Sunday, March 08, 2009

Munchausen Weekend


(Yeah, more What If? posts are on the way, be patient. But this was good place-holder blog fodder, and probably wouldn't have been timely if I had waited.)

So, first thing's first: this isn't a very good movie, not really in any way shape or form. I have to echo most of what Spurgeon says here - the choicest, most damning quote of which is probably this:
The result is a movie that while it's mostly faithful to its source material, the moments it's not faithful jar to a noteworthy degree, and the newly synthesized take of old and new elements never takes on a life of its own.
Even if I agree substantively with most everything he says, I will still qualify that by saying that I enjoyed the movie quite a bit. I also enjoyed Ghost Rider and X-Men 3 a lot, too; those were both - by any objective measure - terrible movies, and yet succeeded in being enjoyable Ghost Rider and X-Men movies. Watchmen isn't quite a terrible movie, it's certainly better than Daredevil, but it zings along nicely.

The only things that really merit the comparison to Watchmen are recent mega-epic film cycles like The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, books with such a rabid and devoted pre-film fanbase that the filmmakers could afford very little leeway in terms of their adaptations. I still think that, despite their general amiability (and yeah, I got misty-eyed at the end of Return of the King, but who didn't?), The Lord of the Rings films were generally not very good - over-literal and just ponderous. Which is not to way the books themselves weren't extremely ponderous, but they were also many other things besides ponderous, including "very good" and "extremely interesting". I have neither read nor seen any "Harry Potter" related narrative so I can't judge those, but the fans of the books appear to be pleased with the films to one degree or another. It's an odd phenomenon, really - until very recently, there was no source material so sacrosanct it couldn't be fucked over by Hollywood if they so desired. But we live in a world where nerd rage can tank a poorly-received movie.

I knew the film was going to be very faithful, but man, the first third or so of the book is onscreen almost verbatim, minus the various secondary and tertiary subplots which we knew were going to be excised anyway. To the degree that the movie follows the source material slavishly, it works, which says a lot less about Zack Snyder's dubious skill as a "visionary" director than the durability of Moore & Gibbons' original. It's strong enough that if you basically put the panels onscreen with a minimum of elaboration, the story, pacing, characterization and subtext shines through even the most ham-fisted direction. But then, they have to start making choices, and those choices generally don't make for a better finished product - even if, on paper, they may have seemed like necessary choices. What to film and what to leave on the cutting room floor - not an easy task. This wasn't an actor's film - putting it mildly! - and although few of the performances were flat-out bad, Snyder obviously doesn't have a clue how to elicit natural emotion from flesh-and-blood human beings. Even the good performances are only as good as the script, and when the script falls flat in a heavily-choreographed effects bonanza movie like this there's no way to make up for that momentum. Otherwise, Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor would have made The Phantom Menace the most universally beloved Star Wars movie ever.

So - yeah. They made some not-so-good choices. In fact, looking over the list of things they failed at, it's a wonder I actually did enjoy the movie. But again - I enjoyed Daredevil when I saw it, so perhaps my tastes are suspect. (Again, I know Daredevil is a horrible film, but I had fun nonetheless.)

- Basically, the biggest problem was gutting Ozymandias' story. First, by not spending much time at all on building his character, and by staging his few establishing scenes as ominously as they did, they might as well have put a giant neon sign on top of the screen saying THIS IS THE VILLAIN. Ozymandias in the book, regardless of his monomania, is still an extremely sympathetic character - you believe his idealism is genuine, in much the same way as Rorschach's very different kind of idealism is also nonetheless genuine. But in the film, by subtracting every meaningful bit of exposition from the later chapters, you are left with a cipher, and not the complex, overreaching, earnestly adolescent original. I mean, seriously, they left the Captain Carnage anecdote in, but they took out the Gordian Knot speech? That's pretty much the definition of "missing the point".

- Dan and Laurie are pretty insufferable. My girlfriend remarked after the film that she was waiting the entire running length of the film for Rorschach to stab them both in the face repeatedly - and yeah, I kinda was too. In the book, it's not so bad because they're both obviously over-the hill - Dan on the wrong side of forty, Laurie just about forty herself. No spring chickens. Their romance feels earned because they've both been around the block, and climbing back into costume isn't unambiguously awesome, it's kind of sweet but also kind of pitiful. But if the movie Dan had any discernible paunch it disappears the moment he steps into his costume, and Laurie doesn't look a day over 22. Laurie in the book is cute because she's kind of plain, hardly a "looker" in her drab every day get-up - and even, in her costume, already starting to show her age. The actress who plays Laurie in the movie - so uninteresting I can't be bothered to remember her name - looks like she's made out of the same plastic as her costume.

- One of the main - almost central - plot points of the book is the fact that Dr. Manhattan is the only unambiguously "super" super-hero on the planet. Everyone else, no matter how strong or smart they may be, is just a normal human. That's central: they're all mortal, and their relationship as mortal humans to Dr. Manhattan defines many of the book's central conflicts. After watching the film, my girlfriend - who hasn't read the book - asked me what the other heroes' powers were. I realized then that the movie had quite spectacularly failed to sell this astoundingly obvious point, because all the heroes spend half the movie jumping around like Jackie Chan, climbing walls and breaking people's bones with the minimum of fuss. You really can't tell that Rorschach and Nite Owl and Ozymandias aren't superhuman, because they move like Neo from The Matrix. Even the end, with Ozymndias catching a bullet, hardly seems like such a big deal - after all, he was wearing superhero-standard bullet-proof Kevlar plating, as opposed to the light tunic the character sports in the original. If the Watchmen are already supermen, just how much of a bigger deal is Dr. Manhattan? Obscuring this point risks obscuring the whole thing.

I'm toying with the idea on writing more, but not wedded to the idea. I think Rorschach actually comes off pretty well from the adaptation, and actually led me to rethink my opinion of certain aspects of the original book - a pretty neat trick for an adaptation. There's some thought that could be pursued further along those lines. Again, it wasn't a very good movie, but where it hews closest to the original it succeeds fairly well on its own terms. I wouldn't necessarily "recommend" it, but we don't really live in a world where that would make any difference - if you're reading this, you've either already seen it, are waiting for the second weekend to see it despite misgivings, or just don't care and are wondering why I don't post more pictures of Rejected Cereal Mascots.

So, yeah. Tell me what you want - blogging time is limited, so I can either write more about the movie or to back to talking about What If? U-Decide.

EDIT: After posting this earlier in the evening I spent some time looking at the viewer responses on the Yahoo movie site - here. My ambivalence about the film - not very good and at the same time oddly enjoyable - seems to be an unusual reaction, to judge by these ratings. People either loved it or hated it, with no in-between - and by hated it, well, I've never seen so much venom on any of these Yahoo response things. True, it's probably just a vocal minority - I don't think anyone walked out of the my showing - but then again, most of the people who were at my showing looking to be over thirty, and I didn't see anyone foolhardy to bring in a passel of kids looking for Spider-Man 4. From the sounds of it most people who hated the movie were totally buffaloed by the ad campaign into thinking it was going to be something it most demonstrably was not. (Incidentally, I loved the review that said the movie was a veiled Christian allegory, and I agree with the otherwise neanderthalic reviewer who said the insertion of blatant anachronistic Republican-baiting at the very end of the film was completely unnecessary.)

It's not like bad word of mouth is going to retroactively make the book any worse, but whenever I see these horrible reviews I think of the fact that Watchmen's reign as the evergreen of the comics backlist has probably come to an end - and my apologies to any comic book store owner who was using Watchmen as a ballast these past few months to help stem the tide of the recession. For better or for worse, the movie will probably mean that it will be many years before anyone can or will want to come to the book fresh. Which is a shame, because the book is still pretty damn great, and even if he's disavowed film royalties, Alan Moore deserves to make as much money as he can off the publishing royalties (which, last I heard, he has no problem accepting, seeing as they are for his actual work). I know a lot of people who don't think things like this matter, but you know, anything that would possibly inspire people to be less interested in opening the cover of a really good book is a crying shame. Bad word of a mouth for a so-so adaptation is definitely something that can kill interest in a book.

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