My rating: *
Watchmen has been on my ‘to view’ list since it first came out and I read the rave reviews and numerous comments to the effect that it was an intelligent superhero film for those who didn’t like superhero films. I am one of that number. I generally find superhero films and other films derived from comic books or even graphic novels to be tedious and unengaging. I am simply unable to connect to the characters they propose and the alternate realities they inhabit.
Unfortunately last night’s viewing of Watchmen has done nothing to change this view. I found it tedious, overlong and pretentious. If the cultural references looked interesting to begin with during the opening credits, they are never extended beyond the range of the average first year undergraduate. Let’s make a list of this cultural hot potch.
American history and politics: the assassination of Kennedy, nuclear proliferation and deterrence, anti-communism, Richard Nixon and Vietnam, the much-touted loss of innocence and belief in the American dream.
Science and religion: the mysteries of quantum physics and a blue god-like figure (Dr Manhattan) looking vaguely like a Hindu god (he actually sits in a levitated lotus position at one point). Dr Manhattan exhibits super powers acquired through the standard experiment-gone-wrong leading to hideous-transformation-of- scientist. This god-like alien figure who through his immense powers has become detached from the trivial mundane matters of ordinary beings must, of course, be shown and be humbled by the true universal and superior value of what it means to be human etc. etc.
Poetry: Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ – hoary standard of many an English language high school curriculum. Although the writing, to its credit, makes the associations with Ramses II and Ancient Greek civilisation at the origins of Shelley’s sonnet published in 1818.
Arthouse film: Some of the character Rorschach’s right wing vigilante voiceover fulminations about vice and corruption in urban America as he moves through seedy streetscapes come across as a very close echo of (‘hommage’ to?) the rantings of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976).
Philosophy: Benthamite utilitarianism versus Kantian deontology, is it morally justifiable to sacrifice 15 million people to save billions?
Music: Perhaps the use of music is the most interesting cultural aspect of the film. Classics of the protest and counter-culture era occupy prominent positions: Bob Dylan’s ‘The Times They are A-Changin’ (1964), Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘The Sound of Silence’ (1964), and then Leonard Cohen’s later 1984 classic ‘Halleluja’. If Dylan’s music over the recreated historical montage of the spectacular opening credits is obvious, a little research is required to judge the appositeness of the other two songs. One wonders why ‘Sound of Silence’ is played during a rainy (of course) burial scene in a cemetery for the character of ‘the Comedian’ who is shown in a flashback to be Kennedy’s assassin until one realises that the song was originally written by Paul Simon in the wake of the assassination. The controversial juxtaposition of Cohen’s song about romantic loss and longing with an extended soft-core porn sex scene is perhaps somewhat more jarring. Perhaps the film makers were thinking of Jeff Buckley who performed the most famous cover of the song. Buckley remarks that in his interpretation, the song is about ‘the halleluja of the orgasm’. But even then, it is Cohen’s version, not Buckley’s, that is used and many viewers have baulked at the sheer obviousness of it all and the elision of the more subtle aspects of the song.
To conclude this list and to paraphrase the Scarlet Pimpernel in his guise as the inane fop Sir Percy Blakeney quipping to his French republican archenemy, Chauvelin: ‘So much for culture and fashion’ (The Scarlet Pimpernel (1982)).
‘Cultural’ references aside, Watchmen is wonderfully inventive and quite spectacular on the visual front. But like many contemporary Hollywood films, this immense and impressive visual creativity is disappointingly and fatally undercut by poor characterisation and story telling. As many have commented, not only is the writing the most essential factor in the film equation, it is also the cheapest, so why so frequently does it go wrong? Other films that come to mind on this front include the recent Prometheus (a review in The Guardian entertainingly points out the many character and plotting problems showcased by this film), and the Pirates of the Caribbean films. I haven’t included Avatar here, as for all the hype, I found much of the visual landscape it offered cliched rather than inventive. I commented earlier in this blog on the other problematic aspects of this film. But so as not to seem entirely negative, there is at least one film trilogy that does get it right and that is Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings (for all the failure of its ending(s)).
I hadn’t intended to write so long a review of Watchmen, but in many ways it is emblematic of so many things that are irritating in the contemporary Hollywood multinational (but monocultural) film productions that swamp the global market.
7 thoughts on “Watchmen (2009)”
I’m a huge fan of the graphic novel and I feel much of what you observed would make more sense if you read the novel for yourself. The film didn’t do full justice to that, to say the least, so it’s unfair to write it off as a pretentious compilation of period cliches just yet.
Like I won’t contest the triteness (or even randomness) of some of the song choices, or the stiched together nature of the story’s main themes. But if you read the graphic novel as a “postmodern” reflection on the superhero genre and a kind of counterfactual about what the real world would actually be like with costumed vigilantes or superheroes, you’d appreciate it more. Indeed, the biggest mistake was to make and market this film as another superhero flick.
I’m sure the film glosses over a lot of the material that is in the graphic novel and repackages it for Hollywood audiences. But I am making a critique of the film here – the graphic novel is another entity which would merit an entirely different review. I could certainly see in the film a strong theme concerning what a world with vigilantes would be like, but didn’t think it had anything interesting or decisive to say on this point so didn’t mention it. I thought the ambiguities of vigilantism were much more effectively dealt with by Death Wish (1974) with Charles Bronson (ignoring the sequels) or even Unforgiven with Clint Eastwood.
It is also fair to say that I am not a big fan of American comics or graphic novels either. I tend to like French graphic novels a little better and there are quite a few Japanese film and TV animes which I actually like.
When it comes to comic-based movies, I tend to evaluate them in relation to the source material.
Anyway, I recommend the graphic novel all the same. I’d prefer to see it as British rather than American, given Alan Moore’s background, but I could be wrong.
You are of course right about Alan Moore being British! I will have a look at the graphic novel collection – which is in the library. I rather liked the V for Vendetta film – although again I haven’t read the graphic novel. I found this a bit closer to a reality I could connect with – with its post apocalyptic aspects. I didn’t like the film version of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen which I saw when it came out. This latter film pretty much tanked I notice.
My favorite Moore comics are Promethea, Watchmen, Lost Girls and League fo Extraordinary Gentlemen. Haven’t read V but I’ve seen the movie and I wasn’t impressed.
I liked V actually – probably because the cultural and political references were more familiar. It was almost there but not quite…