Wednesday 18 March 2009

Watchmen - the epic rant...

So - Watchmen - I'll preface the following, long-winded, meandering rant with this: I haven't read the Alan Moore graphic novel ... but I want to. I would have gotten around to it before seeing the movie, but I was too busy finishing off Charley Boorman's "By Any Means".

Now, where to start. Well - there's been a lot of 'Zack Snyder brought this to the screen' talk going on and well, sure, he's the director of the Watchmen movie - but this is a prime example of a truly collaborative work (even if the crossing from novel to movie hasn't involved a lot of input from Moore seemingly). This movie has, if what I've been told by Watchmen fans is true, been in development for quite a long time now. Twenty years or so I think, and there have been a whole host of talented filmmakers who have approached it, but retreated (such as Terry Gilliam, who proclaimed it as unfilmable before departing).

To cut to my point - this movie has been in development for a very long time - this is after the hardcore legwork that Moore and his artist put into the text originally. The adapted script, by Hayter and Tse, has clearly been crafted from blood, sweat and tears - adapting such a complex and revered text isn't a job I'd envy. The actors too, have done a wonderful job filling their roles - especially Haley and Crudup as Rorschach and Dr Manhattan respectively.

Sure, Snyder wasn't just sat around on his arse, far from it - but he's directing a script that two others (for THIS version) have slaved over, adapting a hugely rich text, written by Alan Moore in the first place. Snyder even proudly professed to using the source text as storyboards frequently - so indeed, he's using Moore and Gibbons' compositions - he's just putting them up there (with the hundreds of folk milling around behind him) 24 times a second. The point being - seeing Watchmen, what can you really figure out about Zack Snyder in terms of his job as director? Does he have a mark? Was a mark left upon the picture? For me at least, the mark on Watchmen is the source material.

It's like with Sin City (a film which I love by the way), Rodriguez and Miller directed it (the latter being the source material's originator). They essentially filmed the panels from the book and stuck it on screen - not exactly massively creative, but certainly loyal to the text (like with Watchmen). Mind you, the difference between Rodriguez and Snyder are their respective back catalogues (RR's is obviously the more creative and impressive, not least for his insistence on fulfilling many roles 'in house'). You could perhaps attach the term "auteur" to Rodriguez, but not to Snyder.

Indeed, this leads me onto something which rubbed my right up the wrong way - in the trailer, Snyder is described (by the advertisers) as "the visionary director of 300" - a statement which is wholly and technically false.

300 is a page-to-screen transfer of Frank Miller's source material, condensed through some writer's adaptation, then passed onto Snyder so he can go doo-lally with the mid-shot-slow-mo dial. Taking someone else's artwork, and then just getting your team to do that, but in motion, is factually not visionary.

Again, Yawn04 - the ghastly and abominable Dawn of the Dead remake - takes a well, and long, established seminal horror cinema classic, and turns it into a vapid and wholly void music video with as much intelligence as that of a scummy pebble residing in the Big Brother house.

A visionary is someone like Orson Welles - who created the cinematic hallmark that is Citizen Kane (at the age I am now!). Stanley Kubrick - the man who co-wrote and directed 2001 with such precision, dedication and skill, that it is again, an all-time cinematic milestone. Ridley Scott brought us both Alien and Blade Runner. The list continues for far longer than I can be bothered to go on to illustrate this point.

Zack Snyder, is factually NOT a visionary. He's a director of music video visuals and populist slam-bangery. Yawn04 may have raked in the cash, but it was complete and utter garbage. 300 was a huge hit, but it was dim-witted and pissed all over historical fact (indeed, like the source text - but there's something even less defensible about twisting history for dumb teenagers when it's on the silver screen).

Plus, in general, I'm just not a fan of Snyder. He's the sort of person that just annoys me whenever I see him in interviews or on DVDs, and - indeed - Yawn04 and 300 were either eye-rape, or just pishy-jibberish.

Also, I've heard several times people saying "only Snyder has been able to bring it to the screen" - I object again - CGI has been able to bring it to the screen. This text would have truly been unfilmable 10 to 20 years ago when CGI was relatively, or indeed brand new - and was often ropey. In the last five years, making a film such as this has become far easier thanks to the huge leaps in CGI and green screen technology.

Watchmen, however, is Snyder's best film as a director - but as I've already talked about before, he's not some one-man-band as this production has been a long-running collaborative effort. There's only so much effort involved in being doggedly faithful to the source text (which is the best thing to do really, because more often than not, vast changes to the source text just ends up in tears).

Right - with that Snyder-related rant out of the way, let's get on with the film itself. Like I said before, I've not read the source text - but I definitely will sometime soon. Instead, I've read the fevered fanboy chat online and listened intently to the views of uber-fanboy Kevin Smith (such as in the lengthy review on a recent "/Film" podcast).

Bravo to Warner Brothers for not only investing the money, time and effort in producing Watchmen - but for allowing it to go ahead as a dark and violent R/18 rated flick which runs theatrically for 161 minutes. There's far too little risk invested by the money men in Hollywood today, but now and then something sneaks through the quagmire of remake-focussed malaise and 'safety' (read "creative vacuum").

Plus, it's a film which features numerous shots of Dr Manhattan's massive blue dong - something which I'm sure a number of "middle-Americans" were perturbed by due to their rather bizarre sexual prudery. I mean, you don't see many willies on the big screen ... let alone huge ones that glow blue and are capable of appearing on screen multiple times side-by-side.

Indeed - this element provided a LOT of laughter for the lads and I, and evidently the audience couldn't help but indulge in a chuckle whenever Dr Manhattan's manhood swayed onto the screen. A little joke, but regardless, bravo for using big blue's nudity & non-nudity sensibly.

Something else which came as a bit of a shock, was the violence on offer. Apparently, the book is less violent where the movie is more violent, and vice versa. Interesting - but understandable when it's supposed to shock, and what shocked us back when the text was originally written no longer shocks us now. Let's say several moments of shockingly bloody violence left my eyebrows involuntarily raised in a stunned manner - disgusted? Not in the least bit - I've survived all five SAW's and two Hostel's, plus all the genre classics just fine - I guess it was more how it was placed within the context of what was going on, as well as being in this sort of a story.

What sort of story is that? Incredibly hard to sum up - so I won't even bother. I've tried numerous times over the last couple of weeks to sum up Watchmen for the uninitiated (I was caught-up on the basics prior to viewing, shall we say). This merely confirms the complexity of Watchmen as a text - you can understand why it was once considered unfilmable (and perhaps some still do - would it have worked better as a mini-series, will it work better in the soon-to-come extended cut?) - and it is certainly a hugely intelligent piece of work, even if I'm only understanding this from the movie version. The strength of Moore's text is evident throughout, even to those who haven't read it.

The characters are complex, sometimes weak, sometimes immoral to a shocking degree, sometimes out-right psychotic, and the ending is so rich with moral quandry that it leaves food for thought afterwards (much like The Dark Knight did with at least two issues - surveillance, and the two-boats-two-bombs issue).

There are some niggles though - certain choices of music feel too blunt, or just flat-out wrong (such as the tonally wrong, thundering end credits track, which is apparently by the emo shits known as My Chemical Romance) ... and was it just me, or did the fight sound effects really begin to irk you? Are these people made out of concrete slabs? Punches just DON'T sound like that, nor are they that bloody loud! Also - the bit when Rorschach goes nuts with that aerosol can and sets it on fire - I've seen a flaming aerosol can in real life, and it doesn't sound like a scene from Backdraft.

And while Watchmen has a fair bit of "talky stuff" (which I liked), it's when the action kicks off that Snyder tracks down that bloody mid-shot-slow-mo dial and starts farting around with it again - JUST LEAVE IT ALONE, WILL YOU?! That device was ruined in one-fell-swoop with 300. It's too obtrusive. Just shoot an entire shot in slow motion and use varying speeds for other whole shots throughout the sequence and then edit away.

It may seem like there's less mid-shot-slow-mo going on, and there probably is - compared to it's incredible over-use in 300 - but Watchmen is a pretty long movie, with a fair bit of talking, so there's only so many chances to use that slow-mo device.

But, again, due to the sheer strength of the source material (evident even to me, someone who has not yet read it), the niggles are few in number. Perhaps the Watchmen uber-fans have more complaints, I don't know, and it has apparently split some audiences down the middle.

The flick looks great - tying back to what I said before about CGI allowing this movie to finally be made - and you would expect Snyder to be able to present something that didn't look like dog shit, this being a dude who comes from the world of music videos after all. For the most part though - and again because he stuck to the source text like glue - the visuals don't stray into "the sin of vanity" territory like Yawn04 did at times.

Yawn04, as shit as I think that movie is, is one that I cannot deny is pretty ... most of the time. Occasionally that movie became too over-indulgent in music video aesthetics and scattergun-use slow-motion - but enough talk about that turd-festival. After all I've already poured over it with my "110 reasons in 110 minutes" list of grievances. Speaking of which, you can find both parts of it here:

Back to Watchmen - it looks great - but when you're using the work of Dave Gibbons to guide the motion pictures, you can't really say it's especially creative from Snyder's part ... or perhaps even the DP's part. This is an intrinsic problem facing the filmmakers with Watchmen however, as Kevin Smith was kind of saying, you're fucked either way.

Deviate too far from the text and you've fucked it up, stick too closely and you've not really done much aside from giving the fans a faithful adaption of the source text (for the majority of people - perhaps Moore might think otherwise after being treated so poorly by previous on-screen adaptations though).

In terms of "most awesome superhero movie" though - The Dark Knight still wins the fight for me. That movie simply blew me away in all respects, and clinged onto my mind for months afterwards until I got the DVD which I then watched three times throughout December after it came out. I still get all hot and bothered when thinking about it - the soundtrack alone is enough to shiver my spine.

Watchmen, the movie, hasn't had the same level of impact upon me - and indeed certain scenes in the movie don't have the impact you feel they should have (just like the dudes on the /Film podcast were saying). The secret about Silk Spectre's father, and the Bond villain baiting moment towards the end, to name but two. This said, Watchmen didn't slink in and out of my brain in a flash, and is still percolating up there somewhere, and finally - it left a pleasant impression when all was said and done.

I don't see Watchmen as a Zack Snyder movie, I only remember that Snyder had anything to do with it when I see his name in the credits, and that bloody silly mid-shot-slow-mo effect turns up. No, instead I see Watchmen as a collaborative effort that spans many, many years - a production that has passed through countless skilled hands over the years after being born out of an intricate and medium-defining source text.

It may have taken you a long time to read this, but it took longer for me to write it ... okay, rant over, hazah!

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