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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Short report on Watchmen - and an open thread

I loved the movie version of Watchmen, which Jenny and I saw yesterday. I loved the characters, the cinematography, the soundtrack, the substantial fidelity to the original graphic novel (though the changed ending was actually better ... without really changing the tone and structure in any way), the uncompromising (if, perhaps, unduly pessimistic) vision of human nature and of what superhuman individuals would be up against if they wanted to make real change.

Random observations:

It's often said that Dr Manhattan is the only character with real super powers - but that wasn't how it looked in the movie. Many of the moves made by Rorschach and the other less powerful superheroes were beyond what even an Olympic athlete could do, and this wasn't just a Hollywood convention. It was made quite explicit in the way stationary jumps, for example, were filmed. At a higher level of power, Ozymandias, the Germanic ubermensch, was clearly far beyond any human level in his strength and speed (leaving aside his claim to be the most intelligent man in the world).

There was no explanation of this, although it didn't worrry me. I'm happy to accept that there are human beings with superhuman levels of strength, agility, etc., within the diegesis of the movie.

I'm seriously wondering how a movie like this could have received an R rating in the US. Sure, there's a darkness of vision that may not be suitable for little kids, but a PG rating would have been more appropriate. There's one very low-level sex scene, some anodyne nudity, and a lot of comic-book-style violence. So?

I loved the moral ambiguity that surrounded all of the main characters ... for different reasons. Dr Manhattan, Ozymandias, Rorschach, Silk Spectre (both senior and junior), Nite Owl, and the Comedian are all morally ambiguous.

I adored the genetically-engineered lynx! I want one.

I'm wondering whether anyone else has noticed a resemblance between Dr Manhattan and Winston Niles Rumfoord in Kurt Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan. I'm sure a google search would tell me, but I'll let Blake Stacey or one of my other regular readers do it.

I totally loved the soundtrack. It really brought back the 1980s.

This is just a quick post, in lieu of a more considered one. lol Please discuss this or anything else that's on your mind.


Terry Talks Movies said...

I thought that too much of the soundtrack was too obvious. How many movies lately have used "All Along The Watchtower" or Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" or "Sounds of Silence" and "The Times They Are A Changin'" for instance. They've become soundtrack cliches in cinema. The use of Nat King Cole at the start during Comedian's murder was inspired, however. The best use of music in a film to demonstrate an era would have to be Nicholson's "Two Jakes" the sequel to "Chinatown" which used incredibly well chosen lesser known tracks like "Don't Smoke In Bed" by Peggy Lee. Jo Stafford's "Haunted Heart" used as a coda to underline Jake Gittes' mood of loss and melancholy was masterful.

Russell Blackford said...

Maybe I haven't been getting out enough, Terry ... but anyway I can always do with "All Along The Watchtower". I thought Nena's "99 Luftballons" (sp?) was an inspired choice.

Blake Stacey said...

I'm wondering whether anyone else has noticed a resemblance between Dr Manhattan and Winston Niles Rumfoord in Kurt Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan. I'm sure a google search would tell me, but I'll let Blake Stacey or one of my other regular readers do it.

I'm not aware of any such comparison, and it doesn't look like Google is either. That makes it original scholarship on your part! :-)

I haven't seen the movie yet. My impression of the novel was that only Ozymandias and, to a lesser extent, Rorschach displayed "superhero"-level physical abilities, the former when he caught a bullet and the latter when he braved the Antarctic in a trenchcoat and survived.

What else is on my mind these days. . . I just saw the travelling King Tutankhamun exhibit in Atlanta, Georgia — lots of nifty old Egyptian stuff, including a stela of Ahmose and his queen Ahmose-Nefertari doing what I swear was a "terrorist fist jab". I also discovered that I'm now the proud author of an out-of-print book, according to Amazon. Sure makes a body feel old.

Anonymous said...

Terry - I am totally with you for Hallelujah, that is a cliche. Apart from that I don't think the other songs were obvious.

Blake - I really don't think Ozy or Ror had super human powers, but they were in a comic book. For example, if you imagine an action film, say "serenity" which I know you are a fan of, Mal is walking around after taking a sword through his stomach! Is he a super hero? I agree with Russell that the movie made them seem almost like super heros, which I didn't think, but that is movies.

Russell - Love the Sirens but did not pick up on any similarities, apart from the 4th dimensional readings.

A few observations of my own:
- The relationship between Sally and Laurie needed to be fleshed out more
- Dan (and Laurie) needed to appear more desperate, especially before the take Archie out for the first time
- The desire to make Dan and Laurie relatable meant they lost the problems that they faced. They came accross as the good guys.
In the novel, no one was the good guy.
- The funeral of the comedian was AWESOME! People who werent familiar with the novel would really feel bad for him after he was murdered. Then you see the things that he has done. And after you see him crying you find it hard to hate him. They used him very well.
- I was very surprised at how they handled some of the twists and turns. For example: Who rorsh really was, the film doesn't create the suspence at all. That the comedian is laurie's father, in the novel there is NO WAY you could see that coming, but in the movie it is rather obvious. Ozymandias was behind everything. The film suprised you more with that then the novel.
- I HATED how they turned ozymandias into such a cool calm guy. When he shouted "I did it!" in the novel you saw how much he really cared for the world. The film made him seem like he was just getting off on his power, but he is supposed to be one of the few that DON'T.

But I still loved it. I think the extended version might treat Laurie/Dan and maybe Sally better. But I loved and loved it.

Anonymous said...

PS. Jackie Eearl Haley was AMAZING and deserves an Oscar. His voice was so perfect.

Blake Stacey said...

Being able to walk after getting stabbed — if the sword misses vital organs, and so forth — still seems moderately more plausible than catching a bullet with one's bare hands. The former is the act of a larger-than-life hero, while the latter belongs to the superhero.

It's probably a "Your Mileage May Vary" situation.

(Incidentally, there may be room for a bit of transhumanism-themed analysis of Serenity, here. The big spoiler of the film is that the Alliance made the Reavers by trying to pacify the citizens of the planet Miranda, adding an anti-aggression chemical to the planet's atmospheric mix. Of course, it all goes horribly wrong, sending the message that trying to "make people. . . better" can't be done, on practical grounds if not on ethical ones. However, Mal then defeats the Operative because a medical procedure in Mal's past made a slight but crucial alteration in his anatomy.)

Russell Blackford said...

We also see the Comedian punching right through through brick (it all happens quickly, so I'd like to see this again to be sure) - okay, we know that karate experts will break bricks or tile stacks as a demonstration of their skills, if the set-up is right. But if one takes a swing during a fight, and misses, and hits the edge of a brick wall, does his fist smash through it like that without harming him? I guess the level was similar to martial arts fighters in all those Oriental fight movies. Maybe we just assume that it's now a cinematic convention that such fighters can move and fight at a level beyond any real athlete/martial artist? Really, though, the movie was showing them at a level beyond any realistic athleticism. And Ozymandias was something different again. Catching a bullet in your hand has got to be superhuman by any standard, no?

Again, it didn't worry me. I actually thought the various levels of power the characters were displayed as having worked quite consistently and well. It's not as if the script arbitrarily threw in a Magneto or Hulk or something.

Russell Blackford said...

Agree with Stuart that the performance by Haley was outstanding.

By the way, I also caught up on the weekend with Barcelona, or whatever its correct name is - the Woody Allen movie. That was a lovely little film, and Penelope Lopez in particular is wonderful in it.

Anonymous said...

Well (book) Ozymandias was always supposed to blur the line, both with his intellect and speed. It was supposed to be 'what all humans could be' if they got the most of themselves. He did it through meditation, etc. But the movie definitely is confusing to the first time viewers, I just watched it a second time with a friend and she was very confused about the powers. I think the sound effects of the fights adds a lot to that.

I definitely think the greatest crime the movie did was making Ozymandias seem cold blooded and power hungry, when he was supposed to be one of the view that didn't do it for power reasons (Nite Owl and Laurie were the two main offenders there)

Also Blake, my Uncle has done a nudie run around the Australian base he was working in in Antartica (with his boots on) as a dare, so I think that Rorshach making that short ride in only his trenchcoat isn't far fetched at all.

I've had quite a bit of time for movies lately although I haven't seen Barcalona. IMO probably the best thing currently showing at the movies is The Wrestler with Micky Rourke.

Russell Blackford said...

I meant Penelope Cruz of course. Was I subconsciously thinking of Jennifer Lopez? Undoubtedly. I hate to think what that says about me.

Anonymous said...

Actually there were two overly violent scenes, particularly when you compare them with the graphic novel. I took young James 13 and I was a bit dismayed. The sex scene got to me for that reason. I felt very bad that I had exposed James to that level of violence. And when I read the graphic novel a little annoyed when that level of violence wasn't there. To balance this of course, James loved it and told me to calm down.

I liked what they did with the ending because it was in keeping with Dr Manhattan and slightly more plausible.

What I don't get as well, and this is in the graphic novel, not the movie, is the thread about the guy on the raft of dead bodies. I have been told that there are strong links to the main story but not getting it exactly.

Donna Hanson

Anonymous said...

BTW I loved the soundtrack. Excellent and I want one.

Donna Hanson

Russell Blackford said...

Donna, I'm trying to remember which scenes might have been violent to an extent that was high-impact.

Maybe a couple of the scenes in the jail? The one with the boiling oil and the one with the saw? Those were a bit nasty, though I don't know that I'd have coped any worse at 13 than now.

Anonymous said...

Hi Russell

Spoiler alert.
The scene that was the most disturbing for me was Rorsach killing the child killer. In the book he cuffs him and then burns the house down. In the movie you know he chops his head. Yes the saw and the hands in the jail was the other one.

RE sound track. I thought the book used some lyrics along the lines of those used in the movie.


Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed it, though it will require (at least) a second viewing before I can wrap my head around it. A few points I'm not so sure of, though:

1. The film made it absolutely explicit that a nuclear war definitely was imminent. This matters, particularly if we try to factor the Black Freighter subplot into things. The whole point of the comic-within-a-comic (or at least, the whole point to me) was that we would never know whether Veidt had sacrificed millions of people for nothing. In the original, the last we see of Nixon, he is resisting the pressures from G. Gordon Liddy and the hawks, and refusing to go beyond Defcon 2 ('And we sit ... And we wait.') The Black Freighter never arrives in Davidstown, and the nuclear armaggedon may never have been visited on the world. Veidt has to live with that knowledge. The film is considerably less ambivalent about this.

I don't actually care per se that the film departed from the comic, but it does lose a lot of what was challenging and ambiguous about the comic, and that was disappointing.

2. They chopped the rape scene one panel too short; the ghastly scene where Hooded Justice turns on Sally Jupiter and tells her to 'For God's sake cover yourself up.' This really brought home a point about the nasty, reactionary morality of the 50s vigilantes.

3. Although the major plot change was fine - I agree with Russell, that it was actually an improvement on the space squid conspiracy - the ending was generally so-so. Take Sally J's relationship with The Comedian. Again, the comic is much more ambivalent; life is messy, feelings aren't always rational, and from the perspective of the far end of a long life, 'the big stuff looks smaller somehow'. This is all distilled down to 'How could I hate him, when he gave me you?' Bah, sentimental Hollywood pap.

And they cut the great panel when Laurie tells Daniel where to stick his baby plans, and mentions whimsically that she's thinking of getting a leather costume with a mask, and maybe a gun. So the apple never falls far from the tree, and, indeed, nothing ever ends. Another ten seconds and this intriguing little snippet could have been conveyed.

Yet-to-decide points

1. The fight scenes are orders of magnitude more explicit than in the comic - bloody compound fractures galore - yet when it comes to the big slaughter, Snyder coyly retreats from showing us the carnage of the comic. Interesting decision, though I haven't yet decided whether I like it or not.

Oh, and having the 'Boys' file on Veidt's PC was just crass.


Blake Stacey said...

Wow, we've covered a lot of territory! One thing which struck me (and which I haven't seen discussed on the 'tubes, that I recall) is the mirrored sex scenes with Laurie and Daniel. In the novel, their first attempt (on Daniel's sofa) is an elaborate setpiece, interweaving their fumbling attempt at intimacy with Ozymandias's display of physical prowess, which continues over almost three whole pages. Their second, successful attempt, uses a third the space and is not intercut with a parallel scene. In the movie, the emphasis is the other way around: we see the first attempt, with the audio of a news broadcast playing in the background (no real intercutting), which ends quickly with Dreiberg saying, "I just need a couple minutes." Their second liaison becomes a musical number set to Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah".

The "nothing but hits" aspect of the soundtrack was starting to get to me, actually, until they used Koyaanisqatsi for the flashback story of Osterman's transformation into Dr. Manhattan. It works with the theme — the movie came out in '83 — but it's not quite pop rock.

Blake Stacey said...


1. The final scene of the novel has the staff of the New Frontiersman talking about Robert Redford saying he'll run for president in 1988. The movie changes this to Ronald Reagan. I'm not so sure this works: saying Reagan would run for office in the year during which in our history he leaves office is, well, a little glitchy. Plus, Redford is well-known as a political liberal, so his campaign would fit with the change in the political Zeitgeist taking place.

2. Yeah, Sally Jupiter's "I couldn't hate him because he gave me you" business was Hollywood in the worst sense. How did that work, again? Sally forgives the Comedian, has an affair with him, conceives Laurie and thus forgives the Comedian? Maybe Dr. Manhattan could make sense of that causal chain, but I can't. On the other hand, the characters in the movie did appear significantly more warped — or more obviously warped — than their novelistic counterparts. Movie-Laurie and Movie-Dan relish violence in a way that Comic-Laurie and Comic-Dan don't (see the glance the cinematic characters share before tearing through the prison inmates Wachowski Brothers style, or the way Movie-Dan says springing Rorschach would be "fun", for example). I could read Sally Jupiter's line as Sally Jupiter being Hollywood, rather than Watchmen being so, I think.

Russell Blackford said...

They don't just relish violence, Blake. Isn't it clear that they find it an aphrodisiac? These two super-powered, er, larger-than-life, characters are nice folks in many ways, but it's clear that they are sexually aroused by beating up bad guys.

Just saying.

In their defence, maybe they are also sexually aroused by any use of their, um, larger-than-life prowess - not sure about that. Even so ...

Blake Stacey said...

Well, the first time we see them successfully get it on, they had just rescued people from a burning building, which didn't require beating anybody up, so I'd incline to the latter option.

Russell Blackford said...

Yeah, Blake, I think that's right. They are turned on by using their abilities, which includes, but is not limited to, being turned on by beating up bad guys. :)

Shithead said...

My only real complaint about the violence in the movie is that it's used too indiscriminately. In the scene where Laurie and Dan are set upon by the knottops, for example, they appear to end up killing several of them, which isn't in character. Batman/Owlman makes a point of not killing people, and Rorschach makes a point of despising Dan because Dan won't do what's necessary, and a point of differentiation between the different heroes is lost.
And for other Watchman posts, I'll succumb to selfpromotion and say I've collected a bundle over at http://livetoad.blogspot.com/.