Brainflow Feed

That term first came to my mind when, as a child, I’d try to say “stream of consciousness” and end up with “brainflow.” It seems to fit here.

Welcome to the ramblings of my mind. (For now, they revolve mostly around films.)

Watchmen

Saturday, March 21st, 2009 1:31 pm—Film

Watchmen (USA 2009, Action/Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Thriller), Writers: David Hayter, Alex Tse; Director: Zack Snyder

I met a guy with a dog named Knup (punk spelled backwards) who was reading the graphic novel, Watchmen, by Alan Moore. I took a glance at it after seeing the movie, and found that many of the moments were lifted directly from the comic. So I assume most fans of the graphic novel will appreciate the film adaptation.

Having never read the novel, I appreciated the movie but I’m not sure how much I liked it. I loved some of the ideas behind it, but felt like there were a lot of wasted opportunities to really explore some of the psychological, religious, political and societal issues that are raised. It was pretty cheesy, and there was some bad acting and far too much gory violence. (When fists start going through body parts, I start closing eyes.) The movie has a great soundtrack, but the music isn’t integrated into the film so much as it is featured in it; most of the musical sequences are clunky and self-conscious. Still, the themes the movie brings up are interesting enough to make me want to write a post about it, and to try to track down that guy and his dog to see if I can borrow the comic.

Watchmen is set in a 1985 America where Nixon is still in power, and costumed heroes are a recognized part of society—even if they have been forced into retirement by the government. The context is deeply rooted around America’s political past. An opening montage highlights the Watchmen’s activities, starting from when they came into power in the 1940s and following them through the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and the current threat of impending nuclear destruction—indicated by the Doomsday Clock that’s permanently set to midnight.

Soon after the opening montage, we see one of the Watchmen murdered. The assault leaves Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) convinced that someone has it in for him and the other remaining Watchmen, so he sets out on a mission to warn his former partners and find out who’s behind the murder.

One of the main disappointments for me was the wasted potential to explore the complex psychologies of the Watchmen. Rorschach is the only character whose backstory is satisfying and convincing. A lot of that has to do with the excellent performance Haley turns in. He’s the genius behind the Academy Award-nominated portrayal of tormented sex offender Ronnie in Little Children, and he’s equally good as Rorschach. Haley leaves you utterly convinced of Rorschach’s motives, and left me wanting to see a film entirely about him. Unfortunately, none of the other characters are given the same depth, either by the actors or the filmmakers.

Another disappointment was the fact that the movie never followed through on one of the story’s central themes—the superhero as “every man.” With the exception of Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), none of the Watchmen possess super powers. (Although they would make kickass track athletes.) Instead, they’re “real” people living within the rest of society, if not quite fitting in.

Rather than believing in a higher power that will come to humanity’s defence, the Watchmen have to grapple with the notion that they’ve been left alone to do “God’s work.” There are many references to God in the movie. In reflecting on the disastrous state of humanity, Rorschach says “God didn’t make the world this way. We did.” But if that’s the case—and as the movie’s clever tagline asks—who watches the Watchmen? Does anyone, or anything, really care?

This sense of abandonment is highlighted by the fact that the god-like Dr. Manhattan, who has the power to create matter from nothing, is no longer convinced there is any value to life. I kept wishing the screenwriters had delved further into this topic instead of wasting time on cornball antics. I couldn’t have cared less about anything involving Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman) and Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson).

One of the other main letdowns came when we see Dr. Manhattan’s unique take on the world through Silk Spectre’s eyes. Dr. Manhattan is blessed and cursed with the ability to see the past, present and future simultaneously. This power supposedly gives him an omniscient perspective, one he feels Silk Spectre doesn’t even try to understand. But when she asks to see the world through his eyes, all we get are her own repressed childhood memories. Hardly universe-altering. If someone can see past, present and future simultaneously (assuming they have independent thought, which Dr. Manhattan appears to have throughout the film), I imagine it would be like looking through a kaleidoscope—an ever-changing landscape that’s coloured by the past, but changed by the millisecond as feelings and experiences alter the present and redirect the future’s path. The memory Silk Spectre dredges up just seems trite in comparison to the transcendental power Dr. Manhattan supposedly holds.

Which leads me to a real-life transcendental experience my sister recently told me about. There’s a fascinating neuroanatomist named Julie Bolte Taylor who went through a massive stroke many years ago. The stroke temporarily severed communication between her left and right hemispheres, and she was able to tune out the “brain chatter” from her left hemisphere—the one that controls language and logic, reflects on the past and projects onto the future—and focus only on the right hemisphere. Bolte Taylor describes entering a Zen-like state of Nirvana, where everything was connected by energy and she no longer felt limited by her body, or by her past and preconceptions. “Imagine what it would feel like,” she says, “to lose 37 years of emotional baggage! I felt euphoria.” Without the left hemisphere governing her thoughts, she was free to feel her emotions and instincts without censorship, in their purest form. (I highly recommend watching this video to hear the story in Bolte Taylor’s own words.)

This reminds me of Dr. Manhattan. He has transcended his physical form. And he can control energy. But he can’t feel it. He has broken everything and everyone down to the smallest level, so much so that his reality has become pointless. Rather than experiencing a conversation with his girlfriend, he simply informs her of the outcome and writes it off. He is so overloaded with ideas and notions about the past and future that he’s given up on living in the present.

All of the Watchmen do this to some extent. They can’t predict the future, but they’re so coloured by their pasts and busy anticipating the future that they can’t fully experience the present. That’s a problem everyone faces in today’s world; we couldn’t fulfill daily expectations without our left hemisphere. But for the Watchmen, who are imprisoned by neuroses and scars from the past, it presents an interesting notion—that connectedness and being in touch with one another’s energy could lead to a more whole, peaceful kind of humanity where life is truly valued and respected. At one point in the film, when Dr. Manhattan begins to find his way back to the others, he concludes that life is as much as miracle as “turning air into gold.”

Watchmen offers plenty to chew on. From what I’ve heard about the graphic novel, it’s much more intellectually satisfying than the movie. It says a lot that Moore refused screen credit. Still, many thought-provoking ideas are touched on, albeit lightly, in the film. And the visuals are stunning. I’d say see it if you can stomach blood and guts (highly stylized, of course) and are capable of hitting the mute button on your left brain for a few hours. And definitely see it if you’ve read the comic.

3 Responses

  1. Tom Sharp

    Wasted potential pretty much sums it up.

    It would have been a better movie if they had just come up with their own structure/story/dialogue instead of trying to be so faithful. What works as a comic book is really different than what works as a movie.

    And I know the comic nerds revere Alan Moore as a god, but I don’t think he ever spoke to a girl before writing those women characters. I also don’t think it’s ever a good idea to describe a character as the smartest man in the world, because then you, a regular human being, have to come up with plans that could credibly be considered ingenious. Instead of lame. Which is what we got.

  2. Mark Allen

    Pretty cool analysis although I disagree with a number of your points. I think that your opinion would change if he had read and seen the movie – not so much because the movie is very different, but because the book/movie cannot be fully absorbed through one read. There’s just too much information. I agree with his comments on the blood and gore – but that stuff was tacked on to please the masses. Small sacrifice to make to see it on IMAX.

    You did make a comment about Moore that I’ve thought about a lot over the years. Moore is not a big fan of his work made into movies. In fact, he has never allowed his name to be associated with any of the movies made about his books. Other books he’s written have been, “V for Vendetta” (great movie – Moore hated it), “League of Extraordinary Gentleman” (butchered movie), “From Hell” (Haven’t seen it or read the book – it’s about Jack the Ripper). The problem with any adaptation is that it is never the same as it’s original format. However, it’s only a problem if you want it exactly the same. Think of other things that have been adaptations that turned out to be amazing – “Oh brother! Where art thou?” – really an adaptation of Homer’s The Odyssey. My big concern is whether or not they capture the spirit of the original piece. In the case of the Watchmen, I think the director did achieve that. It’s unfortunate that he had to make concessions, but understandable and forgivable.

    As for Moore, take a look at some of the interviews that he’s given. I think that he’s overcompensating for some pretty deep set insecurities. I think he’s absolutely brilliant – but he’s worked in a media that has absolutely zero acceptance in the literature. That means that all of the authors that have influenced Moore, likely wouldn’t even read his work let alone accept it. I’m still not sure if that would affect him or not, but I’m sure it’s something he’s thought of – maybe even embraced. I’ve read one of his descriptions for a panel and, I think, that it’s rather telling about his psyche. He goes into an extraordinary amount of detail (control freak?), shows off his knowledge about, well, everything (insecure?) and then slips in a comment about being a polymath (braggart?). If he is insecure about the media but is an advocate for it, it’s no wonder that he would detest Hollywood in general and the adaptation of his work in particular.

    He’s also sworn of the company DC because they screwed him out of some of his intellectual property – even if it was the most brilliant piece of work ever, the movie would never have been given his approval – never.

    Although this “reply” is far too long, I wanted to make one more comment concerning Silk Spectre. You mention that you couldn’t care less about the character, but I feel that she is essential to the story and worthwhile exploring.

    Keep in mind that this is a story about comic books and not just a “comic book movie”. As such, all of the characters are archetypes comic book heroes. Dr. Manhattan represents ALL superheroes that possess superpowers. As well, Silk Spectre (and her mother) represent ALL the female heroines. The first suggests that Moore finds all “super” heroes very one dimensional and that women, unfortunately, have suffered the same fate. This isn’t really surprising in a male-dominated medium, but it is disappointing.

    P.S. Moore isn’t a god, but he is the most incredible science fiction/fantasy writer alive today.

  3. admin

    Thanks for your comments, guys.

    Mark, I meant I didn’t care about Silk Spectre and Nite Owl’s relationship. Although I agree with Tom that the female characters were poorly written and developed, which always makes it harder to care. Silk Spectre in particular was brutal, and it didn’t help that Malin Akerman gave a mediocre performance. Although I have no doubt she served the role she was hired for.

    And I completely agree with Tom about declaring someone the smartest man in the world. He just came across as “smuggest.”

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