Just got back from the preview of The Watchmen at San Francisco's Metreon, a benefit for the Cartoon Art Museum. The question that has been on my mind, and just about everyone elses is this: can you possibly translate the comic to the movie screen? Or is it simply unfilmable?
I got news for you: it is filmable. And it is well done. Anyone who doesn't see the craft in this film is missing the trees for the forest. It is a monumental piece of work to translate Morre and Gibbons work this faithfully. It is filmable when you take the comic and strip away some of the multiple layers of meaning and transition that were present, and so often talked about, in the original work. Instead of 8 layers of meaning, you get 2 layers of meaning, and some terrific performances along the way.
And yes, this review will contain spoilers. You are duly warned.
Patrick Wilson is excellent in an understated performance as Nite Owl, a role that requires some much quieter moments than Jackie Earl Haley's Rorschach. Wilson conveys the level of regret that Drieberg carries since giving up the mask very well, as well as his longing for Laurie. Certainly Haley's Rorschach will get a lot of attention, the most famous black and white vigilante since the Batman to make it to the big screen, and Haley's performance is up to the task. It is an astonishing transformation to see him take on the role, and play it with such conviction. Moore's best lines in the book are given to Rorschach, and practically none of them are edited out. Haley's performance and narration as the character grows through out the movie, but it is more that we have grown accustomed to his delivery than a change in his acting.
Carla Gugino is solid as Laurie, and Billy Crudup essentially does voice work for Doctor Manhattan. To the line, "We have met God, and he is American," I would add, "and he is circumsized." What does that say? Jeff Morgan practically steals the film as the Comedian, and for a dead character, he takes over just about every scene given to him in the first half of the movie. Done in bits and pieces, it is an excellent portrayal of a character hard to make sympathetic, and Morgan delivers on pretty much each and every scene given to him.
The most impressive performance, however, is the director's and the art direction. Working this faithfully must almost be a straightjacket to them, to translate the story and vision this directly. This movie, for all the ensemble cast, is a triumph of control by Zak Snyder, to not only coax all the performances out of the actors, but also to coax all the work out of the art department as well and assemble all the pieces in the editing room. This is a masterful creation that can only be assembled in a modern editing/compositing room. We get little tidbits, like a Rorschach walking down an alley and in the background of the shot is the storefront of "Treasure Island Comic Books", a nod to the original and abandoned Tales of the Black Freighter storyline. I'm sure that there will be tons that we will catch when the DVD comes out.
The worst performance, and in my mind the only bad one, is Matthew Goode as Veidt. Goode doesn't resemble the comic Veidt enough to make the character work, but that is less a criticism than the fact that i don't think he makes the character work on screen. The performance is somewhat wooden, and he simply doesn't convey the physicality, the handsome magnetism nor the arrogance that Veidt needs to have. It is a role that, while crucial to the plot, is the weakest in the film.
Much will be made of the change to the ending of the film, and perhaps this will be the most debated topic. I will put out here and now, I love the ending of the film. It is stronger and more interesting than the opening of issue #12, and it is a far better master plan for Veidt. Without the movie filming subplot, it certainly is a necessary change, but it simply works better. We do feel a bit rushed towards the ending of the film, not so much as to ruin it, but to simply give the impression that if we liked it, we can look forward to a Director's Cut on the DVD.
The movie simply feels like its missing about 30 minutes, in the same way that the Lord of the Rings movies, while longer, allow you to really luxuriate in the world that the filmmakers have created. We only get one scene at the Newsstand in Times Square, we only get a couple moments of the psychiatrist at the prison, some bits with the New Frontiersman paper; we barely get to see Laurie's resolution with her mother at the end. These are a ton of places that this expansive story was tightened up so much in the editing that we barely have room to breath in the theatrical version, a version that will likely not be the one that we will be watching on the Blu-Ray at home for years to come.
After all, coming down from Veidt's master plan we need a little time for our characters to come to terms with the new world that exists post Antarctica, and for us to see how they've handled it. There is more emotion there, more world building, just simply more ending. We will always miss the smile on Dr. Manhattan's face as he walks through Veidt's utopia, seeing Laurie curled up post-coital with Dan, and also his last conversation with Veidt, which is perhaps the only unsettling defeat for Adrian in the entire original comic. The realization that even his vision had limits, while John's has none. Here, his line is given to Laurie, and it is lighter in context than if John had delivered it.
My buddy Todd made this comment as we exited: "I think Moore will regret taking his name off of this. It is his vision. Its not a comic book, but it is his vision." And that is completely true. Moore may still be rightly pissed off by DC and has been willing to put his money where his mough is, so you cannot say that the man doens't have integrity. But someone finally got it right. They got the project and had the talent and balls to follow through, bringing Moore truly to life on the silver screen.
Roger Ebert has a wonderful review that can be found here: http://blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/2009/03/were_all_puppets_laurie_im_jus.html And lets face it, you trust Roger more than me don't you?
As well, here is a parody cartoon of Watchmen as a 1980's cartoon by HappyHarry that is really worth watching.