Wednesday, March 11, 2009
So, I saw WATCHMEN. I guess I should write about it, right? The world needs more opinions about WATCHMEN, right? I went into it without particularly high or low expectations. Of course I love comics, and I've read WATCHMEN and thought it was good, but I'm not crazy about it the way some people seem to be, and I'm definitely not a huge fan of Alan Moore, whose work would be much more palatable if he never spoke or did interviews or allowed himself to be photographed, but as it stands is kind of a pretentious, self-important fuck. But whatever. I haven't seen director Zack Snyder's previous film, 300, and really have no interest in it, both being a movie about a bunch of oily dudes in loincloths and coming as it does from a Frank Miller comic, but I thought DAWN OF THE DEAD was fair enough, given that it's a remake of a classic that doesn't really have any of the things that made the original a classic. Or whatever. I feel like it's required at this point to give your credentials when talking about WATCHMEN. Most of the reviews I've read have had as much to do with the viewer's own personal relationship to the work and source material, or their reaction to the reaction of others, or in the case of many of the mainstream critics, their interpretation of who the intended audience is, and how they define the stereotype of the comic book nerd/fan/whatever (usually, as insultingly as possible).
All of that aside, WATCHMEN isn't a very good movie. It's just...not. I was pretty amazed and how much money and energy and hype can go into something that looks and feels so chintzy. The sets, for the most part, look like sets. The old-age makeup on some of the characters looks like old-age makeup. Though Patrick Wilson, Matt Frewer and Jackie Earle Haley were good, many of the extras and supporting performers, especially those in bit parts, were shockingly bad. For a director of highly stylized films, Snyder seems to have no real sense of style. The sex scene that's one of the film's centerpieces, which should be a tender, human moment, is clearly influenced visually by contemporary pornography (similiarly, Dr. Manhattan's exposed penis, relatively small in the comics, has been replaced with something more porno-sized in the film). The musical choices are embarrassingly obvious- "The Times They Are A-Changin'" plays over a montage of the times literally changing, "The Sound of Silence" plays over a funeral scene. Y'know, symbolism and stuff.
Almost anything visually interesting seems to come directly from the source material. In fact, the film follows much of the original comic book remarkably close, something that works often to the movie's disadvantage. Some dialogue that appears fine on the printed page sounds kind of idiotic when spoken aloud. And the politics of WATCHMEN are very dated. The book came out at what seemed like the apex of the Cold War, with the threat of nuclear conflict between the US and Russia at the forefront of many people's concerns. Obviously now, post-Cold War, post-9/11, post-Bush, the entire nature of international conflict has changed irrevocably. There's really no comparison, and yet the film adapts for nothing. Which is not to say that nothing of 80's politics still resonates today- I recently re-watched Alex Cox's WALKER and John Carpenter's THEY LIVE, and both films probably play better today than they did 20 years ago- but none of that is on display here, because though political, WATCHMEN isn't about politics, and it isn't about the 1980's (and it isn't really political, it jut has some political shit in it). WATCHMEN is about making a movie out of WATCHMEN, and little else. The film's aesthetic choices don't even reflect a 1980's style, that would require venturing a little too far beyond the page than Snyder and co. seem willing, or really able.
The accuracy of the adaptation not only works against the film, but it ultimately serves to work against the source material as well, as it winds up highlighting some of the stylistic flaws and flawed ideology of Moore's original (as well as the aforementioned hokey dialogue). Two particularly disturbing themes come through at the end. First, the film is more-or-less pro-rape, given that as a victim you love your rapist, that supposedly makes it okay. Or something. The role of women in WATCHMEN is somewhat marginal and somewhat offensive. A near-rape scene early in the film is played for maximum brutality and titillation. The film's female lead, the Silk Spectre, isn't given a ton of character to go with her skintight latex lingere (nor does actress Malin Ackerman bring much to her, aside from a well-rounded caboose), indeed she is something of a spectre in the film, serving largely as a catalyst for the more important (in terms of the film) changes that occur in her (more important in terms of the film) male counterparts (of the male characters in the film, she only really even interacts with her father and the two men who are her lovers). This is of course a problem that many have with the role of women in the superhero genre in general.
The film/comic's other big ideological problem is that it's basically profascist and progenocide. Just as rape is portrayed as fine as long as there are some shared emotions involved, or whatever, mass murder is fine as long as it serves the greater good. This is a difficult issue, of course, and one that could certainly make for some interesting debate and exploration, but here it just happens, it's a last reel surprise that isn't treated with any more insight or intelligence than anything else going on in WATCHMEN. And again, the kind of mass annihilation in the film is very rooted in the nuclear panic of the 1980's. Some visual connections are made to September 11th, but it's used here more as a prop than a vehicle for insight, which of course is totally insulting, and a larger reflection of how little Setpember 11th seems to have actually affected most of the US. That's some bullshit, for sure. The film's take on all of this is totally fascist, basically promoting the forces at work behind the veil that might kill for the greater good in order to keep the stupid masses safe from themselves. It's a pretty idiotic, juvenile worldview.
Yeah, I guess ultimately the problem with WATCHMEN is that it's dumb. No real thought seems to have been put into the film, except in regard to putting what was on the page of the comic onto the big screen, and then in some cases putting a bit of a Hollywood/porno sheen on that. This has been done with some care for sure, but at the expense of nearly every other aspect of the film, which makes it seem like Snyder and co. really didn't care much at all, and in the end, most viewers won't either. I certainly didn't, and definitely not for three hours of running time. There were other thoughts I had about WATCHMEN but I don't even know if it's worth going into all of them, it's really just kind of a bullshit movie, and now that I've read it and seen it, I'm sort of happy that it no longer has to play any particular role in my life anymore.