Thursday, March 12, 2009

Watchmen

Watchmen is terrible, a bad adaptation of an over-rated book, a big budget over-hyped turd that leaves a slick of grease on your brain. Where it postures with high-minded hautuer translated directly from the source, it takes the (comic) book's provocative conceits and renders them into so much high cholesterol junk.

The actors are superb and perfectly cast for their parts, especially Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach. Haley embodies the character and makes him sympathetic, arguably more sympathetic than originally fashioned, in a performance that sadly is not supported by the film as a whole. A psychotic crimefighter, Rorschach is the soul of Watchmen. He is allowed long pontifications of voice-over to remind us what a horrible cesspool this world is. Does this sound familiar, perhaps like Notes From The Underground, Camus' The Fall, or Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver? We know this man, this voice, this rant. It is updated for juveniles everywhere in the shifting face of Rorschach.

In Notes From The Underground, when the narrator visits a prostitute he is made vulnerable and confesses how the rot of the world is reflected within himself; the pompous narrator of The Fall reveals his own failings in a philosophy that does not encompass hope or virtue; more recently, we see Travis Bickle driven to the edge of sanity as he impotently rationalizes a growing cascade of venality and avarice. In all three cases, context serves to illustrate the point that humanity is in trouble and looking for answers. Watchmen attempts the same and comes up short, in both versions; since this is a criticism of the film, I'll not address what I see as the book's failings but focus on the adaptation.

The author of Watchmen is Alan Moore, a gifted and educated writer. If you look at a body of work that includes From Hell and V for Vendetta, I don't think it's a stretch to say that Moore finds common cause with Rorschach (Moorschach?). Like V and Dr Gull, Rorschach is entirely bent on correcting society, and Moore is savvy enough to craft narratives that support their mission. This enables us to see them as heroes battling a world gone wrong -is this not the definition of a superhero?

At the close of Watchmen, when we witness Rorschach's fate it is an incisive blow to optimism made all the more profound by our sympathy for the erstwhile but clearly misguided hero. In the written form, illustrated by Dave Gibbons, the story capably and efficiently delivers the tragedy. Here is where the film adaptation goes wrong.

When the book portrays sex and violence, it does so in obligatory fashion. We see that these elements of life are prevalent and ordinary, part of the human condition. Given that the context is costume-clad low-grade sociopaths finding their way in a world that no longer accepts them, this is a brilliant accomplishment by the author and illustrator. The film adaptation goes to great lengths to portray Rorschach as written -and then undermines our sympathies entirely with raunchy fights and coupling, thereby rendering the audience as the object of the hero's contempt; by gratifying the very impulses the hero decries, we are turned (fairly or not) into the thing Rorschach so despises and fights against with every fiber of his being (is being truly fibrous, like bran cereal?).

The tragedy that makes Watchmen so stark and effecting on the page becomes an attack on the audience. Because of the film's commercial aspect -boffo box office or bust!- the story's integrity is undermined. When we see Rorschach's fate in the film, it is no longer anything more than pathetic and superficial, and we are left with nothing more than an ill feeling as if we've had a greasy meal that churns inconsolable in our guts.

In news reports we hear about Alan Moore's refusal to participate in adaptations of his work, or to even watch them; in this case, I can hardly blame him. For an adaptation that so clearly holds the source material in high esteem, this is a terrible failure of execution. Director Zach Snyder says that if sales of the book are increased, he has done his job. Judging by how copies of Watchmen are flying off bookshop shelves, I'd say mission accomplished. Too bad that in the process of selling Watchmen he did it such a disservice.

4 comments:

Mr. Suave said...

"... and we are left with nothing more than an ill feeling as if we've had a greasy meal that churns inconsolable in our guts."

I couldn't agree more. Reminded me of No Country for Old Men. I'm tired of be deluged with the meaning of meaninglessness and the purpose of purposelessnes.

Ian Woolcott said...

"...turd that leaves a slick of grease on your brain."

Thank you for that image.

RollerKaty said...

I second "Ian"s comment. Love that sentence. Wow.

James said...

When I went to see the movie I expected to have fun, which I did. For the last few years I've found movies based on comic books, regardless of narratological problems, to be the best Hollywood movies.