Monday, March 02, 2009


Alternate 80s Heroes

I suppose everyone would have known by now how Alan Moore really distanced himself from the cinematic version of his highly acclaimed graphic novel. And in all honesty, it's all about control, given that you've written one of your career's best, only for some other guy to roll along, and to interpret it in another medium. It's akin to acceding and handing over your pet project to someone else whom you have no inkling of whether they can do a good job out of it, and it's really a risk put out there since it’s a mass medium, different from where Moore insists Watchmen should belong to – in print.

Yes, the opening credits has Alan Moore's name starkly omitted (only with Dave Gibbons credited as co-creator), though he could somehow be rest assured that if anything, Zack Snyder's film is going to convert even more fans and encourage them to pick up the source material. I for sure, would do so, because there is only so much that a 163 minute movie could do, versus the rich storyline which we already see a glimpse of, that ultimately addresses the tagline of Who Watches the Watchmen - Those in and with power get to call the shots, but at what cost? Who gets to set the agenda, and ensures that it's carried out in a just fashion, with or without morality in the equation, using whatever means necessary to justify the ends?

There have been a number of movies since the release of the Watchmen graphic novel that deals with similar morally ambiguous themes, and I have always enjoyed stories that thrust that black and white question to you, for which there is and never will be any easy and clear answers to. There’s always this moral dilemma that one finds oneself in from time to time, and if action means involving some collateral, it’s never going to be a simple decision to make without repercussions. Here, the story’s set in an alternate USA in the 80s, and it’s a very different USA with Richard Nixon still at the helm for 5 consecutive terms, and the USA and USSR are on the brink of nuclear war, some 5 minutes to midnight, which spells disaster for humanity.

One of the highlights here is the throwback to the era, and in this different world, do keep your eyes peeled for a whole host of visual candy, and larger than life versions of the likes of Fidel Castro, Henry Kissinger and David Bowie even. The opening credit montage is probably one of the most effective I’ve seen, and it seems to go on forever, within which the alternate era from post WWII to the 80s get to be put on screen like a quick-fix history lesson, together with the downfall and dismantling of the costumed heroes back then known as the Minutemen. I suppose you’ll need to read the graphic novel to understand more of the stories behind the images shown, though you do get clued in through newspaper cuttings. Like a brainwashing time machine, you’re primed for the meat after this.

It begins with the murder of The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a superhero once engaged by the government for its missions, and one of two which is sanctioned by the government. As part of the Minutemen, and then later the Watchmen group, we learn of The Comedian’s backstory through a series of flashbacks with the members of his team, and we learn he isn’t exactly the usual friendly neighbourhood type nor Mr Popular. He comes complete with plenty of skeletons in the closet, and with an extremely damaged persona made worse from the ghosts of war. He continues to do what he does because he can, which will make any human rights activist seethe with rage.

Investigating the murder because he is certain that it leads to a bigger conspiracy of a hired killer engaged to bump off ex-superheroes, Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) takes it upon himself to work outside the system as an outlawed masked vigilante, and this narrative arc runs like an old-fashioned detective crime noir. Running around warning his ex-team members, we soon get introduced to all the other characters, like Dan Dreiberg the Night Owl II (Patrick Wilson), Adrian Veidt’s Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), touted as one of the greatest brains and now turned into a successful businessman, who’s in pursuit of renewable energy which he deems will turn back the doomsday clock because of his belief that man goes to war over finite resources, Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman) whose mother was part of the Minutemen with The Comedian, and the only super-powered being Dr Manhattan (Billy Crudup), whose allegiance with the USA staved off any potential pre-emptive aggression by the USSR. Quite a list of actors here and it’s a smart move in casting a relatively none-too-A-list cast so that none would chew up the screen at the expense of another character or the plot.

Like the graphic novel, a reasonable bulk of the film got dedicated to telling the rich backstories of all the characters, and they’re not quite your merry bunch either. Each of them has got such human flaws, that the yardstick we use to put the heroes upon the pedestal get busted early on. The most powerful being on the planet is losing his touch with his humanity and becoming a god, a genius who thinks he’s above all mortals, an investigator with a sociopath nature, a woman who can no longer assert her sexuality on the man she loves and decides to get it going with another lover, and the timid, cowardly nature of man without the crutch of a mask.

To credit any enjoyment of the film, I feel that acknowledgements have to go to the right parties first. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons were the chief creative duo in crafting the solid story, as well as coming up with the images and design of the source. Told in episodic format with plenty of material in each character’s backstory told in flashbacks, we have many sub plots and narrative threads running at the same time, with the socio-commentary of the 80s, the adventure type stories from the past, and an investigative detective noir on the murder in the present. Moore and Gibbons designed and utilized much forgotten characters, and spun real depth into them through allow some identification with some of the more popular peers (Night Owl II as a cheap knock-off of Batman, anyone?)

Snyder knows how to play up his strengths, since the movie's intelligence gets handed to him on a silver platter. What was once deem "unfilmmable" by directors who entered and left the project like through revolving doors, it's no surprise that the studios had turned to the man who faithfully adapted in visual terms, Frank Miller's graphic novel 300. I suppose it's a bit of a no-brainer here to again try and visually adapt a graphic novel, and an Alan Moore masterpiece at that, by sticking true to its form from the comic panels. This of course would garner Snyder plenty of flak for doing what he does best again, leaving some unimpressed by reasoning it doesn’t take a genius to do just that, but seriously, who has the balls to stamp their own mark on the story and characters, other than to put in some minor tweaks for the modern audience? However Snyders shortcomings come in the form of the lengthy narratives found in the graphic novel, especially toward the second half of the film, and that between Dr Manhattan and Silk Spectre II, which he failed in bringing out the dramatic qualities in character realization and affirmation, and the only response to being like a deer caught in the headlights, Is to throw in more CG unfortunately.

Action wise, the film medium allows for Snyder to connect the dots and interpret what happens between comic book panels. Granted the action sequences are few and far between, but Watchmen is never about superheroes busting balls. But when they do, it’s no holds barred, and although the trailer seem to suggest plenty of slow-motion, the actual film is anything but. Some of the best set action pieces involve both Night Owl II and Silk Spectre II when they team up to reminisce the days of old. The action sequences here are well filmed, without those quick cut edits or too close a quarter that everything mixes together in a dizzy spin and you can’t see anything. In a cinema hall with great sound system, you get to feel every whack and punch the character throws, with the bass reverberating right through to your heart.

Now for the gripes. Unless you're really paying attention and can lip read, some of the dialogue may just fly past you so quickly, that you'll go "huh?". And that lengthy chit-chat that Dr. Manhattan has with the Silk Spectre II would test your patience a little, despite some graphical effects being overdone in attempting to distract you for a bit from the bore. I suppose that's one of the difficulties faced, in trying to summarize lengthy text from the book into a visual medium - how do you do so without putting your audience to sleep, and yet crucial enough to have to be included somehow? I guess Snyder had yet to find that perfect balance there. Also, while it was a careful selection of songs from the 80s era for the soundtrack, Snyder shows he’s no Tarantino in having a ear for great music, and some of the tunes did feel a little out of place. I did like the insertion of Simon and Garfunkel’s Sounds of Silence though during a funeral scene. It worked perfectly and gave a very surreal feel to it all.

Watch the Watchmen if you'd like a quick peek and introduction to the complexity and sheer genius of an Alan Moore story, coupled with visuals that pop right out of the graphic novel. With a little tweaks made to the story, purists may cry foul at such a blasphemous attempt. But if you take a look at the bigger picture, and the sacrifices for the objectives that can be achieved (just like how it plays out in the story) it just might win new fans over, and to pick up the source graphic novel. To that, I'd say this comes in recommended, though no thanks to additional edits made in order to cater to the teenage crowd here whom I suspect would be restless if approaching this film equating Snyder to 300.

P.S. The local distributors had decided to submit an edited version of the film for release here, so instead of the actual R21 version, we get the watered down version of M18. However, every lesbian kiss, male genitalia, sex and bloody gory violence all seemed to be intact - I was waiting to spot any butchering – unless of course entire scenes was totally removed.

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