10 March 2009

David Watches the Watchmen

"...But the world is so full of people, so crowded with these miracles that they become commonplace and we forget...I forget. We gaze continually at the world and it grows dull in our perceptions. Yet seen from another's vantage point, as if new, it may still take the breath away. Come...Dry your eyes, for you are Life, rarer than a quark and unpredictable beyond the dreams of Heisenberg; the clay in which the forces that shape all things leave their fingerprints most clearly. Dry your eyes...And let's go home."

You won't find that beautiful passage in the film version of Watchmen. It's my favorite part of the book. The moment in which all the despair and deconstruction gives way to an optimistic center, reminding us why any of it matters at all. Before that, we start to wonder. What if Dr. Manhattan's right? Why should he save the world? What does it matter if the Earth is destroyed? It is here that we, and he, get our answer.

But it's not in the film. And it's here where I illustrate one of my chief dilemmas in writing about this film, and formulating my convoluted reaction. It has been my chief contention concerning adaptations that a film's faithfulness to the source material doesn't matter. A film can't be a book, or vice versa. Therefore, to hold a film to the same standards as a novel is inherently silly. In past years when I've heard Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings fans complain about the differences between the books and films, I've inwardly scoffed. Who cares if Hermione tries to save the house elves? Does it really matter if Frodo meets Tom Bombadil? The film can't be the book, so don't expect it to be.

So on that level, as I still cling to that dictum, it doesn't bother me that the part I have quoted above is not in the film. The scene is there, but not the dialogue. However, I find myself with a different dilemma in reviewing the film. Here is a case in which one of the chief merits of this movie, in my opinion, is its faithfulness to the source material. Very little is cut from the twelve chapter graphic novel, and many shots are copied exactly from the book. It was as if Snyder just took the book to be his storyboards and shot from there.

To put it out there, yes, I did enjoy the movie. But there's my problem. Did I enjoy the movie because of the book, or because of the movie? I find it to be some of both, and so collapses my critical standard. I find myself at one moment a fanboy and the next a snob. But I find I can console myself with my oft-repeated motto: "There are always exceptions."

Watchmen, the film, has many merits. The story is pretty much completely intact, and it remains one of the most complex and fascinating studies of the superhero genre ever created. If you are a novice to the material, let me just warn you: this isn't X-men. It isn't Spider-man. Throw all of your preconceived notions about superhero movies out the window, because this film/book tears them apart anyway. The casting is surprisingly appropriate. Jackie Earle Haley is great as the sociopathic Rorschach. The scenes later in the film where he truly shows his chops make me wish he could have gone maskless for more of the film. Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Patrick Wilsom also fit their characters quite well.

The directing, however, is a harder nut to crack. Zack Snyder has been one of the most frustrating directors to try to critique. There are many beautiful parts of the movie, many shots that are profound and composed. However, who do I credit? Snyder or Dave Gibbons? Therein lies my frustration, but the fact that Snyder chose to go with so much of what Gibbons drew is a credit I have to give to Snyder, though begrudgingly.

For Snyder has a lot of bad habits that pop up in the film from time to time. His obsession with slow motion, his love of graphic violence, and his uncanny ability to create the most awkward sex scenes I've ever seen. 300 was overwhelmed by these habits and so I could not enjoy it. However, the faithfulness that Snyder shows to the source material makes it almost impossible for him to screw it up, so to speak.

So, did I like it? Yes. With reservations. I liked it as a filmgoer and as a fan of the book. Did it have problems? Yes. But they did not overpower the more poignant and beautiful material that Moore and Gibbons created and Snyder chose to use verbatim. While the way to critique this film is problematic for me, I can still, in the end, say that I thought it was a good film. Did I completely invalidate my opinion during this review? Possibly. But these kinds of gray areas just highlight the complexity and ambiguity that comes with encountering material of this kind. The book is famous for its deconstruction of superheroes, uncovering messiah-complexes, sexual subtexts, and latent fascism. All of that's here, if you look for it. It just may take more than one viewing to see it all.