Words On Film: Watchmen

Last night's viewing of Watchmen on the IMAX screen off of Colorado Blvd was an experience mixed of greatness and minor disappointments. The film, in and of itself is excellent. There are some small issues I had with some of the acting, but those are hardly problems that merit some of the "Unwatchable Watchmen" talk floating bitterly around the internet. Yes, Malin Akerman's acting is less than glorious, but fairly, the dialog and characterisation of Silk Spectre II is basic, sweet and naive. She does all of these things (though missing some emotive power) well.

From this point on it is spoiler time. Hear me!? SPOILERS. *SPOILER WARNING* SPOILERS! Do not read on if you don't want to know what happens in the film, how it differs from Alan Moore's original conception and what things missing detracted from my full enjoyment of the experience.

Seriously. Stop now if you DON'T want to know.

Okay then. My first beef with Watchmen the film is the use of non-diegetic music throughout the story. It's a sound track of 60s hits like "All Along The Watchtower" by Hendrix, "The Times They Are A-Changin'" by Bob Dylan, and "Sound Of Silence" by Simon and Garfunkel. None of this music occurs within the bounds of the movie. All of it is an external driving force to promote a feeling about the non-dialogued scenes in the viewer that could easily have existed without falling back on rock nostalgia. Given that the movie takes place during the mid-1980s, these 60s tracks seem even less apt. The music drums up feelings in those scenes where, if you've read the book already you already understand the tone, but not having that information they subscribe a feeling missing from the film. Much of the intricate layering in the book was nixed to keep the film to 3 hours running time, but these aspects of the narrative (including the between-issue archival works... like the excerpt from Hollis Mason's book) are imperative to feeling the weight of the time period and the impact of large panels (in the book) and shots (in the film) without dialog or sound. Specifically coming to mind is the final journey by Night Owl and Rorschach to Adrian's Antarctic lair. Entire pages of white snow and tiny figures not speaking served to build anticipation for what would be perceived as a coming final showdown. In the film, we hear Hendrix and his trademark guitar riffs to psyche us up, rather than force contemplation in the audience with silence. These choices by no means make the film unwatchable, but do reflect a need in audiences to feel powered up about superhero movies, rather than understand the sober ways we are forced to choose between good and evil, friendship and justice, individual life and life-in-general. Alan Moore's writing makes you feel heavy at the end of the movie, and these soundtrack choices undermine that feeling. Note: The diegetic music is all 80s music placed well to blend in with each scene. Giving time and place in a subtle way, and impressively so.

Issue the second (And yes, I'm being a purist geek here, so I expect disagreements. Please comment if you so desire) lies in the omissions, some minor and understandable, some major and understandable. And yet others that truly detract from the story as a whole. First, the brutality of Hollis Mason's murder at the hands of psychotic youth is gone. It was tragic in the book. It marked the death of the old mentality, the old respect of "masked heroism" and the destruction of a boundary in society wherein the elderly deserve an inherent respect. This scene removed, and the timeline changed slightly was lamentable, but not entirely crucial to the plot as a whole. Moore took so much care to create a world collapsing that the tone was unavoidable, and no less surprising. The movie doesn't have the time to make all of these layers, and ask us to peel them back to see the next.

The intertextual pieces, as noted above, were also missing. The histories of the early characters were summed in the opening sequence. Adrian's interview about marketing Watchmen action-figures was missing. Dan's telling essay about owls was missing. The interactions of the newspaper stand owner and his various customers: removed. (A choice that I understand for time reasons, but dislike because it understates the humanity of the people destroyed in the final blast.) And most disappointingly the Black Freighter comic was missing. Entirely. There wasn't even an allusion to it, or to it's value as a parallel to Adrian's descent into "madness". The best part of the Black Freighter was that the anti-hero of that pirate comic believed so much in taking actions to save his family and town that he destroyed them. Adrian's plan is much the same, as he chooses to kill for the overall "betterment" of the world. In both cases they are ultimately evil men, not by their choosing, but through their obscene zealotry. But removing the Black Freighter was necessary again for filming purposes, and small allusions would only have served to abate fans of the books, and ardent ones at that. It wouldn't have translated well, and either would have made the movie an hour longer, or hurt it by leaving other plot pieces out. Disappointing, but excusable.

The frustrating, and major changes lie in the ending of film. Primarily that the film's ending portrays Adrian's plan as one to blame Dr. Manhattan for the destruction of many (not just New York) cities to unite the players in the Cold War. Making Manhattan the scapegoat for destruction felt planned only because the elaborate original story of artists and writers creating an alien menace was too hard to adapt to film. It reeks of compromise in laziness.

In the book, Manhattan loses his faith in humanity and distances himself by escaping to Mars to reconsider his place on Earth, but returns to work with Adrian--insofar as they will uphold his conspiracy. Manhattan ultimately gets the final word, in his (literally) infinite knowledge, telling Adrian "Nothing ends," thus undermining Adrian's thought that his masterstroke would prevent humanity from ever destroying itself. Manhattan is a character of complex narrative understanding in the book. He shows the reader and the other Watchmen that there is no solution to human divisiveness. Time will continue and with it the violence inherent to society. In the new ending, Manhattan leaves the galaxy before extolling that great bit of metaphysical knowledge, and Adrian's second-guessing of his decision is downplayed. Malin Akerman's Laurie then says the "Nothing ends" line to Dan Dreiberg in one of the final shots and it feels so much less revelatory coming from her than from the man who would have spoken it. The line decays from one of a supreme being speaking a universal truth into hearsay whispered half-naively by a pretty girl.

The film exceeds expectations in casting. Jackie Earle Haley's Rorschach is nothing short of perfect. In look, size, and voice his depiction of the most complex character in the book is exceptional and deserving of high accolades. Patrick Wilson's Dan Dreiberg also comes off flawlessly, hitting the necessary nervous beats written into the character. And The Comedian, portrayed by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, comes off as crass, violent and flawed. His anger throughout the flashbacks is tangible. I had issue with Billy Crudup's Dr. Manhattan, but only irrationally so, in that the voice I always imagined for the god-like character was softer and less authoritative in the film.

Watchmen the film, does justice to Watchmen the book. While not a direct adaptation and flawed in some important spots it does not disappoint. It is entirely "watchable" despite some of the derisive buzz in media, and shows signs of great care taken by a director to adapt a complex narrative into a 3 hour movie.

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