Let the nerding commence. After two screenings of this flawed yet entertaining movie I think I’m finally in a position to let you know my thoughts. The reviews floating around veer from the criminally ill-informed criticism to blind praise without tackling some of the films fundamental errors, I think the truth lies somewhere in-between – how’s that for sitting on the fence? One thing I’ll say straight up is that this fully deserves to be seen on as big a screen as possible, if nothing else it is a visual tour de force and certain sequences were breathtaking at the IMAX. So, first things first, any paragraph of this post which contains spoilers for the film, and I stress that – for the film not the graphic novel – will be indicated as such, I will however talk freely around the original story as its been around for over twenty years and I’m assuming if you care then you will have the read the story anyway. So here we go.
The film follows very closely the plot and milieu of the comic, it’s set in an alternate version of 1985 where superheroes or more accurately masked vigilantes are real. The US won the Vietnam War, Nixon won re-election an unprecedented five times and superheroes have been outlawed or forced into premature retirement. The world teeters on the precipice of nuclear annihilation due to increasing tensions between the US and the Soviets, tensions exacerbated by the existence of the only real super-powered figure in the tale, the god-like (and American) Dr. Manhattan who serves as a one man nuclear deterrent. Someone is getting costumed heroes out of the way, a murderous campaign starting with the retired government stooge the Comedian being brutally beaten and hurtled through a twentieth story window by a powerful assassin in the film’s opening scene. The psychotic vigilante Rorschach (think Travis Bickle meets The Question) is determined to investigate the murder, the trail leading him and his partner Nite Owl (a retired Batman clone) to abandon retirement and unearth a vast conspiracy with apocalyptic consequences….
So first of all lets discuss the good stuff. The fact that this densely constructed, multi-textured tale got such a faithful adaptation and a hard-R,18 certificate and an almost three hour running length is quite remarkable. The fidelity to the source material is hugely gratifying and on a purely visceral level it was simply a joy to see the characters I first encountered and loved twenty years ago and have re-visited every couple of years since finally rendered on screen, word for word, image for image. Rorscrach was perfectly transferred from the graphic novel as was Dr. Manhattan, both the Comedian and Nite Owl were also very good and the remaining figures in the story were OK, I’m not sure why Malin Ackerman has received such a wealth of criticism as she was perfectly fine if not outstanding in the role of Silk Spectre II, I suspect much of this vitriol is emerging from the blogs of parent’s basement dwelling fanboys who detest any female incursion into their precious sacred texts. The transfer of the final main character Ozymandias however was a major problem for me but we’ll come back to that later.
I think its fair to say that Zack Snyder’s past as a promo and commercial director are his strengths and this ability to montage sound and image together populate the best sequences in the film, the opening titles sequence was exquisitely crafted to draw the viewers into this parallel world and impart key story elements but for me the entire Dr. Manhattan origin story sequence was far and away the film’s most brilliantly realised and executed sequence. Like any prospective director there are major difficulties in terms of pacing to overcome when translating a graphic novel from page to screen, Snyder certainly hasn’t overcome these problems but the shot for shot comparisons give a certain fanboy jouissance and the entire look and design of the film was wonderful to behold. The respect to the source material is explicit and whilst it may confuse and alienate audience members unfamiliar with the tale with my fan-boy hat on it was these dimensions that kept me riveted throughout my first viewing and keen to detect the more subtle replications throughout the IMAX experience.
On the flip-side I do have some problems with the film, I have devoted a full spoiler laden paragraph concerning the botched ending at the end of this post but I want to stress that this was not due to the changes from the book, in fact all things considered they retained the tone and style of the finale and selected an alternative which is in chime with the graphic novel’s slightly absurd climax, it was some of the other deviations that really disappointed me. I found that the fight scenes were ridiculous and utterly incongruous with the tone of the book, they really threw me out of the film and the whole Snyder stylistic ‘slo-mo/fast-mo’ technique is prepostorous and crucially has no narrative or stylistic function – when the Comedian leaps from the Owlship into a crowd of frenzied rioters unless I’m missing something there is absolutely no justification for such tampering – what is the point? I’d also like someone to explain why everyone in the cinema these days has to be some fucking post-Matrix martial arts ninja master, what’s wrong with some good old fashioned fisticuffs? These people are superheroes, sure, but they are human and that is an essential component of the book. The opening murder of the Comedian is almost comic (if you’ll forgive the poor pun), the punching through walls and excessive physical damage he endures left me cold. I’m not naïve, I understand that a $150 million comic book movie needs to appeal to testosterone fueled teenagers as much as the aging, cranky old fan-boys, it’s a personal thing which I can nevertheless overlook given the film’s other strengths.
SPOILERS ALERT – In full fan-boy mode I should explain that I absolutely love the end of the graphic novel. Whilst I’m sympathetic to those with the opinion that the graphic novels cataclysmic, earth shattering event could not translate to the screen without laughter from the audience I must admit that, erm well, I’m a sick fuck and I wanted to see those blood drenched, corpse strewn New York streets. The change to framing Dr. Manhattan as the culprit for decimating millions in multiple cities as a warning to makind is a good idea, however this all revolves the most fundamental flaw in the film and that is the lack of back-story to Ozymandias. His history, motivations and abilities are marginalised to one scene earlier in the film and a truncated speech at the end which is punctuated by more ridiculous fighting. For me this ultimately rendered the final battle as suspense free and I’m sure pretty damn confusing to an uninitiated audience. The actor who they’ve got was, well OK I guess (I’ve always thought that James Spader in his prime would have been a fine choice) and perhaps much of his performance is on the cutting room floor, regardless without a plausible motivation that is built throughout the film the paint thin veneer on Veidt’s reasoning for the immense slaughter that he conducts means the film concludes more on a whimper than a bang. The best line in the book and its most unexpected twist – ‘don’t be ridiculous, I did it forty five minutes ago’ – is delivered in such a monotone, neutral fashion that what should have been a brilliant inversion of the medium and a genuinely shocking and unexpected moment is lost. The climax, a terrible monstrous event involving the senseless murder of millions of innocents is rendered in the film as a transcendent, almost beautiful act – that is not what the book was about for me.
It’s just so uneven, after spending such scrupulous attention to detail for the previous two hours and then demolish all that achievement is strange. But hey, all this is academic. It’s impossible for me to objectively look at this as a stand-alone film, I am powerless to prevent myself not focusing on how it was executed given my proximity to the graphic novel (I brought the issues when they came out twenty years ago and was a full blown comic book nerd back then, I’ve been to Alan Moore signings etc.), ultimately I think there is a real lack of soul to the film, it’s all very surface laden which skims the surface and leaves many of the other contours of the graphic novel unperturbed and unexplored although again I will stress that this is not surprising given the films anticipated audience and scope, taken on its own terms and the stylistic reproduction on screen I did enjoy the film and I certainly recommend seeing it. I will give the directors cut a miss at the cinema (an extra 30 minutes of footage apparently) and wait for the Blu-Ray, I hope that goes some way to redressing some of the Ozymandias sized gaps in the tale. Some more footage of the Silhouette would also be welcome <cough, cough>. Thanks.
A good, comprehensive overview of the more disappointing differences between source material and film can be found here, like I said I don’t mean to dwell on this too much as I did enjoy the film and am certain this is pretty much the best version we could hope for, it just serves as an interesting read is all. I have collated some other miscellaneous links to the (SPOILERS) film, graphic novel and other work of Alan Moore which may interest you; I leave it entirely in your hands.