Saturday, March 07, 2009


I liked it. Some minor quibbles, some significant problems, but also some really great, gorgeous stuff, and on balance I definitely liked it. But I would not recommend this movie to anyone who isn't already seeing it this weekend, and I certainly would not recommend this to anyone who hasn't read the book. This isn't meant to be an elitist thing. I just don't know that it has anything to offer people who aren't already familiar with the story and characters.

As a companion piece to the book, it's very good, and maybe that's the best a Watchmen movie could have hoped for anyway. You've probably heard this from all corners lately, but it's true enough that it bears repeating: What makes the book so great are specifically the tangents, the action happening at the margins, the small character touches. The movie gets some of them (the McLaughlin Group; Dr. Manhattan pretty much entirely), but it would have had to be five hours longer to get them all. So it's only Watchmen readers who will get the impact of the news vendor and his best customer clutching each other, seconds before Armageddon. Or the Gunga Diner blimp's constant presence (which I did find a bit indulgent, to channel my inner Simon Cowell).

But there are some aspects to the film that are unquestionably triumphs. The opening credits sequence is a gem, achieving probably the best balance between "love letter to the fans" and "doing what a standalone movie needs to do." During the course of Bob Dylan's "Times, They Are A-Changin'," we're presented with an alternative version of history, from about 1920 onward.

It's glorious to look at too, don't you think? The Silhouette re-staging the V-J Day kiss with another woman was definitely a highlight.

The whole movie, in fact, is a visual gem, achieving the heightened feel of a superhero world without taking the easy way out and making it all look like an actual comic book. All due credit to Zack Snyder there.

More credit, also, to a trio of really fine performances by Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Haley, and Billy Crudup. Crudup gets Manhattan's otherworldly malaise exactly right, Haley actually adds notes to the Rorschach who was on the page, and Wilson is able to sell Dan as a beaten-down schlub without the benefit of prosthetics. Which, I'm not sure if you've noticed, but Patrick Wilson is kind of a handsome man. I also want to shout out Carla Gugino, who is totally gaudy and hilarious and in a completely different universe than everybody else in the movie. Which is kind of how Sally Jupiter is, so it works. Though, again, for those unfamiliar with the book, I can see her being really irritating.

As for my problems with the movie, as I said, they fall into two categories: quibbles and issues. I want to keep the quibbles seperate, because they really aren't dealbreakers and are more just the nitpicks of a fan who wants to do a bit of armchair quarterbacking.

The issues, however, are my actual, substantive problems with the movie. There is a manner of dialogue that you can get away with in a comic book (particularly a superhero comic) and it works -- broad, obvious language where everyone talks like they're in a John Wayne movie -- that just grates on a movie screen. It doesn't pervade Watchmen, but it pops up often enough to be a problem. Edward Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is a monster on the page, but on the screen, everything he says is so on-the-nose that he just becomes an exposition machine.

My other major issue was that the structure of the film hewed so closely to the book that it felt very episodic. Blake's story, followed by Rorschach's story, followed by Manhattan's story, et cetera. It gave the whole film the feel of a miniseries ... and that doesn't help dissuade from the opinion that this might have worked better as a multi-part HBO series. (Also, not to pile on with what everyone else has been saying, but Malin Akerman wasn't very good (with a neutered Laurie character), and Matthew Goode, much as I love him, was probably miscast as Ozymandias. And his accent showed up about halfway through the movie and never left.)

As for the quibbles: The fight sequences, while uniformly great and exciting, were probably too slick. At the very least, Dan and Laurie's alley fight functions as a way to remind them how exhilarating crimefighting was in the old days; it would have been nice to have that altercation take on a more old-timey feel. I also missed Hooded Justice's digusted "put on some clothes" after Sally's near-rape. Such a great, nasty bit of color. I also think we could have done without so much Nixon. He'd have been just as effective (probably more so) shrouded in shadowy long shots. The film's oppening scene could have done with, maybe, one lingering close-up on the smiley-face button rather than three. We get it, Zack, you're a fan. Similarly, while I thought 80% of the pop-song music choices were fairly inspired ("Ride of the Valkyries" and "Unforgettable," especially), I don't think there should have been so many of them. Things began to take on a Gump-style sonic wallpaper feel. Snip "The Sounds of Silence" and "All Along the Watchtower" and go from there.

My biggest quibble ends up being the least consequential one. But it drives me crazy. I had read a few weeks ago that Warner Bros. brass had passed down the order from on high that Laurie, and indeed all characters, would not be able to smoke onscreen. This was apparently a dealbreaker, because in a movie where people rape, kill, molecularly disintegrate, and break shin bones seemingly at will, smokers are just beyond the pale. Blah, blah, it's hard out there for pack of Marb Lights. Whatever. But then, imagine my dismay during the movie when I realized that one of my favorite scenes in the book, when Laurie accidentally sets off the flamethrower on Dan's owl blimp, is robbed of its greatest punchline -- Laurie hit the button with the flame on it because she was looking for the cigarette lighter. Damn you, anti-smoking mafia!

But enough quibbling, Like I said, on balance, I really liked it. Characters like Nite Owl and Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan were brought to life on celluloid, and I'm not sure if I ever quite thought that was possible. I liked the new ending (it manages to give Manhattan an even bigger stake in the story, for one thing). Billy Crudup's big, blue CGI wang didn't pull too much focus (though Patrick Wilson's butt, as always, did). And the geeks in the movie theatre only geekily applauded mid-movie a couple of times. Good stuff.

But seriously, if you're not already a fan, I probably wouldn't bother.


sayra said...

i didn't read the book; in fact, I purposefully avoided all spoilers/trailers/stories about it so I could go in completely blind. I watched it with an avid fan, so I know there were references I missed, but as a standalone piece of film? It was pretty good. I hated Matthew Goode, LOVED JEH and Patrick Wilson, and thought The Comedian could have been given more depth as a character in general (less Nixon, more Blake!)... I'm really looking forward to reading the book now so I can fill in the all of the pieces.

Glark said...

Blech. A slavish translation of the source material that proves some things are better left alone. Fantastic structure and pacing in the book really hurt the movie.

Who thought it was a good idea to cast Niles from Frasier as Ozymandius?

I want a Watchmen HBO miniseries by the people who did the opening credits.

Also the song selections were embarrassing.

mathan said...


I caught a midnight show on Thursday and I've been waiting for the Low Res take on the film.

I agree 100% with your thoughts on the performances. Haley, Wilson and Crudup really impressed me on the screen.

My own quibbles have to do with some of the changes that were made. I'm not quite sure why Rorschach's handling of the kidnapper was altered and I felt that the ownership of the watch that Jon retrieves from the chamber made for more tragedy.
The problem I have with any adaptation is that I find the differences to be way too distracting.

And did you peep how Snyder managed to include a "squid" into the third act. I thought it was a nice nod.

Cat said...

Neither my boyfriend nor I had read the book and we both really enjoyed the movie, so I'm not sure that it doesn't offer something for the unitiated. I pretty much agree about your comments on the acting - I'd be interested to read the book just to see a different take on Akerman's character, because I didn't like what she did as an actress much, but Wilson and Haley in their Little Children reunion were great.

Also, I liked All Along the Watchtower, but I think that was just because I was immediately reminded of Battlestar Galactica.

Anonymous said...

Glark -- I actually felt like Ozymandias was more Pete from Madmen.

-- MEP

Jon said...

A bunch of the reviews I've read stressed the over-the-top violence. What did you think of it?

Joe Reid said...

Maybe I'm desensitized, but I wasn't really bothered by the violence beyond my earlier comment about not wanting the fight scenes to be so modern. I guess to the degree that I was occasionally reminded of 300 it was bad, but beyond that, it didn't make or break things for me.

Rachel said...

The awkward translation of comic book dialogue to the screen was one of the biggest problems with Sin City, I thought, so I can imagine the same problems would occur here. That kind of dialogue, that's meant to support the visuals of a graphic novel, sounds pretty ridiculous when spoken.