Thursday, July 30, 2009

Watchmen (Warners/Paramount, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film Watchmen began its life as a comic-book serial published by DC in 1986-87, drawn and lettered by Dave Gibbons from a script by Alan Moore — who’s become noted in the comics world for his innovative long-form scripts and his Salinger-esque hatred of the movie business; as essentially a writer-for-hire he hasn’t been able to prevent the filmization of his works completely (as Salinger has ever since he sold one story, “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut,” to Sam Goldwyn in the early 1950’s and was appalled at the saccharine soap opera it turned into as the 1952 film My Foolish Heart), but he has denounced every one of the films made from his works, and on Watchmen he went so far as to decline screen credit, so the film’s opening titles (itself a refreshing return to tradition in a movie industry that increasingly relegates all its credits — even the name of the film itself! — to the end) attribute the script to David Hayter and Alex Tse based on a “graphic novel co-created by Dave Gibbons,” with nary a mention of who his co-creator was.

Watchmen was first published as a series of normal-length comic books and then reprinted in complete form as a book-length “graphic novel” (the term of art for a comic book with pretensions), and since it was created in the mid-1980’s it takes place then — albeit in an alternate-reality version of the 1980’s in which Richard Nixon (Robert Wisden) successfully got the 22nd Amendment repealed (as he actually planned to do following his landslide re-election victory in 1972 — only the metastasizing Watergate scandal undid his political capital and channeled his energies into sheer survival rather than extending his term in office) and is now (1985) just beginning his fifth term in office. He was able to stay in office that long partly because of Doctor Manhattan née Jon Osterman (Billy Crudup), who like the Incredible Hulk gained super-powers as the result of a nuclear-energy experiment gone awry — only Jon turned blue instead of green, he went about naked from then on (his cock is clearly visible in the film, apparently even more than it was in the comic — where the appearance of a male with a visible penis was itself a major departure from the norms of the form) and he gained not only physical brawn but an ability to manipulate time and space and an increase of his already formidable intellectual and physical powers.

The main characters of Watchmen are the assemblage of super-heroes so named, who’ve had to go into retirement since the passage of the Keene Act in 1981 forbade people from going about wearing masks; they are themselves an offshoot of another group of superheroes called the Minutemen, formed in 1940 to help America emerge triumphant in its upcoming involvement in World War II, and at least two of the members of the Watchmen, Nite Owl a.k.a. Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson) and the Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman — a woman named Malin, top-billed), are descendants of the originals from the Minutemen (Stephen McHattie and Carla Gugino, respectively) — and not only is the new Silk Spectre the daughter of the original, her father, it turns out midway through the movie, is the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), yet another Watchman who attempted to rape the original Spectre but then came back and somehow managed to seduce her into having sex with him willingly.

The main Watchman is Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), whose gimmick is that his mask is white with black splotches on it but the splotches constantly change form and shape — not all that different from the gimmicky (and physically impossible) villains Chester Gould had Dick Tracy confront in the later years of the comic strip (my favorite was “Spots,” a crook who had spots … not on his face but trailing along beside it, in mid-air), but an effect in which for once the movie medium scores over the graphic novel: all Dave Gibbons could do is vary the pattern of Rorschach’s spots every time he drew him, while the filmmakers can animate his spots and have them change before our eyes. In the opening scene the Comedian is murdered, and Rorschach — who spends most of his time wandering the mean streets of the Watchmen’s home city (we’re supposed to think it’s New York, I suppose) and spouting off pseudo-poetic lines that make it sound as if Allen Ginsberg or Charles Bukowski has suddenly acquired a super-power: “Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach. This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face. The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over, all the vermin will drown. The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout, ‘Save us!’... and I’ll whisper, ‘No’” — determines that there’s a mysterious masked avenger who is attempting to eliminate all the Watchmen as part of some sinister scheme for which he needs a world without superheroes.

Rorschach is also depicted as a disgusted Right-winger, continually sounding off against the liberals who have ruined America — suggesting that had the story of Watchmen actually followed American history instead of inventing its own alternative version, instead of taking long nocturnal walks through seedy neighborhoods and living in a dump. Rorschach could have made a lot of money as a talk-radio host.

Anyway, after a long series of sometimes powerful and more often just confusing incidents involving love, sex (Silk Spectre begins the movie as Doctor Manhattan’s lover and ends it as Nite Owl’s), jealousy, the media (in one of the film’s most fascinating scenes, Doctor Manhattan, who though rarely seen is acknowledged in the public eye as the power behind Nixon’s throne, grants a TV interview and then disrupts the studio and vaporizes all its inhabitants when he doesn’t like the line of questioning he’s being subjected to), Mars (where Doctor Manhattan flees because after his girlfriend jilts him he no longer feels any connection to Earth) and the threat of nuclear annihilation over the war in Afghanistan, in which Nixon (still with Henry Kissinger as his right-hand man) and the Soviet premier are threatening all-out war between the superpowers as both the Russians and the Americans mass troops and high-tech weaponry on the Afghan border, Watchmen drags along for over three hours (the theatrical release was 162 minutes but I called Columbia House to change my order to the 186-minute director’s cut once I heard that the longer one existed) — and the U.S. military leadership meets with Nixon in a set obviously patterned on the War Room in Dr. Strangelove (one of many older and, quite frankly, better movies Watchmen quotes from) — the plot, such as it is, resolves in Antarctica, where yet another former Watchman, Ozymandias a.k.a. Adrian Veidt — as in Conrad (Matthew Goode, the one genuinely handsome male in the cast), has built what’s supposedly a clean-energy plant that can eliminate shortages and scarcity worldwide.

Only it’s really a device that will set off nuclear mega-weapons in all the world’s most important cities, including New York, London, Paris and Moscow, because Veidt has apparently absorbed the theories of the deep ecologists and decided that the only way the world’s people will allow themselves to bury national, tribal and racial divisions and hatreds is if some horrendous disaster befalls them, millions of humans are killed and the remaining members of the human race find it necessary to pull together in the post-catastrophe world. Adrian’s plan actually goes off as scheduled, and the other Watchmen decide that he’s right and the truth needs to be concealed from the human race to maximize the potential for world peace as a result — except for Rorschach, who’s killed by Nite Owl when he threatens to reveal the details of Veidt’s plot — and though he dies his diary ends up in the hands of a Right-wing newspaper called the New Frontiersman, which eagerly prints it to debunk the whole peace movement and undo Veidt’s plot.

Watchmen is a movie that virtually epitomizes everything that’s wrong with modern-day filmmaking — and I say that with a great deal of sorrow because it’s a film you want very much to like; though it’s aiming for the blockbuster comic-movie crowd it’s also aiming a lot higher than that, it’s attempting to deal with Big Issues both emotional and political, and its script is rich with allusions (the smiley-face button that was the Comedian’s symbol with drops of his blood on it, the watch — Veidt says his father was a watchmaker who gave up his craft when he realized Einstein was right when he said space and time were relative — the “nuclear doomsday clock” which when the action begins is set at five to midnight — and a whole plethora of enigmatic clues which form unifying threads throughout the film) and is well put together for the genre. But Watchmen suffers from too many of the sins of modern-day filmmaking for it to be enjoyable.

It’s got one of those crazy-quilt stories in which literally anything can happen — which means that you can’t create a legitimate sense of surprise because you haven’t created a baseline of audience expectations you can then startle them by violating. Instead you watch this movie drone on and on and, when the plot takes a particularly fantastic turn, you say, “Oh, yeah, they’re on Mars. Right.” It’s also one of those modern-day movies that seems to have been edited with a vegetable chopper, in which the filmmakers (including Zack Snyder, who got the assignment to direct Watchmen after the success of his film 300, based on another Alan Moore graphic-novel script about the battle of Thermopylae, meaning they were interested in his command of on-screen action more than any ability to work with actors or create a film that makes sense) seem utterly convinced that if they hold a shot for more than about three seconds the entire audience will get ADHD and walk out or get bored — and it’s another one of those damnable films in which the director and writers maintain an almost anthropological distance from their characters, attempting to be “cool” and only achieving an emotional coldness which carefully avoids giving us any characters we can like or relate to, and any more than the most basic, simplistic emotional conflicts between them.

Much of the publicity surrounding Watchmen — which was in development at one studio or another for over 20 years and ran through quite a few putative directors and actors before the one we have finally got made — centered around the desire of the filmmakers to remain faithful to the graphic novel so the hard-core fans would be sure to like the movie, Maybe they should have spent some more time worrying about who else would like the movie; as it stands, Watchmen is an overwhelming film, but not necessarily in the positive sense of that term — it drones on and on and on, and some of the imagery is breathtakingly beautiful (director Snyder deliberately worked from Gibbons’ original drawings instead of storyboarding the action on his own) but little or none of this movie makes much sense — and I couldn’t help wishing that Larry and Adam Wachowski had been given the nod to do this, because in V for Vendetta they took an Alan Moore-scripted graphic novel and made a film that (despite a few of the same flaws as Watchmen, notably scenes that seemed to exist more to show off their visual virtuosity than to add to the plot or characterizations) has a clearly defined beginning, middle and end, a hero we can root for (despite, or perhaps because of, his flaws), and a story that taps real human emotions and ends in legitimate and even moving tragedy.

Watchmen was one of the most intensely hyped films of this year, and three studios fought in court over its box-office receipts — but it was a commercial disappointment and after it was made Warners’ studio head announced that they would never again make a comic-book movie with an “R” rating (as if that were the problem — commercial or artistic — with this film!).