dave Gibbons.  Even if you’d tried to explain it to me, I would have laughed at you.  Because the first time I read that book, it was like someone turned a key in my head and I suddenly saw graphic storytelling as something with far more potential than I ever realized.  “Watchmen” was the moment I realized that comics, like films, are limitless in definition.  They can be about anything.  They can address any subject.  They can express any emotion, any idea.  The only limitations have to do with the writers and artists themselves.  I know that may seem blindingly obvious, but when you grow up reading comics and everything is always exactly the same, you start to accept that maybe that’s all there is, maybe that’s all comics can be.  You believe in the limitations because everyone else seems to accept them so readily.

I felt so strongly about “Watchmen” that the first time I heard rumors about them trying to make a film from the book, I was angry.  Keep in mind, “Brazil” is one of my two favorite films, but even so, I felt like any film version, even one directed by Terry Gilliam, was just going to savage everything that was great and beautiful about the book, and I hoped that the whole thing would flame out in development.  And over the years, I watched them get close to making the film repeatedly, and even once I started to warm to the idea, I still felt like compromise was going to have to be a major ingredient in whatever version was eventually going to happen.  And then, back in 2002, I read David Hayter’s script for the film.

And the strange thing about was just how much it actually felt like “Watchmen.”  It wasn’t a strictly faithful adaptation.  There were some major concessions made.  But at the heart of it, the things that drew me to the work in the first place were intact, and it felt like maybe… just maybe… there was a movie in that material after all.

It was three years later when I visited Paul Greengrass in London to see how development on “Watchmen” was going.  At that point, the film had a start date, a production team, and was full speed ahead.  It looked like it was going to happen.  Paramount even opened an official website for it.  At that point, the cast was starting to come together, and it looked like we’d see Ron Perlman as The Comedian, Joaquin Phoenix as Dan, Hillary Swank as Laurie, and Brad Pitt as Ozymandias.  It was a tense moment when I visited with the producers, because they were in turnaround at Paramount, and they had to get the film set up somewhere or they would lose their director.  Again.  This was after Darren Aronofsky had already come and gone.  And sure enough… it fell apart.

But now here we are.

And I’ve seen the film twice.

It took two viewings for me to be able to really wrap my head around it as a movie, and not as the culmination of two decades worth of speculation and curiosity and my own feelings about the material.  The first viewing was pretty much two hours and forty five minutes of me shouting inside my own head “OHMYGOD, IT’S WATCHMEN!” over and over and over.  It was just so strange and so powerful to actually see it play out onscreen, and I didn’t really absorb anything about it.  I had some immediate reactions, but if I’d had to write a review that night, it would have been useless.

The second viewing, I was over the shock.  I sat down to watch it as a movie, as something that has to live on its own now, something that has to play for noobs and the faithful alike.  And taken on its own, Zack Snyder’s “Watchmen” is a profound work of art, a beautiful, deliriously weird, meditative spin on a genre that is as American as jazz.  It is adult, sober-minded entertainment, visually ravishing and loaded with more ideas with a typical Oscar-season, and even when it doesn’t work (one element in particular falls flat, and I’ll get into that below), the ambition and the density of it is breathtaking.  “Watchmen” will not be the sort of commerical juggernaut that “The Dark Knight” was, but it’s a stealth weapon.  You’ll be feeling the ripples from this one for years to come, and I have no doubt this is ground zero for a wave of filmmakers-to-be who will one day cite this as the moment they realized what they wanted to do with their lives.  Although this may not be the comparison Warner’s accountants want to hear, I’d say that this is the closest thing to a “Blade Runner” I’ve seen in recent memory.  It’s a film that confounds mainstream expectation by design, a film that works as both text and meta-text, and one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen a major studio release.

I’m not going to spend this entire review comparing what happens onscreen to what happens on the page.  I’m sure there will be whole websites devoted to nothing but that sort of parsing of details soon, shot by shot comparisons, and if that’s what you’re interested in, the film will provide you with plenty to chew on.  But Zack Snyder did exactly what he had to do in order to make this a movie and not just a visual books-on-tape.  The choices he makes as a director are all motivated by what works for the film, and as a result, you could practically teach a class about adaptation using this as a case study.  There are moments where he’s taken his cue exactly from what happened on the page, practically using panels as storyboards, but there are just as many places where he took a suggestion or an implication or an idea and he’s expanded on it, adding a flourish or a move or an idea all his own, and the result is exciting.  It also suggests that Zack’s vocabulary as a director is much richer than either “Dawn of the Dead” or “300” would imply, and more than ever, I’m curious to see what he does when he makes his first original with “Sucker Punch.”

The film begins with a scene that was only suggested in the book, something we saw in glimpses that plays out in full here, and I’ve seen several angry fanboys talk about how wrong it is to see a fight scene in that moment.  Trust me… it’s not a fight scene.  It’s a murder, pure and simple.  Eddie Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who should be a huge movie star based on the charisma he radiates in every moment he’s onscreen), also known as The Comedian, is alone at home, watching TV, when someone breaks in.  Eddie tries to put up a fight, but his opponent is almost surgical in the way he breaks him down.  Blake’s training does nothing to help him.  The attacker chips away at all of Blake’s defenses before finally smashing his head into a counter, hoisting him overhead, and hurling him through a plate glass window.  It’s a brutal, ugly physical encounter, and the way Zack starts and ends the scene on that iconic smiley face is a nice nod to the way moments were built in the comic, even though this is a moment that was created for the movie.

And again… the opening title sequence takes ideas or references from the book and makes them explicit, staging the history of this world as a series of tableaus.  It’s an audacious move, and by the end of that sequence, audiences have already been asked to digest an amazing amount of material.  One of the things that is most striking about the film is the way it never stops to spoon-feed information to the audience, instead asking them to keep up no matter how much is happening, piling on background detail and character history.  But unlike David Lynch’s “Dune,” which had so little confidence in the way it communicated its exposition that they had to hand out glossary cards at theaters when you bought a ticket, “Watchmen” juggles all of this detail with aplomb, and the end result can be dizzying, but it’s never too dense to be understood.  This is a film built for repeat viewings, just as the book was meant to be read more than once, and each time, you’ll appreciate some other touch, some other detail, some other way in which this world feels lived-in, thought-out, real.

Grounding the experience is important, too, because you’re asking an audience to make a couple of big cognitive jumps.  It’s one thing to ask them to accept the reality of superheroes, but then to also ask them to accept that this is our world if certain key points in history had changed… that’s a lot.  Alternate histories are a rich vein of speculative fiction, but it remains oddly unexplored on film.  I’ll be honest… the one thing that really doesn’t work for me about Snyder’s film is the staging of the material involving Richard Nixon, serving out his fifth term as President of the United States.   I think it would have served Snyder better if the President’s presence in the movie had been limited to media.  We should have only ever seen him on television or in print or in those crazy re-election campaign posters we see defaced on walls.  Whenever the film cuts to Nixon and his cabinet debating the fate of the world, it feels like a different movie, and it’s too arch, too false.  The make-up on Nixon works best at a remove, not up close, and there’s nothing we learn in those moments that doesn’t also play out on some level in the rest of the movie.  It’s a misstep, but it’s the only major one, and with so little overall running time, it’s easy to overlook.

The cast is made up of actors who are not what you’d call movie stars, although many of them are recognizable, and for the most part, I think they’re absolutely perfect in their roles.  As I mentioned above, Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s take on The Comedian is spot-on.  He looks like a grinning gorilla when he’s in his Vietnam-era gear, and that awful feral smile of his makes him look like the shark in “Jaws” when he lays eyes on someone he can hurt or fuck or, best case scenario, both.  Carla Gugino ends up on the receiving end of that smile in one of the most harrowing scenes of the movie, and she’s got a difficult, punishing role that she more than masters.  Films have never really dealt with the fetishistic side of wearing a superhero costume (with the possible exception of Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman), but Gugino nails it in just a few scenes here.  In the opening credits, she’s a Vargas fantasy made real, and the nearly-pornographic nature of her costume could just be chalked up to “business-as-usual” in most superhero films.  But when she’s attacked by Eddie Blake after a photo session, Snyder points out the impractical nature of that costume, and what seemed sexy and fun a few moments earlier suddenly becomes clumsy and even dangerous.  Malin Akerman’s got a difficult role as Laurie, daughter to Gugino’s Sally Jupiter, lover to the ethereal Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), and a second-generation superhero who spends most of the film struggling with other people’s definitions of who she is.  Akerman plays Laurie as a child who never grew up, a little girl who wears her parental issues where everyone can see, someone whose sexuality is the only way she can really relate to anyone.  Laurie’s physically strong but emotionally hobbled, and as a result, she’s not easy to like.  It’s a hell of a choice for an actress like Akerman, who is still building career heat, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see people confuse their reactions to the character with their reactions to her.  She never flinches from playing Laurie real, though. 

Patrick Wilson’s work as Dan Dreiberg is subtle and smart and empathetic, and if there is a “hero” in the film, Dan’s it.  He perfectly plays this shlub who tasted greatness on a nightly basis once but who now finds himself locked in a half-life, having to subvert his own desires because of politics and public opinion, pretending to be happy even as he aches for a return to who he is.  What could be played as a joke is made sad and honest by Wilson, and he carefully calibrates Dan’s return to life over the course of the film, as well as the eventual heartbreak when the full magnitude of what led to the Comedian’s death is finally revealed.  Matthew Goode’s take on Ozymandias is eccentric, to say the least, with Goode playing him like ’70s-era glam Bowie, as disconnected in his way from humanity as Dr. Manhattan is.  Adrian Veidt is one of the few masks to have ever gone public, so he is a super-celebrity, and Goode looks at everyone through the same hooded, bored eyes that I’ve seen on so many superstars over the years, like he can barely believe he has to interact with so many mere mortals every day.  And in supporting turns, Laura Mennell makes a strong impression as Janey Slater, Manhattan’s first girlfriend, Rob LaBelle has a few great moments as Wally Weaver, Manhattan’s best friend when he was still known only as Jon Osterman, and Matt Frewer contributes some serious weird as Moloch, a former arch-villain who is living out his final days in a crappy anonymous apartment dying of cancer.

There are two performances here that deserve special attention, though, above and beyond everyone else in the cast.  Dr. Manhattan as a character lives on the same side of the uncanny valley as Brad Pitt’s Benjamin Button and Andy Serkis’s Gollum.  Created entirely out of motion-captured data, Manhattan is otherworldly, appropriately godlike, and utterly convincing.  Billy Crudup appears in flashback in the film’s best sequence, lifted almost directly from the book, as Manhattan vanishes to Mars so he can sift through the threads of his own life, but for the most part, Crudup’s work is filtered through the sophisticated FX techniques required to bring Manhattan to life, and it’s amazing how much of the really delicate work that Crudup does shines through.  He plays everything with a serene detachment, but it’s not emotionless.  It’s just that everything stays simmering, just under the surface of what he says and does, just as there’s some strange energy constantly pulsating and undulating just below his blue skin.  If we take Superman and Batman as the biggest comic archetypes (a case can certainly be made that all other costumed heroes are just riffs on these two basic models), then Dr. Manhattan is the answer to the question posed by Superman:  how much power is too much?  We respond on a nearly primal level to the notion of a being with powers greater than our own who watches out for us, protecting us.  But at some point, true superpowers would distance that being from the human race, almost by definition, and I find Osterman’s journey in the film from simple scientist to supreme being both moving and frightening in equal measure.

Meanwhile, Jackie Earle Haley’s performance as Walter Kovacs aka Rorschach, is the ultimate manifestation of the borderline psychotic vigilante with no special powers beyond their own dedication to justice at any cost.  He rejects his membership in humanity not because of an accident, but by choice, and he plays Rorschach as Travis Bickle in a mask, repulsed by every leering face, infuriated by every transgression large or small.  It’s impossible to be anything less than compelled by his work here, and it serves as a comment on every “secret identity” hero out there while also working completely as a stand-alone creation.  Rorschach doesn’t exist without his mask.  He has long since relinquished any claim he had on the identity of Walter Kovacs, and it’s only when he is captured by police and thrown into prison that we get a look at him without the mask, which he considers his real face by this point.  Haley plays it as a raw nerve, exposed and hypersensitive, and I find myself awed by everything he’s got going on in his performance.  The time he spent away from Hollywood, away from acting, has turned him into one of the most interesting people in film right now.  You can’t fake the pain that he brings to his performance.  You can’t just turn on hard experience like a light switch, and Haley’s got it all going on behind those sad, sad eyes of his.  Just as “Watchmen” traces the gradual disconnection of Dr. Manhattan from humanity, it also traces Rorschach’s gradual reconnection, and his realization that being human is just too much pain for him to bear.  He can’t make himself buy into all the same bullshit, all the same lies that everyone else seems able to justify.  He has no filter for it.  He can’t handle the basic injustice of existence, and his fury, his violence, it all comes out of a desire to reshape the world the way it should be.  Haley manifests that pefectly, and his final moments are wrenching, heartbreaking, thrilling because they not only nail down the arc of the character, but they also promise that we’re going to be seeing this actor ply his trade for decades to come, and that is a gift.

There are a number of details about the adaptation that I love.  I think the choice by Tyler Bates to score the film like it was made in the ’80s pays off with a soundtrack that could sit next to the Vangelis “Blade Runner” and the Wang Chung “To Live And Die In LA” easily.  The few action scenes in the film exist mainly to show how the characters respond to that action, what it does to them as people, how it has a hold on them.  Dan and Laurie’s break-in to free Rorschach from prison is a lot less selfles than it sounds, as it gives them a chance to get some ultraviolence on, something that they both obviously miss on a chemical level.  Snyder uses his R-rating to really give full attention to things like the casual horror of Manhattan’s powers or the stinking misery that pushes Kovacs to retreat into the Rorschach persona completely or the effect that a return to heroics has on the sex life of Dan and Laurie.  Yes, Dr. Manhattan spends some of the movie walking around completely naked, but it’s about as erotic as a trip to see Michelangelo’s David.  He is the idealized male form made real, and if you get hung up on the sight of the penis (like when a certain online columnist was inspired to wretched poetry by the mere thought of it), you may need to spend some private time exploring why the penis has such power over you.  It makes sense on a character level… if you were God, what need would you feel to wear pants?  Honestly?

But more than anything, what I found most bracing about the experience of finally seeing this onscreen is that it pushes the genre further than it’s ever been pushed before.  It demands more of viewers than any superherho movie previously released.  It sets up a moral question at the end of the film that can’t be easily answered, and it doesn’t even try.  It expects you to have your own reaction, and it treats viewers like adults, a rarity from any Hollywood film, much less one featuring characters with names like Nite Owl and Hooded Justice.  And, amazingly, it works as a movie.  It has its own rhythm, taking its time to lay out this complicated story, but it constantly delights with details both small and grand, and the cumulative impact is far more emotional than I would have expected.  This isn’t a case of a film being “good enough,” and I’m not “just glad there’s some version of it finally.”  It is a triumph, a movie that amazes on its own terms, and a major jump forward for Snyder as a filmmaker.  He’s on a very short list now of guys I would trust with world-building on an epic scale, and from this point forward, whatever Snyder’s got in store for us, I’m onboard.

In the meantime, check out some clips from the film.  We’ll have original video “Watchmen” content all next week, including interviews with the cast, Snyder, and Dave Gibbons.

You’ll find more clips under “Videos” on our masthead.  Check it out.

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