Saturday, March 14, 2009

20cc reviews: Watchmen

Once upon a time, a company called Remedy Entertainment made a game called Max Payne. This 2001 third person shooter was a revolution. It was one of the first (if not the first) games to use the bullet-time effect popularized by The Matrix. Since then, countless games have used a slow motion combat system, including one I just reviewed, and occasionally it is even referred to in game as “Max Payne style.” The game's plot was an intentionally over the top, film noir style story of policeman Max Payne, whose family is murdered by junkies, and whose search for revenge leads him into the darkest criminal underworld and up a ladder of conspiracy far beyond any he imagined.

In 2008, 20th Century Fox released a Max Payne movie, starring Mark Wahlberg. I had high hopes, Wahlberg being one of my favorite actors, and the game being such a perfect candidate for film. Unfortunately, the movie was terrible. So terrible, in fact, that I immediately went home and played several hours of Far Cry 2, a game I don't even particularly like, just to make myself stop thinking about it. I couldn't imagine how the movie could have been so remarkably bad. The answer? Director John Moore changed almost every aspect of the plot. Aside from a character named Max Payne, a drug called Valkyr, a single slow motion fight scene, and a dark filming style, the movie was completely unrecognizable.

My point here is that interpretation is a dangerous thing. Of course, I count myself as an artist of sorts, and am in no way opposed to artistic license. I certainly don't expect a book or game made into a film to be the same as the original. Things must be changed, for clarity and conciseness as well as to express the director's personal style. When I saw the “Valkyries” in the trailer for the Max Payne movie, I accepted it as a reasonable interpretation of the story, and a pretty cool one at that. However, it's necessary to take care when negotiating the territory between “interpreting” something and “fucking it up.” Clearly John Moore came too far toward the latter in this case.

Enter Watchmen, a 1986-1987 graphic novel series that tells a chilling, alternate history in which costumed vigilantes are the main deterrent to crime, and the U.S. are on the brink of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. The story begins with the murder of a government employed vigilante known as the Comedian, and follows a number of characters as they try to negotiate a world weeks away from self destruction. The story was written beautifully, and the characters were astounding in their psychological complexity and depth of character. Furthermore, I was already a fan of writer Alan Moore for another of his works, V for Vendetta, which was made into a movie in 2005.

Last week, the film of Watchmen was released under direction of Zack Snyder, the director of 300. Let me expound. I didn't like 300 at all. The story was juvenile and historically inaccurate, and the whole thing came off as an excuse to show a lot of slow motion violence and sex scenes. (Yes, I did mean to say slow motion sex scenes.) However, my problems with the film had more to do with the original story, and I admit it was well directed. What I really admire about Mr. Snyder in this case, was that he was able to recognize that he didn't need to change the story. Alan Moore (Perhaps somewhat like Julian Casablancas: A very talented artist, whether or not he's a good person. Yes, I recognize that comparing the man who wrote Watchmen to the lead singer of The Strokes is a fairly weak analogy. However, I'm tired, I was just listening to The Strokes, it's late on Saturday and I'm trying very hard to get this finished while it's still “this week.”) had already crafted a near perfect story, and Mr. Snyder had only to guide it onto the screen and reap the undoubtedly massive financial boon.

As I am supposedly a layman's critic, I'll have to assume that my audience has neither read the book, nor seen the movie, so I'll avoid anything that would spoil the plot. I'll focus my review instead on the artistic aspects of the film, and what was changed from the book. It seems to me that the movie would be more enjoyable for those who have read the book. While both of my co-authors at aB liked the movie without having done so, I've heard many complaints that the movie is difficult to understand without previous exposure to the story. After seeing it a second time, I am coming to agree more with that viewpoint. I admired the movie for staying so faithful to the original, with entire conversations copied word for word, and yet I'm beginning to see how my experience with the book may have caused me to imagine context that wasn't necessarily given in the film.

What was changed from the book can be fairly easily divided into two categories: stylistic changes, and necessary changes. The former were mostly minor details, like the slight changes in quotes or the alterations in a character's costume. For instance, my personal favorite line from the book, in which Rorschach writes, “The accumulated filth of all their sex and violence will foam up about their waists, and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout 'save us!' And I'll look down and whisper 'no.'” was changed in the movie by omitting the words “look down and.” I don't really understand what would prompt such a change, whether to achieve a more desirable sound in the director's opinion, or to try to make it seem as if the movie wasn't directly copied from the book, but either way it doesn't much effect the final result. As for the costumes, I mostly agree with the changes that were made. The exception is Ozymandias. In the book, he wore gold and purple, symbolizing his relationship with his namesake. In the film, the purple—traditionally a color for emperors—was removed, and the gold is largely replaced by black. I'm not entirely sure why this change was made, but I feel it was a bad one.

The parts of the film that I had more problems with were the changes made from necessity, and I can hardly blame those on anything but the constraints of the film medium. After rereading the book and watching the movie again, I noticed many more changes, but I consider it a positive that I didn't notice them the first time through. The film did a very good job of altering small details without damaging the film as a whole. A lot of the back story that was given in the book through conversations, or through Hollis Mason's fictional autobiography (excerpted at the end of a few of the volumes) is compressed into a montage sequence of the rise and fall of the Minutemen, put to the tune of a fitting Bob Dylan song that I don't know the name of because I don't listen to Bob Dylan. Several other sequences were condensed, and suffer slightly from it, but it couldn't have been done otherwise.

The biggest change, and the only one that actually diverged from the original plot, was the ending. Most of you will have already heard complaints about the change, and most other sources would have likely gone on to spoil one ending or the other. I will say only that it was a big change. Biscuits said that he liked the movie ending better than the original. Personally, I wouldn't go that far, but I do understand why the change was made. It would have taken probably another hour of development to make the original ending seem plausible to a film audience, and that couldn't be done with an already 163 minute run time. The new ending is a lot easier to understand, more modern, and slightly more realistic, but I still hold to the original ending.

Aside from the already amazing story, the thing that struck me the most about the film was the maturity with which it approached the violence and nudity. At no point in the movie did I feel that it was violence for the sake of violence, or nudity for the sake of nudity. It all served the story in some respect. The two really gruesome scenes in the movie (the alley fight and the kidnapping case, for those who know the story) were both included for the sake of characterization, to explore the vigilantes' motivations. As far as nudity goes, there is one moderately graphic sex scene, hardly unusual by today's standards, and it was at an important turning point in the story (though it was less obvious in the film than in the book). Also, the movie stayed true to the fact that Dr. Manhattan was naked for the greater part of the story. Frankly, I was surprised and pleased that Mr. Snyder didn't shy away from it. After all, the classical artists understood that there is nothing shameful in the human form, and it would have been a slight to change that aspect of Dr. Manhattan's character. I suppose it would have been possible to avoid showing anything through clever use of camera, but that would have been limiting, and I'm glad to see someone challenge America's gymnophobia.

My responses to some of the biggest criticisms I've heard are as follows:

1. How can Zack Snyder call himself an artist, when he practically copied the book in its entirety?

-It wasn't copied in its entirety, but in answer to the spirit of the question, I didn't expect Mr. Snyder to be an artist, I expected him to make Watchmen into a movie, and he did that well and with minimal interference.

2. It looked old.

-I'm not entirely sure what is meant by this. If you mean that the film was grainy and occasionally sepia toned, that's because it takes place during the 1980s, and at times during the 1930s. It was a stylistic choice that I though fit pretty well. If you mean that the special effects were sub par, I don't think we watched the same movie.

3. Dr. Manhattan was nude throughout the whole film. Was such gross pornography really necessary?

-Grow up.

And finally a few more trivial notes.

There's a funny little 300 reference at the beginning of the film. The Comedian is living in room 3001, and a coffee mug thrown during the fight knocks down the 1.

Snyder's 300-style use of completely unecessary slow motion appears once, during the burning building scene (once again, for those who know the story).

There's an interesting example of circular storytelling in both the book and film. Twice, Rorschach speaks the line “Fine like this.” The first time, he is rejecting Daniel's offer to heat some food. The last time, he is rejecting Daniel's offer of warmer clothing. The connection is more significant after you read or see it.

If my review seems awfully similar to Tim Buckley's (I won't link to it, because he has spoilers. If you want to read it, you can look it up.) it's only because we apparently noticed similar things about the film. I'm less ashamed of that now that CAD has started to improve again. There was a while when he tried to introduce “plot” to his comics, and it failed terribly. I seriously considered giving them up. Hopefully, he has since realized that his gift is in making clever jokes about video games, and not in constructing a compelling story.

Rorschach is awesome.

All of the characters are awesome, but Rorschach is the best.

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