Vantage point

Friday, March 13, 2009

Review of Watchmen

I read some pretty rotten reviews of the movie before I went to watch it. Alan Moore had disowned the movie too. So I went to watch the movie with some rather low expectations. And I came out, well, not hating the movie, but with a bad taste in my mouth.

First up, the movie is pretty faithful to the novel. The ending has been changed somewhat, but only somewhat. The core message of the ending is still there. In fact, the movie ending seems slightly more palatable and "believable" than the squid-ish ending of the novel. But then I was never a big fan of the way the novel ended. In fact, what makes the novel so great is not the ending or the suspense, but the nuanced and deep portrayal of the superheroes. Their failings, their complexes and anxieties, the tensions in their relationships with others and themselves. Their own personal demons and triumphs. The way those characters resonated with the reader is what made Watchmen such a classic.

And the movie disappoints because, despite being largely faithful to the novel, it can not translate all that onto the silver screen. Despite using most of the same lines and visual settings as the comic, the movie instead just seems like "Just Another Superhero Movie". I am not completely sure why. One major possible reason is the performances. They are absolutely flat with the exception of Jackie Earle Haley, who does a perfect job playing Rorschach. But the other characters just don't manage to get you involved or invested in them.

All the other actors seem just that - actors playing their roles. Dressed up in spandex, reading lines from their scripts. This could partly be the director's fault too. I don't understand film-making enough to pinpoint exactly what went wrong, but something did. The situations and characters fail to convey the intensity or flavor in 3-dimensions that Moore and Gibbons managed to convey through drawings and lines. And shockingly enough, the film fails to do so even when it is line-by-line and frame-by-frame faithful to the book in some scenes.

One illustration of this is the scene in the first chapter of the novel. Rorschach has warned Dreiberg about a possible Mask-killer. Dreiberg then tells him to leave through a tunnel under his house, and tells him where it will take him.

Rorschach says, "Yes, I remember. Used to come here often. Back when we were partners."

Drieberg says, "Oh. Uh,..yeah yeah. Those were great time, Rorschach. Great times. Whatever happened to them?"

In the next panel, we see Rorschach walking into the tunnel as he says "You quit."

The next panel, without any words, shows Rorschach further down the tunnel as Dreiberg is just standing there with his head bowed. And the next panel shows Dreiberg sitting on a box near the stairs, despondent, with the smiley badge in one hand and his glasses in another, as his old Night Owl costume stands next to him. Awesome story-telling.

Now if I were to describe the scene from the movie, it would be exactly the same. Word-for-word and visual-for-visual same. And yet, the movie scene just does not convey Rorschach's matter-of-fact resentment and Dreiberg's helpless frustration and self-doubt in the same way the comic did.

And this happens at almost every key moment in the movie. The only exception I can think of is the "Excuse me. Have to visit the men's room" scene from when Dreiberg and Laurie are busting Rorschach out of prison. That was good! Added a third dimension to what Moore and Gibbons did.

But in the rest of the movie, the actors (except Haley) and the director seemed to be removing a dimension from the comic, and that is the movie's failing. That this happened despite being faithful to the novel (unlike V for Vendetta which the Wachowskis botched up by taking obscene liberties with the plot), is bizarrely tragic.

I was hoping this movie would be in the same category as the two other movies that I think added a dimension to the comic faithfully - Sin City and Ghost World. But it is not even close. Which reminds me. When will Rodriguez serve the next yummy helping of Sin City?

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