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Watching the WATCHMEN

March 12, 2009

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Impossible.

That’s the word used by many to describe the oft-attempted movie adaptation of the seminal ‘80s graphic novel WATCHMEN by writer Alan Moore and illustrator Dave Gibbons. 

The word also applies to the task of summarizing the story of WATCHMEN in a brief non-review like this.

It also applies to my attempt to give a simple “thumbs up/thumbs down” opinion of the film.  Because, as you may have heard, director Zack Snyder has done the impossible and filmed the “unfilmmable” comic book.  And he’s done a pretty brilliant job.  Snyder and his writers (David Hayter and Alex Tse are credited) have taken an incredibly dense, layered, disturbingly dark, graphically violent and sexual, multi-character, political, philosophical meditation on heroes, power, time and the value of human life (or not)… and made it coherent and alive as a movie.  If one has recently read the book (as I have), it’s really hard to see how one could fault the adaptation, which is incredibly faithful to its source.  In fact, some of its flaws come from being too literally faithful (such as using “Sounds of Silence” to underscore a funeral scene).

How a viewer would react to the movie having not read the novel is beyond my ken.  God help anybody who walks into the cinema expecting a typical superhero movie.  If you hate the movie, you probably would hate the book, and vice-versa.  WATCHMEN the movie, like the book, purposefully confounds and subverts everything we’ve come to expect from its genre.   It has very little action, and almost none of it is glamorous.  Its characters are deeply flawed, some down right evil, most highly ambiguous morally.  It offers no real transformation, catharsis or closure.  The book, in fact, I found to be a very unpleasant reading experience, even while its artistic ambition was supremely impressive and challenging.  WATCHMEN the comic book is often gratuitously dark.  It repels.  It fascinates.  It bores.  It thrills.  It haunts you.  Maybe even traumatizes you.  I hated it.  I was blown away by it.

The movie captures a surprising degree of this complexity, but actually made for a much more enjoyable experience as a whole.   It’s hard to term a movie with such borderline (if that) NC-17 gore and sexuality to be called “softer”… but maybe “more approachable” is the right phrase?  For me, Snyder and company took care of my most visceral turn-offs to the book.  For example: The book is visually ugly.  I think the pen and ink art by Dave Gibbons is brilliant, but some of the costumes are hideous and the coloring work seems designed to make the reader physically ill.  By contrast, the movie’s overall look is gorgeous.

More importantly, the movie doesn’t try to render morally neutral the most twisted element of the book — the sexual violence visited upon one of its characters and her response, which is explained away in Moore’s book with some BS line like “these things are complicated.”  Really pissed me off.  The movie makes subtle changes that create a more responsible, psychologically realistic portrait of this still-damaged character.

And most essentially, WATCHMEN the movie seems to love its characters.  It’s one thing to take seriously the Fall.  The book goes beyond this and radiates a contempt for its “heroes” that makes it easy to believe that Alan Moore is a serious misanthrope.  On the other hand, Snyder, his writers and his actors, seem to have a real affection for even the most screwed-up of their “heroes” that gives the movie a humanity lacking in the book.   

And for a story that turns on the philosophical question of whether or not humanity is worth saving, it helps a lot when said story actually displays evidence that the answer might be “yes.”

— Duke of Ray

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One Comment leave one →
  1. March 12, 2009 9:26 pm

    You sir are a VISIONARY GENIUS of the non-review! Nice work. “I hated it. I was blown a way by it”. Sounds like a line of one of these hard-boiled movies.

    That you say the movie “loves” its characters is a big point in favor towards seeing it. One of my problems with Scorsese (for example) is that in films like Raging Bull andCape Fear is that he didn’t love the characters.

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