Tuesday, March 10, 2009

First We Take Manhattan

Hey kids, do you like violence? Want to see me stick nine inch nails through each of my eyelids? Zack Snyder does. Zack Snyder sure does love his gore. This is largely the reason why Watchmen is the best film I never want to see again.

Let's see if I can pull a coherent review out of the assembled thoughts that follow. Ware ye big, floppy, luminous blue spoilers.

Positives first. This is unquestionably a very close adaptation of the graphic novel - we'll talk about the small changes in translation in a minute. Visually it's phenomenal, with the title sequence a particular triumph. Dan/Nite Owl's anxiety dream is another notable piece of work. The use of '80s songs to reinforce the story's setting is lovely, and even the incidental soundtrack sounds like something from an '80s film. Very nice indeed. The acting is generally good - I can't think of any glaringly bad performances. The costumes are, perhaps, in the case of the superheroes, a little more 2000s than 1980s, but one can make allowances. All in all, it's recognisably Watchmen.

Only one surface negative - there are a couple of very ropey make-up jobs. Silk Spectre Snr's "old" face and Richard Nixon's big rubber nose and jowls are the two that really stand out. (Now watch some idiot awards ceremony give it Best Make-Up.)

There have been complaints from Watchmen fans that the ending was changed. Personally I feel it was changed for the better. The "squid" ending never felt entirely right to me, whereas I found the film ending a lot more coherent and a lot more satisfying. It all ties in more neatly. So an allegedly alien squid monster levels part of New York - what's that to the Russians? How's that going to affect the course of the Cold War? But a number of cities levelled worldwide, and apparently by America's big superweapon gone rogue - that not only involves other countries besides America, it also puts the burden on America (the only real military superpower even during the Cold War, as we discovered after the man behind the Iron Curtain showed us the rust that had glued his missiles into their silos) to apologise to the world, to be the first to step down and offer peace. As with Lord of the Rings, I think here we see how liberties taken by filmmakers can actually improve a story.

However, there were other liberties, even beyond the cuts and compressions needed to fit the story into a film of less than three hours. I'm talking here about gratuity.

At first it didn't seem as though anything was amiss. The opening scene, with the Comedian fighting for his life, didn't seem out of place. The Comedian's attempted rape of Silk Spectre Snr, if lingered over perhaps a little too long, was pretty much as in the book. The Viet Nam flashbacks were almost frame-for-frame matches for the graphic novel. If the fight scenes overall were more physical, more limb-breaky and nose-bloody than in the book, well, that's just cinema for you. It's easier to stomach violence in comic books, one carefully framed shot at a time, one more step removed from fluid reality. I was half prepared to dismiss my unease as mere preciousness on my part.

And then we saw someone cutting someone else's forearms off with a circular saw. Dammit, I thought, that definitely wasn't in the book. Careful reference to the book confirms that a number of events were gored up beyond reasonable need. Rorschach's confrontation with the child abductor is another one that springs to mind. (What other films has Zack Snyder directed? 300. I don't remember that being particularly over-gory, although I may have made allowances given the subject matter. What else? Dawn of the Dead. Ah yes, that could well explain it.)

But Zack doesn't just like gratuitous gore - he likes gratuitous sex as well. The scene where Dan/Nite Owl and Laurie/Silk Spectre Jnr, fired up by a late-night act of costumed heroism, make love aboard the NiteOwlMobile is a thing of subtlety and beauty in the book. In the film, it's frankly clinical. Or, as Stephen "Bob the Angry Flower" Notley very rightly says, "Where the book has taste and class and frailty, the movie has a porny fuck scene." In fact, go and read Stephen's review (about halfway down the page), for he has many just and accurate things to say about the film.

There's one change that I think stands for the film adaptation as a whole. It's not an especially gratuitous bit. It's the scene where, as Dan and Laurie try to break him out of prison, Rorschach holds them up so that he can go and do nasty (unseen) things to Big Figure in the gents' toilets. It's implicitly clear in the book that he forces Big Figure bodily down the lav and flushes on him - this is backed up by an innocent remark from Laurie about not wanting to dive head first into things, and a knowing reply from Rorschach. It's a moment of sick humour. In the film, the joke is lost and it's blood, not water, that flows out under the toilet door as they walk away. Red, viscous blood in Shining-esque quantities. As I say, this pretty much sums up for me what Zack Snyder has done here - sacrificed subtlety for the sake of being more in-your-face.

(This paragraph left intentionally blank for you to add your own pertinent thoughts about Dr Manhattan's enormous luminous blue wanger. See, even that had to be bigger and more graphic, didn't it? Tsk.)

So yes, it's an excellent film, both in itself and as a version of Watchmen. It's remained complex and thought-provoking, if less nuanced than the book. But it's just rather horrible in places. The story itself is horrible, philosophically speaking - an "end justifies the means" fable with no happy ending and no easy answers, although that in itself may serve as a comment on Alan Moore's true feelings about the "end justifies the means" worldview. But the book is a lot easier to stomach.

No comments: