Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Watchmen (film)

The film Watchmen (2009) does an adequate job of translating the graphic novel to screen. As one would expect, it takes certain liberties with characters and the plot, and it alters the ending of the story, with a result that I think improves on the novel. The film accentuates the noirish elements of the novel, and the result is a kind of film noir for super heroes. (There are clear similarities with the ominous cityscapes and the pessimistic valuations of human nature in The Dark Knight). The film replicates many of the perspectives and visual angles used in individual frames of the novel. An example is the opening scene, which views the aftermath of the Comedian's murder from the perspective of Rorschach, high atop the roof of a building.

There came a point in the novel where the plot became so complex and overwrought that the author had to resort to a contrived device so cumbersome (even in this novel which by its very nature requires suspension of all usual forms of disbelief) that it nearly brought the story to a lumbering halt. The film substitutes another plot device that is also contrived, but it's easier to accept, and more logical.

There's little tension or suspense in this film. The characters are interesting, along with their interrelationships and their investigation of the murder of the costumed vigilante heroes. In ways the most interesting character is Dr. Manhattan, whose bizarre transformation in a scientific experiment gone awry gives him godlike powers but leaves him increasingly unable to identify with other human beings. He is so inhuman, in fact, that he speaks in portentous sentences that would come across as comic if any other character uttered them. He's interesting, but also one of the elements that marks the story as a science fantasy—this is not a novel about super heroes in our world—it's a novel about an alternative world where the one genuine super being interferes in human affairs in a way that the super heroes of DC Comics never did. The super heroes of Watchmen span the entire range of the political spectrum, and the novel raises the large question of whether the allure of super heroes represents a kind of fascism—are the pitiful humans they protect too weak and ignorant to understand what's good for them, to control their own destinies?

The most compelling character in the novel, and the film, is Rorschach, whose unwillingness to compromise costs him.

A number of historical figures appear in the film. Lee Iacocca, for one. Andy Warhol for another. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger make appearances—the actor portraying Nixon is so awkwardly made up that he seems artificial and grotesque. Most of the other actors impersonating historical figures bear a slight enough resemblance to the people they're portraying that the simulation works.

Like the novel, The Watchmen is more about talk than action. The graphic novel is about ideas, and the film follows suit. It's intelligent, engaging in certain ways, lifeless in others. But I much prefer it to the hollowness of any number of recent films that blunder across oft trod and well worn ground.

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