Continued from here.
I thought this post would be longer than it will turn out to be, frankly. Part of me is tempted to set it aside and come back to it tomorrow when I’m feeling a little less cranky and slightly under the weather. At the same time, part of me wants to be done with talking about it for now — just to move on to other things and other thoughts. That being the case, this will be more of an abbreviated discussion of what I’ve been dancing around the whole time — namely, why I think Watchmen, for its flaws, some unavoidable, some all too consciously adding, is still worth seeing, is still something of note.
If you believe Geoff Boucher at the LA Times, who has been a major supporter of the film for months now, then this statement is of interest:
I think there’s a good chance that, like “Fight Club,” this movie will echo in pop culture for quite a while and become a landmark moment that will take on different contours when viewed in hindsight.
This is the point on which a lot of the positive criticism and discussion has been hinging — that’s all somehow a bold, dramatic, out of character step that’s been done by the Hollywood machine, something that ‘shouldn’t've’ been made that was, that questions expectations and so forth. It’s not mine though — frankly, I honestly don’t care about that aspect beyond doubting its applicability and relevance (and I was never much moved by Fight Club either). Any number of ‘bold artistic moves’ or the like have been hailed in all sorts of fields by all sorts of commentators with all kinds of vested interests — set that aside: does the film entertain and intrigue, at base? And does this film reach beyond its multitudinous drawbacks to do that?
I’d say it does, for three reasons:
First, it’s a slick piece of product. Which sounds dismissive but for all that there’s plenty about Snyder as a director that I clearly don’t like, he can put together a film with a team that knows what it’s doing on a variety of standpoints, production design, cinematography, costuming, special effects. If the film ultimately looks different from Dave Gibbons’ work in terms of color palette that is understandable in terms of both Gibbons’ own retrospective intent and in terms of current audience expectation — had Snyder gone the Gibbons route we would have ended up with something close to Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy to a large extent (reworking the Ozymandias costume alone was a life-saving move).
Second, aside from some notable goofs like the Richard Nixon performance, the casting for the major roles ranged from the serviceable to the stellar, and notably there’s been very little consensus over who the best actors were throughout. I’d like to think this is because there was enough of a range of performances that everyone found someone different to hold on to or to focus on throughout the film, and the variety of responses from friends and others has intrigued me. Even Malin Akerman’s performance as Laurie, which really bothered others and which I felt was there at best, has some strong defenders.
Perhaps unsurprisingly my two favorites were the two most grotesque characters in a broad sense, the faceless Rorschach and the godlike Dr. Manhattan. I realized in retrospect that what surprised me about both was that the voices used by their respective actors, Jackie Earle Haley and Billy Crudup, weren’t what I was expecting or necessarily hoping for at all, though what it was I was expecting was a bit unclear to myself. Yet both performances swiftly established themselves as crucial to the film and as perfectly suited for the narrative as performed and prevented, Rorschach’s quick, immediate snarl, Dr. Manhattan’s detached serenity. I’d go so far as to say that Crudup and his special effects team produced a collaboration that is the first real rival to Andy Serkis and Weta’s interpretation of Gollum for The Lord of the Rings, the slow float of particles in the air around Dr. Manhattan as key to his character as Crudup’s observational approach vocally.
Finally, most importantly, that changed ending — which wasn’t changed so much as, in the grand scheme of things, improved. The stunning “What in the WORLD?…” shock of seeing the looming mock-alien figure created by Ozymandias in the book, a psychedelic horror half Peter Max, half Lovecraft might be missing, but in reducing and simplifying the story on the one hand — the entire superstructure of the missing artists, the young psychic, Karnak’s Tibetan servants all reduced down to a team of earnest nuclear scientists assisting Ozymandias and unwittingly going to their deaths — and tying it in more fully to the larger scenario as created — Ozymandias’s dream to fully remove superheroes from the scene, above all else Dr. Manhattan, and to force unity and a stand-down among all the powers on earth on the brink of nuclear destruction — the film creates a more logical, more persuasive mechanism for Ozymandias to achieve his goals. If multiple cities, multiple millions, are destroyed worldwide, and if they are done so not by an unknown random force but by an all-too-well known figure who, for all anyone knows, might still strike again, then the fear and terror of the book’s population of the planet becomes all that much more so for the movie’s. It may not be faithful but it is not faithless to the larger themes — in fact, it is arguably an essential crystallization.
But perhaps it should be in keeping with my larger concerns about the film that even that final scene in Karnak eventually disappoints too, on different levels — the bloody end of Rorschach is as in the book, uncompromising maniacal morality against detached ‘what is best’ judgment, but to have Night Owl fall to his knees in an all too cliched spasm of agony, right down to the “NOOOOOOOO!,” was a headslapper. From there, the scene played out in ways that left me a little dizzy, especially in comparison to the equivalent moments in the comic but even on their own — Dr. Manhattan’s last kiss and beaming up, the music cue of Mozart’s Requiem Mass as Laurie and Dan leave Karnak…if the big change could be forgiven, in fact should be praised, these small changes made the end less than what it should have been, more of a sudden return-to-type I found hard to swallow.
Nonetheless, a bold move on the part of the filmmakers, that bigger change. It doesn’t necessarily forgive a lot of sins but it does ameliorate and counteract them, and in combination with ending just on the right note of uncertainty as the comic does, Rorschach’s journal perhaps to be shortly chosen for wider exposure, perhaps not, even the annoying ‘if only we were the Clash’ version of Dylan’s “Desolation Row” by My Chemical Romance was tolerable.
So I can sense why some outright love the film — there is something unusual in seeing this story presented, less in the way of backslapping for ‘boldness’ and more in the sense that sometimes nuance and hesitation really is the best way to end. In that, the filmmakers followed the book — and the book, however altered and compromised in other ways for this film, is a striking, unnerving and inventive story on its own. If the filmmakers didn’t have to put in the heavy labor to come up with the story, they did, at least, ensure that its lingering questions could still linger.
With that, I’ll just end with a clip of what’s already been making the rounds but deserves another view:
I admit, I wish they’d come up with a full fake episode.