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Friday, March 6, 2009

Watchmen: The IMAX Experience (***1/2)

At the conclusion of Watchmen, the two Silk Spectres have a moment where old family secrets are bared and a loving understanding is reached between mother and daughter. Long-suffering Laurie Jupiter tells her guilt-ridden mother Sally Jupiter, "You didn't do anything wrong by me." The same can be said for director Zack Snyder and the graphic novel "Watchmen". The unfilmmable, unadaptable comic book has finally reached movie theaters after 20 years of development. The Watchmen movie is here, and lo and behold, it's good. 

Watchmen's deliberate, painstaking adherence to the graphic novel turns out to be a virtue and a flaw. Placing absolute 100% faith in the celebrated, canonized source material by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Snyder makes every effort and uses every technique in modern movie-making to create a cinematic simulation of the graphic novel. On the IMAX especially, picking out the minute details in every frame, like the photographs and newsclippings hanging on walls, is extra rewarding for fans familiar with the comic. Watchmen is a movie clearly designed for repeat Blu-ray viewings on the largest HDTV screen you can park in front of. The dialogue is mostly the words of Alan Moore lifted directly from the page.

Yet by following the format of the graphic novel, dutifully checking off every major event, and squeezing in as many subplots as possible, Watchmen's narrative as a motion picture becomes vulnerable to the wild tonal shifts of the comic. The hardboiled, noir-ish murder investigation by Rorschach that opens Watchmen gives way to a series of flashbacks, filling in the origin details of the Comedian, Dr. Manhattan, and Rorschach. Even Adrian Veidt gets in on the action, deciding to monologue his own origin story to Lee Iacocca of all people. While this is the way the story flows in the graphic novel, as a movie, Watchmen feels like a series of fitful starts and stops in its first two acts. The final act is the most straightforward and action-packed as Watchmen marches confidently towards its tragic conclusion, with the fate of the world in the hands of a handful of people wearing funny looking suits (and the blue man of the group wearing nothing at all.) 

Watchmen greatly benefits from a soundtrack of inspired popular musical choices balancing its orchestral score, something even the graphic novel can't offer. The opening credits set to Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'" was a brilliant piece of work summarizing the complex history of Watchmen, from the formation of their costumed predecessors the Minutemen in the late-1930's all the way to the turbulent late-1970's, through a series of super slow motion shots. (Adding novelties not found in the graphic novel like Andy Warhol painting the Watchmen's portraits and the Comedian revealed as the man who shot JFK was clever stuff.) I especially enjoyed "99 Luftballoons" during Dan Dreiberg and Laurie Jupiter's first dinner together, the subtle strains of Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" in the moments before the assassination attempt on Adrian Veidt, and Jimi Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower" when Nite-Owl and Rorschach made their final approach to Veidt's Antarctic fortress. Throughout Watchmen, music and imagery seamlessly meld together to create a persuasive, immersive, cracked-mirror image of our world.

Zack Snyder may be the most gifted translator of comic page-to-movie frame in Hollywood today, but he's no great orchestrator of human drama. (Though to his credit, Snyder seems to be the only director in Hollywood who can get the R rating and heroically insert sex and nudity into his comic book movies.) The performance by Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach is the crowd-pleasing standout.  Early is appropriately fearsome in the prison sequences and sadly moving when his refusal to compromise when his cherished thirst for justice forces him to face his demise. Patrick Wilson's Nite-Owl strikes just the right notes of hopeful longing and self-realization in his romance with Malin Akerman's Silk Spectre. Billy Crudup manages to act through the CGI and the frequent glimpses of (sometimes multiple) blue penises on screen to find Dr. Manhattan's lost humanity during the pivotal moment on Mars. Still, there are many points when the characters seem to behave and relate to each other not because they're fully alive on the screen but because it's what's depicted in the comic book. The deficiencies in the movie's interpersonal dramatic moments are generally overwhelmed, however, by the sheer, awesome spectacle of the IMAX experience.

While certain aspects of the source material are excised, such as the running commentary of world events from the newsstand vendor which is so prominent in the graphic novel, Snyder manages to significantly improve upon other aspects found on the page. Silk Spectre II, for example, is a wonderful redesign of probably the most uninteresting character in the graphic novel. As embodied by Malin Akerman and Carla Gugino, the two cinematic Silk Spectres are a massive improvement to their ink and paint counterparts. The costumes worn by the Watchmen are clever commentaries on costumes worn in past comic book movies: Silk Spectre II's drop-dead sexy skintight yellow and black vinyl invokes the costumes worn by heroines of Aeon Flux and Underworld, while Nite-Owl and Ozymandias's suits are mock-ups of Batman's costumes from Christopher Nolan and Joel Schumacher's films.

The action is better and far more brutal than expected. While perhaps pandering excessively to the expectations of the fans of 300, Watchmen gleefully revels in bloody, slow motion, freeze-framed, bone-crunching ultra violence. The graphic fight sequences involving Rorschach, Nite-Owl, Ozymandias and Silk Spectre are outstanding and seem to be Watchmen's response to the jump-cutting, see-nothing action found in Batman Begins. Is the fighting realistic? Not so much, but it's pointless to rail against a lack of realism when the story hinges on an omnipotent naked blue man standing on a crystal castle that's flying across Mars.

The chief improvement made by Snyder is to the ending of the story. Adrian Veidt's plan in the graphic novel involves genetically engineering a squid-like monster and teleporting it into New York City to simulate an alien attack that would unite the US and USSR against a fabricated alien invasion, saving the world from nuclear armageddon. Changing this to a series of attacks on major world cities "by Dr. Manhattan" was a canny choice that makes a lot more sense. It's also a direct lift from the ending of The Dark Knight just last summer: Batman/Dr. Manhatttan voluntarily accepts being framed for the villainy in the movie as a means to trick the populace of Gotham City/the world into accepting a tenuous, manufactured peace. But hey, if you're gonna steal, steal from the best.