MOVIE REVIEW: “The Watchmen (Director‘s Cut)” (2009)

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Doctor Manhattan has the fakest looking penis ever.

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t *want* to see his junk. I don’t like that kind of thing. I think one of the reasons I never got into porn (Beyond the obvious ethical reasons) is that *even if* there are chicks around, you just can’t watch that kind of thing without seeing entirely too much of some dude’s wedding vegetables. That just always seemed kind of gay to me, in concept.

But of course Doctor Manhattan is mostly naked through the whole film, so - as with the comic book before it - there are a lot of buffalo shots. I’m not a fan. In fact, they really could have side-stepped the whole issue simply by having something strategic obscuring the shot as per the Austin Powers movies, or, since Doc and his tallywhacker are digital effects anyway, they could have just arranged for them to be always in shadow. But if you’ve *got* to have a dude running around as though he’s hanging around in the Blue Man Group’s locker room, I think they probably should have been straightforward with it, you know? Then all us guys in the audience could have simply averted our eyes, like we do in the locker room, and that would have been the end of it.

Instead they have this half-hearted attempt to sort of keep the nethers ill-defined and shadowy, which is oddly distracting in a ‘what the hell is going on there?’ sense. The result - to borrow a line from Philip J. Fry - is “Notice how the use of symmetry draws attention to his wang!” It’s really, really uncomfortable. I didn’t like it.

On the other hand, Silk Specter is naked quite a bit in the film, and pretty va-va-voom even when she’s not. I’m all in favor of that. Frankly, I could have done with a bit more of it.

I’m not going to do my standard play-by-play simply because this story is based on a quarter-century-old miniseries that has already been massively influential, and which basically dictated the course of comics as a medium for the next generation. It seems silly to treat that as something new, particularly when I reviewed the comics themselves some months ago http://www.republibot.com/content/last-impressions-watchmen-1986 and our own R2 reviewed it when it first came out here http://www.republibot.com/content/movie-reviewwatchmen

I boycotted this movie when it came out. I don’t remember why, but I was pretty emphatic about it. I *think* it had something to do with the comic being a love letter to the format of comics, and doing a movie version of it seemed to violate the very premise of the original story somehow. That said, I myself wanted to make a movie of it in the mid-eighties (in my fantasy cast, Tawny Kitaen would have been Silk Specter, and Doctor Manhattan would have been running around in a suit and tie), and when I fist heard that Terry Gilliam was working on a film version, I was elated. So whatever my reasons, I’ve gone back and forth on whether it should be a film over the years, and my opinion seems to have come around again. So I watched it.

It was better than I was expecting, actually.

The movie basically treats the comic as a storyboard, and many scenes are lifted verbatim from it. At the same time, the movie manages to circumvent a number of the comic’s pacing problems. Specifically, the News Vendor Street Scenes go on way the heck too long in the comic, and while I get their purpose, they grind the story to a halt. The Pirate comic is completely excised from the film, and I’m happy about that for the same reason. The best improvement is with Ozymandias. In the comic, he’s a noteworthy background figure who’s character isn’t really explored until the last issue, which explores him in great detail as earlier issues did with Manhattan and Rorschach. The problem with this in the comic is that it’s much to late in the story to be info-dumping all this on us, and it makes the whole thing feel rushed and rather abrupt. It detracts from the narrative climax. And frankly, Ozzy is the least interesting character in the story anyway. He’s basically a James Bond super villain, and he’s had an easy life. He’s not compelling at all. In the film version, this is pared down to its bare minimum, and moved up to the time of the assassination attempt. Likewise, the subplots involving the home life and increasing existential dread of Rorschach’s psychiatrist are essentially pared away to a cameo.

All these are to the good, and they vastly improve the pacing and flow of the story.

I also really liked the opening credit sequence that did a great job of setting up how intertwined all these characters were in the fabric of this parallel world. The scene when the original Nightowl dies, while having flashbacks to his past fights was brilliant and heartbreaking. Stuntcasting famous lookalikes in various roles was a nice touch, though they seem to have grown bored with that as the film rolled on. The movie didn’t feel too long, despite it’s length, though it did drag in some places.

Mostly, curiously, in the action sequences. Every fight goes on too long, and is too obviously choreographed, and filmed in too staid a manner. In the comic, Laurie and Dan get mugged by a couple of toughs. In the movie it’s like twenty five or so. The fight sequences in the jail go on forever, don’t even get me started on that gooney Superman II wirefight with Ozzy in the last reel. None of this looks real, and there’s no briskness or energy to any of these sequences.

The movie is needlessly gory, far more so than the source material. It’s not enough to see Manhattan blowing up Viet Cong, we’ve also got to see people getting their fingers blown off, their arms hacked off by circular saws, their heads sliced and diced with meat cleavers, and so forth. There’s a *lot* of blood, entirely too much, and it’s uncalled for. It adds nothing to the story, and in fact it detracts a lot. Most of these scenes diverge wildly from their equivalent scenes in the comic.

In addition to the digital naughty bits, there’s a lot of nudity and sex in the movie. This doesn’t bother me as much as the gore does. These scenes are all fairly unflinching and long by movie standards, but they’re taken directly from the comic, and they actually *do* add something to the story. This is a tale exploring the psychosexual aspects of superheroes, after all, and Dan’s impotence in regular life, contrasted with his virility in costume are an important part of the story.

A lot of people have complained about various scenes that got chopped out of the film, but there was really only one line who’s omission left me feeling cheated: When Ozzy snatches a bullet out of the air in the comic, then starts nervously laughing and says “I gotta’ tell you, even I wasn’t sure that would work.” Best bit of characterization for him in the book. In the movie, he just blows it off like it’s no big deal.

The free will vs. predestination debate that Manhattan and Specter have on Mars is just as stagey and unfulfilling here as it is in the comic. It’s not philosophical, or even particularly insightful, it’s just the kind of stuff pretentious freshmen talk about between bong hits in the dorm at 3AM when they can’t get dates. The conclusion - Manhattan’s realization that every life is a miracle - plays out just as false here as it does in the source. Added to which, the Mars scenes are horribly fake-looking. In fact, most of the CGI in the movie isn’t terribly impressive, and much of it looks terribly unrealistic, but none of it moreso than the Mars sequence. It looks like something out of a Spy Kids movie. Awful.

The random decision to change the ending of the film makes no sense to me, and the ending they’ve come up with isn’t as good as the one in the comic. In the comic, Ozzy has set up a massive industrial undertaking to generate an alien invasion of sorts that will fake the world back from the brink of Nuclear War. Rorschach manages to trace this back to Ozzy, however in the movie, since the conspiracy involves maybe a dozen people rather than thousands, this plays out rather superficially and the quest to unravel it isn’t entertaining. Also, the audience lacks the sense of how BIG this whole darn thing is as it gets progressively revealed. An alliance to fight the fake superdimentional aliens in the comic makes far more sense than the ‘sinners in the hands of an angry god’ ending in the movie.

In all, however, this is a much more faithful and much better adaptation of the comic than I was anticipating, and I’m glad I saw it.

And yet…and yet…and yet…

Something is missing, you know? It all works well enough, it’s coherent and consistent and passably well acted, and it *looks* right, mostly, but….there’s just no life in it. No spirit, no passion, no fear and no joy. It’s actually *too* reverent of the source material - excepting the ending, and those scenes where it randomly decides to gore it up - and I think this works to its disadvantage.

A movie is *not* a comic book. When asked why he took so many liberties with Batman back in ‘88, Tim Burton said that he had no interest in telling someone else’s story their way. (I paraphrase) While I hated his Batman films, I do get his point. Likewise, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner has very little in common with the novel it’s based on, and yet it covers the same conceptual areas in a fashion that wasn’t literal, but was pretty fitting over all. Peter Jackson took a fairly light hand with the Lord of the Rings films, but he *did* do quite a bit of flensing and shuffling and flat-out chopping in order to wrestle the story into place for a cinematic format.

While there are changes in Watchmen to accommodate the format, the film almost feels apologetic for them. What the film really needs isn’t a director, but an artist, a Scott or a Gilliam (Definitely *NOT* a Burton, however) to come in and make the material their own, thereby liberating it from our expectations and giving it a bit of life. If there’s an unforgivable failing here, it’s that they’ve taken one of the great stories of my lifetime, and turned it into a dead thing, devoid of the holy fire of genius.

That said, Gilliam declared the thing ‘Unfilmable’ when he abandoned it in the early ‘90s, and I’ve read the terrible, terrible Sam Hamm script he was working from. Frankly, I’m glad that version didn’t get made. I suppose “Overly respectful” is preferable to “Bad,” but I’d have preferred taking some chances with the story, rather than being slavishly dedicated to a format you’re defiling by even making the movie in the first place. Seriously: what is the point of making a movie that is *exactly* like the comic book? Why not just go read the comic book?

It’s a quandary. The movie was well made, but it shouldn’t have been made at all. There’s a class of fan who can’t seem to leave well enough alone, and who *need* to see their tastes validated by a pointless conversion to celluloid. As though the story isn’t of value unless Malin Akerman is naked on screen. (Not that I’m complaining about that, mind you).

Stranger still, I had the unmistakable feeling that the film *knew* what it needed to be (Rather than what it was) but wouldn't or couldn't do it. There's a vaguely Blade Runnery vibe going to the score, but not the overdone hit songs. (And for a movie set in 1985, why not more '80s tunes? Why stuff that was fifteen to twenty years old already?)

In the end, this is a well-made but heartless, joyless film that can’t escape its own pointlessness. It’s worth watching, but not nearly so much as it should have been. The best thing I can say about it is “It could have been worse,” but that’s hardly praise when it could have been - should have been - sooooooooooooooooooooooooooo much better.

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS MOVIE?

Well, we’ve got a *LOT* of nudity, most of it male, we’ve got a distractingly animated digital schlong, we’ve got the world’s first two-person ménage a trois, we’ve got over-the-top gore, some very dated cold war posturing, and a mostly-vestigial running gag aimed at Nixon which was funny at the time, but is basically just tedious. The only part that really, really, really bugged me was the needless gore, but I really have to think that there isn’t too much here for Conservatives.

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