Vulcan’s Peak

Movie review: Watchmen

June 5, 2009 12:23 am

watchmen_posterPug and I discovered this week that we have a dollar theater across the street.  (For a loose definition of “across the street,” but you know, whatever.)  It’s in the same complex as our neighborhood Target and a former mall that’s now a private school (yes, weird).  For months, we’ve been driving past the sign for this place, but all it ever tells us is that Rocky Horror Picture Show is playing Saturday evening.

But Pug ran across the theater’s web site earlier this week, and sure enough, they’re a second-run theater, and they play all sorts of things beyond Rocky Horror.  And this week they were playing Watchmen, which we hadn’t seen yet, so we went.

The theater is an empty place on a Tuesday night, the lobby dark and cavernous.  Walls plastered up and down with old movie posters.  You could have a long game of “I spy the poster for such-and-so” in that lobby.  You’d be sitting on fat red sofas and armchairs scattered around the lobby, or maybe perched on the stairs leading up to… the projection rooms, I assume.  I don’t know why the staircase was in the middle of the lobby.  There were signs apologizing for air conditioning problems in some of the theaters — from the fan in the back of ours, we assumed we were in one of the afflicted rooms.  But there were few enough people there, it didn’t even get unpleasant.

And the movie itself?  Read on…

Despite my other geeky tendencies, I don’t really know comics.  Mostly I rely on Liz or Elf to put nifty things like Fables in my hands from time to time.  Movie promotion was the first thing that I really remember hearing about Watchmen, but given the level of interest in the geek quadrants of the internet, I borrowed a copy of the book and read it around March.  Point here being that I’d read the graphic novel recently, but that I’m not a long-time fan with long-held opinions of the characters and the story.

I acknowledge this as my failing, and admit that it’s probably why I didn’t see most of the nitpicks Elf made when she saw the movie a couple months ago.  I agree that I expected a deeper, more resonant voice to come out of Dr. Manhattan, and that they should have cast a second actress to play the older Sally Jupiter.  And Adrian Veidt was simply not at all what he looks like in the comic.  And oh my, what was up with the Pinocchio nose they put on the actor playing Nixon?  But otherwise, I thought the casting and the acting ranged from fine to spot on.

And overall, I thought the film’s tone and sensibility were an admirable translation of the graphic novel.  Dark, gritty, and pessimistic to the core.  I loved being able to notice the way they designed shots to mimic panels from the original.  I was impressed that even the pacing of the movie followed the graphic novel so closely — something I think critics noted, and not always favorably.  Certainly this didn’t move with the speed of most superhero or action movies.  But isn’t part of the point of Watchmen to deconstruct the genre conventions of the superhero story?  It’s not a linear story about how Spiderman defeats Doc Ock; it’s an exploration of the characters’ poor messed up little psyches.  Despite the cuts made for time and The Plot Change (you know, since there was really only one), I felt they were able to layer a lot of that in there.

Speaking of The Great Plot Change, I’m not sure whether it simplified matters or confused them.  Certainly I’m not clear on exactly what caused all those blue glow-y explosions, except that it was supposed to be something only Dr. Manhattan could do, and that they kept talking about tachyons.  On the other hand, I suppose it allowed them to cut out all the backstory of Adrian’s genetics program and the disappearance of all the various artists and slot in the already-established Manhattan. And given that he then decides to leave Earth entirely, framing him for the catastrophe only makes it more reasonable that he would rather just move on.

Overall (and I don’t know if this means it failed, succeeded, or merely that it did a good job of mimicking the book), most of the problems I had with the movie were problems I also had with the book.  Some of them are silly details like Laurie’s hair and shoes — visually striking, yes; perfect for your foe to exploit, hell yes.  And surely some of our merely human superheroes should have been experiencing some exposure problems, being as they were sporting clothes suitable for New York… in Antarctica.  (Laurie and Rorschach, I’m looking at you.)  I liked and disliked the same characters I liked and disliked in the book, and it left me with the same uneasy sense that this is not how it should have to be.

Because yes, the pessimism in Watchmen bothers me more than a little.  Some of it can be chalked up to Rorschach’s narration — poor messed up, mentally twisted Rorschach with his bizarrely Puritanical ideas about sex.  (Can’t stand him.)  And part of it is that Watchmen is so thoroughly a Cold War story — and as an ’80s baby, I don’t remember knowing anything about the Cold War until well after it was over.  I never lived with the impending threat of nuclear annihilation that shadows all the events of Watchmen.  Perhaps that gives me the privilege (unearned by me, but I have it nonetheless) of a certain amount of optimism.  (Which is not to suggest that the political problems in Watchmen have no resonance in the world today.  On the contrary, I wish they didn’t.)

But the narrative doesn’t allow us to write off all of the darkness on nutcases like Rorschach, and it positively insists that turning one or more of the world’s major cities into sacrificial alters would lead to some degree of world peace.  That’s bad enough, but it turns a deep shade of irony when coupled with the assertion made by various characters throughout the film that human nature is what it is, and will never change.  (And I agree, but not quite in the way that they mean it.) Which is to say, what’s the point?  History will cycle around and we’ll be here again.  And then there are the disturbing undertones of that last scene in the newspaper office, complete with the ambiguous splatter of ketchup on the smiley face shirt.  Are we to see this as a better world:  at the beginning of the story, that splatter is blood; now it’s only ketchup?  Or is this an ominous sign, indicating that Rorschach has posthumously re-opened the whole can of worms?  I tend to see the latter — it’s more in keeping with the tone of the story — and I don’t like it.  We didn’t have a nuclear war in the ’80s because (as the song says) the Russians love their children too:  I am not inclined to believe in Veidt’s kind of big, peace-bringing, sacrificial gesture.

4 Responses to “Movie review: Watchmen

Tae wrote a comment on June 5, 2009

I’m a bad comic book geek- I still haven’t read Watchmen. And I don’t know if I ever will. As much of a cynic as I am (somewhat), I refuse to give into total pessimism. I personally think that is the lazy way out. You must fight against shitty things even if it seems futile. There’s that old adage- ‘Fall down seven times, get up eight’. Most of the time, it’s not going to work but there are tons of points in history where it DID work.

And while I can get behind the idea, the whole reason behind Watchmen and stories like it- they still leave me cold, vaguely dirty and a little less bright. There’s no balance in stories like that- they’re so hell bent on perceiving the world as going into hell in a handbasket they can only show optimistic or less pessimistic people as simpletons or ignorant.

And that’s all got right now. I should probably get back to work.

Odette wrote a comment on June 5, 2009

Yes. Yes, exactly. Although — despite my usual feelings about romance, the characters who really get me through the story are Dan and Laurie — they’re the only ones who come out of everything happier and more whole than they started out. They’re what passes for a happy ending here, and I love them for it. They aren’t the best or the brightest, but they make up for it with nice normal-people sorts of values — compassion, importance of family, having the strength to leave an unhealthy relationship. And hey, they even get to kick ass once or twice.

Unifex wrote a comment on June 5, 2009

I haven’t seen the movie, although of course I have read the ‘graphic novel’ aka comic :) , but I thought your review was amazingly well written and so I just had to leave a comment.

Odette wrote a comment on June 5, 2009

Thanks very much! :o )

Care to comment?