Saturday 14 March 2009

Who should watch the Watchmen?

Lots of people certainly will, and are (if box office is anything to go by). Truth to tell, I feel a little guilty having watched it at all. After all, Alan Moore, the author, was implacably opposed to any filming and demanded his name be removed from the finished project and, in general, I like to respect the rights of the author. But this is one of the most powerful comic books of all time (I won't say greatest, as many will and do, because I don't like singling one out - I couldn't single out any one of my favourites, which also include John Byrne's Fantastic Four and Mark Waid's issues 501 to 511 of the same, Moore's V for Vendetta, Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Joe Straczynski's extremely filmable Rising Stars) so I just had to see how it would turn out.

It's difficult to say. Certainly it didn't make me cross, which is no mean feat where a comic book adaptation is concerned: see Spider-man 3 if you don't believe me. The film is very faithful in many ways. It looks right. The plot is more or less the same. A lot of stuff from the twelve issues has had to fall by the wayside though, in order to crowbar the thing into three hours: don't hold your breath for the Black Freighter (a cunning allegorical comic book within the comic book), similarly the longer written articles at the end of each issue that provide much back story have fallen by the wayside. Though, in fairness to director Zack Snyder, he keeps an impressive chunk of this as the photographic backdrop to the credits. Nor, for that matter, will you learn how Rorschach got his mask.

The film opens, as does the comic, with the murder of Edward Blake (aka The Comedian). I think this scene contains one of my problems. The fight is more violent than the comic book and much longer. This is typical of several sequences and if some more restraint had been found here, perhaps more time could have been found for other things.

Aside from omission, there is one very significant change concerning the plan of the villain (I won't spoil things be revealing it). In truth, I don't object to this as much as some may well do - the spirit of Moore's idea is preserved, and the changes serve to abridge what would otherwise have taken too much time. That said, the fact that Manhattan hasn't created cheap and limitless power already doesn't satisfactorily explain why Hollis only services obsolete cars (as petrol is in Moore's original) or how Archie (Nite Owl II's incredible flying machine) is able to take flight: it clearly isn't employing a derivative of Frank Wittle's invention.

And yet, despite retaining the spirit of the idea, somehow the end doesn't carry the same weight (my brother suggests this is down to us not sympathising with Rorschach enough, and in particular his refusal to compromise). I find the fighting between the principals at the end disappointing: too much like a bunch of people with superpowers - similarly when Nite Owl II and Silk Spectre II break into a prison, they defeat far too many prisoners. It's not even particularly special as a set piece. Moore's characters are very human, and in some ways ordinary (Manhattan excepted), and so this contradicts.

Other things come off much better. Mars is superbly done, and what is chapter four of the comic, wherein Jon (Dr Manhattan) flicks back and forth through his past, illustrating how completely differently he sees time and space, in what is one of the finest examples of comic book writing that exists, is carried off well.

Most of the performances are fairly good (and the cast is largely unknown). Billy Crudup as Manhattan, Jeffrey Dean Morgan as The Comedian, Malin Akerman as Laurie Jupiter and Patrick Wilson as Dreiberg are all good. So too is Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach. But in Robert Wisden's Nixon one wishes for half the talent of Frank Langella (it's a shame for Wisden that the character has been so perfectly played so recently).

The music is also generally well done - I find it interesting to see Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah used for a happy moment for once (in this case as the backdrop to a sex scene), this makes a change from its usual use to say something tragic has happened.

Other things work less well. Obviously, it being a film, there's no easy way to do quotes that finish each chapter, but one of the key ones "two riders were approaching", is nicely done by playing Hendrix (All Along the Watchtower). Well, nice until the line comes, and the two characters are walking rather than riding! I haven't got my copy of the book on hand to check, but there seem to be a number of moments when Moore's dialogue has been needlessly replaced with inferior work.

One of the things about the about the comic is that Moore addresses something that most comics ignore: that these people would make the world utterly different. Snyder's mid eighties don't feel quite so different as Moore's did. That, and, ultimately, the fact that Moore may well be right, that the greatness of this book just can't translate to the silver screen. Not, say, in the way that Rising Stars could (and what a fabulous trilogy that would make).

These are little things but, ultimately, it's the little things that stop this from greatness. That's why I feel somewhat indifferent about this film. It's not bad, by any stretch. And yet, it isn't great either, and the comic book was. For me, it wasn't jaw dropping in the way of The Dark Night (and to a lesser extent Batman Begins), it didn't move me or make me think in the way Superman Returns or Spider-man 2 do.

Should you go and see it? If you read and love the book, you'll probably have to. I'm curious if you'll feel the same way. If you haven't, you've nothing to lose, and you may enjoy it, but your money would be better spent on the original: it will last longer and reward more greatly.

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