Thursday, April 02, 2009

Agents of Chaos: Alan Moore's Alchemical Workshop, and an Authentic Miracle of a Movie

Warning: the following review is likely to be somewhat “biased”: When I first read Watchmen in my early twenties, it affected me as deeply as any work of fiction ever had—it changed my life. So my responses to the movie—as described below—are going to be more than a little colored by a highly personal connection to the source material.

Watchmen, the movie, directed by Zack Snyder and adapted by David Hayter and Alex Tze, sticks remarkably close to the source material, the ground-breaking graphic novel written by visionary author Alan Moore (whose name isn’t on the film) and illustrated by Dave Gibbons. Moore is a self-confessed magician and uncontested genius of comic books, and his twelve issue, 300+ page superhero epic is a stupendously ambitious work, not merely one of the great accomplishments of comic book writing, but an outstanding work of fiction in any field. (It made Time magazine’s 100 greatest novels—what more do you need to know?!)

When I first heard about the Watchmen movie, I was skeptical—to put it mildly. In fact, I was indifferent. And when I saw the first stills from the movie, I knew, absolutely knew, it was a bust, that they were turning it into something gaudy and noisy and messy and dumb—what Hollywood does best. Beyond all doubt, “the visionary director of 300”—a mind-numbingly vacuous live-action cartoon cum commercial for Spartan warfare—would debase the material by catering to the lowest sensibilities of the mass audience. 

But within ten minutes or less of the movie, it’s clear that something else is happening. The film, like the graphic novel, starts with the murder of the Comedian. The perfect pre-credit sequence, it sums up the delicate resonance of the story by both keeping to genre conventions (for an opening action set-piece and plot-starting murder) while adding a whole new layer of emotional nuance and poignancy. The Comedian’s weary acceptance of his fate speaks volumes. He has been waiting for this moment, and he’s secretly relieved that it’s finally come. If he puts up a token resistance, it’s only because he doesn’t know how not to. He keeps up his end of the mythic narrative to the bitter end. 

This is followed by the lovely, eerie frozen images of the credits, by which flesh and blood becomes comic book image, or vice versa. The credit sequence is inspired: both delightful—enchanting—and wryly amusing, it lets us know that we are in good hands and can settle back to enjoy the most fully satisfying and morally complex superhero enactment in the history of movies. Watchmen is an authentic miracle of a movie—the best of its kind (the philosophical action fantasy) since The Matrix came out ten years ago. (Plot wise, Watchmen is less ingenious than The Matrix, but morally it’s far more sophisticated.)

What’s really astonishing about this movie is that, in under three hours, it manages to capture not only the spirit of the novel but the full, epic breadth of its storyline. I’ve read the comic book at least a dozen times and yet I couldn’t even say which parts the movie misses out (except for the obvious, the parallel story within a story of “Tales of the Black Freighter”). The odds against a big budget Hollywood adaptation of a fiction masterpiece being almost 100% faithful, and at the same time managing to translate it whole into a new medium, are truly phantasmagorical.

Yet therein may be a problem: Watchmen is so completely true to its source that anyone not already enamored of the comic book may be unable to fully grok it. The storyline is straightforward enough, but the peculiar blend of social realism with the pulp roots of comics, and the idiosyncratic, poetic, magical genius of its creator, make Watchmen utterly unlike any superhero movie, or any movie, we've ever seen before. It’s a freak in the best sense of the word: a creature of unfathomable beauty so unique that some people may mistake it for ugliness. It creates its own aesthetic.

What’s perhaps most unusual about the film is its complete moral ambiguity, the way in which it steps entirely outside of the usual mythic paradigm of good and evil, spins off a parallel reality, and weaves its very own mythic narrative. Just as the graphic novel did within the comics field, Watchmen creates a new paradigm for the superhero movie. It’s a paradigm which I highly doubt other filmmakers will be willing, or able, to match, much less develop. There are no heroes in Watchmen, and no villains either. There are rather extraordinary (and extraordinarily flawed) human beings, struggling to make sense of a world in chaos, wrestling with their own complicity in that chaos. These are easily the richest and most affecting characters to ever grace what is ostensibly a fantasy movie. They are not just functions of the plot, as Neo and Morpheus are functions of the plot. As in all great writing, Watchmen’s story develops out of the characters and not vice versa. And these characters are nothing if not ambiguous.

The most dislikeable of the characters, Ozymandias, is driven by a seemingly pathological, philanthropist desire to save the world, and this he succeeds in doing. But we don’t admire him for it—we can’t admire him, because no end could justify these means. He’s an elitist, driven by intellect and a sense of his innate superiority, but devoid of heart. On the other hand, there is much to admire in the murderous vigilante Rorschach—who is all heart. His code of no compromise, his ruthless implacability, his deranged sense of justice, beneath which is a strange tenderness and a deeply wounded soul. Rorschach simply cares too much not to cause mayhem. Like Travis Bickle, his pain, rage and confusion spills out into the world—and he matches it atrocity for atrocity.

Dr. Manhattan, on the other hand, cares little for humanity’s plight: he’s moved beyond that. Was ever a god this chillingly disconnected, a superhero this utterly disaffected? Yet, as Billy Crudup (the only recognizable face in the movie) plays him, Dr. Manhattan is deeply touching. He’s human despite himself, and in his way he’s as lost a soul as the rest of these characters, because he is so utterly, completely alone. As written by Moore, Dr. Manhattan is the first fully believable depiction of a superhuman being—a god—in movies.

On the face of it, the Comedian is the most sheerly unpleasant of the characters: a rapist and child killer, the puppet of the military industrial complex (in a beautiful twist added by the moviemakers, he’s also JFK’s actual assassin). Yet, loathsome as his actions are, he doesn’t ever become hateful to us. None of the characters are defined—or limited— by their actions; they are far too alive for that. Moore’s genius is that he uses the very limited and limiting genre of the superhero comic as an arena—a sort of child’s playground, but also an alchemical workshop—to work through his philosophical themes and develop flesh and blood characters—like forging gold from lead. With Watchmen, he created a kind of feedback loop that expands the story from genre melodrama, into infinity—the realm of archetypes, of true myth. Paradoxically, by turning superhero archetypes into ordinary, believable human beings, ordinary beings are transformed into something extraordinary, something magical, transcendent. 

Moore creates a world of impossible possibilities, and the movie recreates that world with breathtaking fidelity—the kind of loyalty and integrity that seems unimaginable in Hollywood, but that has somehow come to pass. Admittedly, the film does fail in one crucial area: that of mapping the endless series of synchronicities between images, words, events, that form the texture of the graphic novel, and that in a sense are what it’s really about. More than the story, or even the characters, Watchmen describes the texture and flow of mystery that living in a quantum universe entails, and what’s lacking in the film is the necessary plethora of fine details, of recurring motifs and themes. Besides that smiley face, I didn’t notice any repeating phenomena, and so the scenes aren’t woven together at this subtler, more esoteric level. The result, for those who aren’t familiar with the original story, may seem to be an almost straightforward, though complex, action movie; they may well miss the finer undercurrents moving beneath the gloriously gaudy surface. 

There are other minor flaws: the sex scene to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is something we could certainly have done without; perhaps more seriously, the extreme violence seems out of place here, largely gratuitous—it doesn’t add anything and may even detract from the dreamlike quality of the story (though with the Rorschach scenes a degree of savagery is probably intrinsic to the material). And sometimes what works in the graphic novel can seem mannered and contrived on screen (such as Night Owl’s question, “Whatever happened to the American Dream?”). Moore’s dialogue is often self-consciously clever, loaded, and this works better when we can hear it in our heads and give it our own inflexion. Actors can be all at sea with these multi-layered lines. There are also areas, such as Rorschach’s revealing the abyss of his soul to the liberal-minded psychiatrist, that need more time to be developed, that are rushed and hence diminished, and the film would probably have worked better, been less choppy and more textured, if it had been allowed an additional ten or twenty minutes of screen time.

But despite these flaws, the sheer joy and originality of the source material fills every frame. It animates every performance with an exuberance, audacity, and poetry, that is unique to the genre. I haven’t even begun to analyze the schizophrenic subtext of this film—perhaps another day?—but I can honestly say that, in thirty years of movie-going, I have never been so pleasantly surprised by a movie. Watchmen has every imaginable reason to crash and burn. Yet somehow, against impossible odds, it takes flight.

Footnote: perusing some of the other reactions to this movie, it seems fair to say that it was made expressly for people who have read and loved the graphic novel, and to hell with everyone else. Right there is the real miracle

But - if you haven't read the source material, it may not work for you.


Mike LB said...

A good script does not mean a good film
as badly as I wanted it to be there were significant flaws.
We will see

Rita said...

Hi Jason,
How are you??

the artist has knowledge on all these issues we´re always after. I bet you have also seen Promethea, right??
Haven´t seen the movie yet -my boyfriend has- but isn´t it a bit too much to compare it with Matrix? Matrix is, in my humble opinion, the most complete piece of art (not spiritual book) that depicts the ultimate reality.

Eunice said...

Hi, I am pleasantly surprised that you're pleasantly surprised about the Watchmen film.

I went by myself to see it, about four weeks ago, despite having read bad reviews and people's comments suggesting not to waste time seeing it. I loved it.

We were talking with Ian about Bob Dylan and it reminded me that "The times they are a changin' " was in the film, so I mentioned it (watchmen) He said he didn't go to see it because he thought it is a miss, and that Simeon was interested in it.

I know I'm not on your level when it comes to intellectual articulation, experience. Not a faithful reader, I just have always enjoyed comics, DC, japanese manga, marvel, eighties seventies cartoons. So I thought I'll mention it, and read your blog, I loved reading that too.

Hope have a nice weekend Jason, your birthday's coming... !

Now we're in April, both of us, our month.... Spring is here too.

G.I. Ford said...

Don't worry, you made it pretty clear in your blog that you had a personal history with the novel, which others might not share.

I agree that the 'mythic' value of film counts most, though I like to be entertained too.

I guess some myths have a deep significance for some people but not for others. Fortunately (or not) there's no shortage of myths, books and films :-)

Jason Horsley said...


it's not just a great script, it's storyboarded too

follow it faithfully, and great comic does equal great movie, as sin city and now watchmen proves

Pablo Robledo said...

I loved it and I have not read the book, a great film, now I'm curious about the graphic novel.

Pablo Robledo said...

Oh, and the soundtrack was really good in my opinion

Hurlyburly said...

I'm not a massive comic book fan, so knew basically next to nothing when I went to watch this film. Based on that, I neither despised nor fell in love with the film, I thought it was pretty good with some amazing features, but lasted an amount of time which didn't seem too necessary to the story. Again, I say this because I know very little about it, I'm sure had I, the length of the film would have seemed quite justified.

I couldn't agree more with you though when you say that "As written by Moore, Dr. Manhattan is the first fully believable depiction of a superhuman being—a god—in movies." His character was one of the more interesting parts of the film for me because there was a lot of conflict within the morality of his character. He was to be admired and loathed at the same time because of his indifference to everything, he was Jaded, broken and rather pessimistic... Is THAT why he is named Dr Manhattan!!?? (Kidding, I've lived there and found everybody nicer than our English neighbours here)

The analogy at the end of the film about the rape of the earth bringing a gift of community and peace among it's survivors, is depicted through the relationship between mother and daughter. It's either genius or horrofic.

I agree Rorschach's character is there as a kind of savagery marking point to illustrate the degrees of difference between them all.

But as I said, I know next to nothing about comic books and the history of this film, so my opinion isn't going to be too on point.

Bill Morrsion said...

After YOUR review, reminiscent of MATRIX AND HOW i SAW THE MOVIE PARTLY WITH YOUREYES,this review sort of surprised me in that everybody else knocks it, but of course, ylou being first afficianod, a graphic novel reader, reading this long ago and digging it,I will now be expectant to see it. WATCHMEN. Bill

Jason Horsley said...

HB: Dr. M was certainly an odd mix of naivete and wonder with a kind of weariness. Very likely what it would feel like to be a god with memories of (and attachments to) the personal self?

I think as we saw him he was only beginning to really enter into his Daemonic awareness; there was still some vestiges of the eidolon skin still sticking to him?

Hurlyburly said...

That fits in nicely to film's ever generic take to show the "human spirit" is this need we have to cling to such a conflicting and beautifuly self-destriuctive way of life.

We're all different and it's destroying the Earth, but also, it's all so darn magical and fun to watch!

Individuality and creativity is great, but only if you edit like a Christian with a bible!