Sunday, March 15, 2009

Pleasant Surprise

Despite extreme skepticism, I was very much impressed by the movie, Watchmen.

Watchmen, the original graphic novel, is one of the most influential graphic novels of all time, and began the trend of deconstructing the superhero. It is a long, meandering story of people who once were masked vigilantes, but did so for reasons having more to do with their own neuroses than actually saving people. These people are flawed, lost, and extremely human, trying to cope within a context of oppressive normalcy.

The city is, as always, New York, but the USA is not one that we would recognize... it is 1985, the Vietnam war had been won, and a very popular President Nixon is serving his fifth term after having abolished term limits. The Cold War's seething presence permeates every frame, tangibly escalating over the course of the novel.

Within this rich backdrop, the plot begins with the murder of an old man. We soon learn that this man was once a masked vigilante, and has since become an operative for government black ops. His former colleagues, fellow retired masks, work together to solve the mystery, and end up uncovering something much bigger. I will say no more, but suffice to say, the end result is simply brilliant.

Now, the main criticism of the book is that there is a lot, and I do mean A LOT, of extra, "useless" sideplots and information. While I agree that much of what transpires in the book is not totally plot-relevant, I defend the presence of extra material for many reasons. First, it fleshes out the universe in which the plot happens, which is key to understanding the plot itself. Second, many of the subplots serve as fascinating parallels to the actual events transpiring in the story. Thirdly, and most importantly, IT'S A FRIKKIN' CONSPIRACY STORY! If a plot is A to B, B to C, it's NOT a conspiracy, it's a Dan Brown novel. Conspiracies need obfuscation to breathe properly, to mature and strengthen.

Nonetheless, all of these factors combine to make a completely unfilmable movie. Taking a meandering, complex, and morally ambiguous story with utterly pathetic protagonists within a rich alternate universe, and conveying it to audiences hungering for 90-minute vinyl-clad punch-ups simply cannot be done. No way.

Or so I had thought.

The movie definitely trimmed out a lot from the novel, but instead managed to achieve much of the same effect via film-specific methods: music, montages, cameos of era-appropriate celebrities, re-enactments of crucial historic events. For three hours, 1985 was vividly alive to me.

Moreover, the news that the ending had been changed (gasp!) sent off alarm bells to fans everywhere; in fact, the change made sense, and it worked. While I personally prefer the original, the alternative presented by the movie is no less valid.

Also, the actors did an excellent job -- in some cases, they actually gave new depth to the characters. Crudup brought a fascinating melancholy and detached tenderness to the deity-like Dr. Manhattan, and super-genius Ozymandias worked well as a reinvented dandy, rather than an aryan Ken doll. Rorschach, the most cult-favoured character of all, offered the least leeway of interpretation and required the most accurate portrayal, and Haley delivered.

In sum, the movie blew me away. However, I am NOT going to recommend it. Of the 10 people I saw it with, only 3 liked it -- the rest, I'm guessing, had expected glib dialogue, relentless action, and well-defined good-vs-evil plotlines. Watchmen is absolutely not that. Instead, it asks you to involve your imagination in knowing and breathing the context alongside the characters. It shows you flawed, painfully normal humans puttering through their ambiguous, fear-drenched lives. And in the end, it requires you to consider that good and evil are unnervingly relative.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good review. I haven't seen it yet, but I will.
From the trailer, the cinematography looked sharp, and the music added to the mood. As a fan of 'Y' I like complicated themes and sub-plots.
Love Mum