Classic Review: Star Wars (Episode IV)

Stars:  ***1/2 out of Four

Summary:  With a simple but mythic story to tell, ‘Star Wars’ continues to captivate audiences and deliver an authentically adventurous cinematic experience.

Only half this poster is true.  Luke is not ripped, but Leia is very sexy.

Only half this poster is true. Luke is not ripped, but Leia is very sexy.

Review:  In the 1930s and 40s, people often flocked to theaters to experience the thrilling exploits of heroes such as Zorro and Flash Gordon, in an action-driven form of film known as the serial.  Serials are what they imply; episodic sections of a story, in this case usually about 20-30 minutes long, ending in a “cliffhanger” that sets up audience expectation for the next chapter.  These were shown before the main picture.  They focused on plot, action, and suspense, and were often done with stock footage and dismally small budgets.

People like George Lucas grew up watching Flash Gordon’s matinee adventures, though he was not around for their initial theatrical run, and they left an indelible impression on him.  When he started rising as a filmmaker, he tried to purchase the rights to film a ‘Flash Gordon’ feature length adaption, but he couldn’t.  Instead, he invented his own, and after taking many forms it became the modern classic ‘Star Wars’.

Unlike the more serious and grounded bent of science fiction in the late 1960s, ‘Star Wars’ was to be a throwback to the serials, with a mythic heart.  It is, more appropriately, fantasy than science.  As his later character Indiana Jones was prone to do, George made it up as he went along, inventing and reinventing methods of filmmaking, making flashy special effects henceforth connected to what became known as the blockbuster.  Along with his friend Steven Spielberg’s ‘Jaws’, this film defined the summer movie and the idea that wide release was the best possible way to rake in the cash.  George wisely mixed high adventure with deep mythic tradition, using Jungian archetypes and ideas drawn from Greek theater.  That’s not to say that ‘Star Wars’ is strictly a game for the intellectual, it has a much broader appeal than that, catering especially to the youth market, causing impressions much like Flash Gordon had on young Lucas.

The film opens with a device that nearly all of the serials used; concise, dramatic text, framing the action that was to come.  Unlike its inevitable imitators, ‘Star Wars’ uses a very simple structure for its famous opening crawl, and doesn’t dump information on the audience.  After the yellow text vanishes into the starry background, we already know there are an EMPIRE, DARTH VADER, a DEATH STAR, a PRINCESS and a REBELLION.  Each word, though not completely telling, reveals enough to get us interested.

After this, we take in the battle between two spaceships, an Imperial Star Destroyer and a Rebel Blockade Runner.  The superior firepower of the Star Destroyer quickly overtakes its prey, and we quickly sympathize with the Rebels on board the captured vessel as they are stormed by, well, Stormtroopers.  The Evil Galactic Empire draws heavily from serial villains, which incidentally drew heavy inspiration from Nazi Germany.  The Nazis were a threat everybody could hate, and so everybody modeled their bad guys after the fascists.  The main villain, Darth Vader, with his black helmet and mask, evokes both the vampiric horror films of the serials’ era and the Nazi soldiers’ helmet designs.  With a baritone voice provided by the legendary James Earl Jones, Darth Vader is just about the most classic villain ever created.  It’s proof that execution, not concept, is key, as the serials had their own Darth Vaders, but none were anywhere near this guy’s level.

Despite all my glowing praise and desire to pick apart this beloved film scene-by-scene, I should look at this concisely and objectively.  Let’s be honest: ‘Star Wars’ isn’t Shakespeare.  It doesn’t try to be terribly clever, and really, the reason it goes over so well with kids is that it is gleefully archetypal and black-and-white.  The bad guys are bad, the good guys are good, and even though we would find out things are more complex than that in the sequels, this same tone of simplicity was carried on throughout.  It’s important to know there’s nothing wrong with this. Intellectualist film critics tend to dismiss films such as ‘Star Wars’ (at first glance) for somehow being less-than, since they don’t strive to be any more than fun.  The film received a mixed reaction upon release, but the audiences loved it.  It connected.  There is beauty and poetry in simplicity, and in straightforward, mythic storytelling, not just in the complexities and angst of hurt lovers like Romeo and Juliet.

In a technical sense, the film was extraordinary for its time.  I mentioned its effect on the summer blockbuster, how it created the pattern of “Wow!” films, which continues to be followed each year.  The battles in space, forgoing the scientific realism that Stanley Kubrick invested in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, allowed for sound and drama, again evoking World War II.  Lucas watched old dogfight footage for inspiration, and having viewed a few hours of similar footage myself, I can definitely see its influence.  After so many blockbusters pushing the envelope and blurring the lines between reality and special effects, you can see how dated ‘Star Wars’ has become, in one view.  On the other hand, the drama is so effective that despite the technical shortcomings, it has added to the charm.

Now, for music.  I keep reviewing films where John Williams was involved!  He’s definitely my favorite composer, which is probably why my mind keeps coming back to these movies in particular.  His work on ‘Star Wars’ shows much less of a Bernard Herrmann influence than ‘Jaws’ did, instead it takes influence from Gustav Holst’s Planets Suite.  This isn’t my favorite of his scores, and fans of the ‘Star Wars’ series that haven’t revisited this film in a long time will notice the absence of the Imperial March, which he wrote for the sequel, ‘The Empire Strikes Back’.

One big stumbling block for the religiously concerned- particularly Christians -is the quasi-spiritual “Force” that ultimately helps Luke Skywalker, the hero, destroy the Death Star.  Now, it is true that George Lucas was interested in “reintroducing” spirituality to youth, but he has also stated his complete disapproval of the ‘Star Wars’ inspired Jedi Church, a really weird but real religion.  It’s only a movie.  Of course, we can say that about all kinds of things, from sex to violence to satanic rites, but the Tao-inspired, while ultimately fake, Force is just an invention to drive the plot, not to corrupt the audience.  It is part of the mythic flavor of the story.  If ‘Star Wars’ is taken as what it is- myth with a moral -then it makes balking at the Force seem silly.

After everything I said about complexity versus simplicity, it is ultimately a lack of complexity that keeps the film off the Four Star mark for me.  That’s just my personal feelings.  I don’t like it as much as ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, which is pretty much in the same vein, but I gave that film the maximum number of stars.  Why?  Well, it just seems more solid, better woven, and the complexity is a part of that.  Nevertheless, ‘Star Wars’ accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do, bring back the spirit of adventure to film, and we should be tremendously thankful that George Lucas did not fail.

Classic Review: Superman

Stars:  **** out of Four

Summary:  A combination of heavy-hitters, unknowns, and very wise producers brought us the first truly excellent comic book movie.

Thats right.  You have no choice.  You WILL believe a man can fly.

That's right. You have no choice. You WILL believe a man can fly.

Review:  In 1938, creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster introduced the very first superhero in DC’s Action Comics #1.  With a wide range of powers and a flashy costume, Superman was a hit with kids everywhere, forever changing the face of comic books.  Countless imitators would follow Superman, though few would equal him.

It took a long time to bring a definitive film to the screen.  Sure, there were the Max and Dave Fleischer cartoons in the 40s (which were excellent), and there were the live-action serials and the George Reeves TV show (which were somewhat less up to par), but a live-action film that was convincingly serious didn’t come until 1978.  ‘Superman’, after going through a shaky development that was dramatic enough, was a box office smash and, like the comics that inspired it, changed the face of the genre.  Along with ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’, it breathed new life into science fiction and transformed it into a cinematic juggernaut.

There are some of the production problems that deserve mentioning in relevance to the film’s design.  Such as the fact that the effects of Superman’s flight had never been done before in a truly live-action sense, usually relying on animation or models instead of a stunt man.  Eventually, they turned to the technology of chroma-key, which uses a blue screen or green screen as a background, then removes it in post-production.  The result was realistic enough that they made the claim in the film’s tagline, “You’ll believe a man can fly.”  Whether this was claimed before the effect was achieved or not, I don’t know, but it is a bold claim regardless.  So critical was this sense of wonder to the film’s success that the tagline was necessitated.  You won’t see anything said in quite that way on a modern movie poster.  We think we’ve seen everything possible with special effects.

The composer John Williams continued to rise to glory with his third iconic score in five years, going from ‘Jaws’ to ‘Star Wars’ to ‘Superman’.  Using the same orchestra he worked with on ‘Star Wars’, he delivered.  Period.  The music perfectly compliments the picture, indeed working with it to ingrain the images in the viewer’s mind.  This, to me, is the mark of a good composer: the ability to marry picture and music so perfectly that they become synonymous.

A big struggle of early development was avoiding the campy tone that pervaded earlier comic book adaptations.  Director Richard Donner ordered a rewrite before filming began, for which I am sure audiences are thankful.  The narrative covers a wide range of human emotions and manages to find a convincing balance.   Conceptually, it is an epic fantasy.  I describe it as an epic due to the multiple storylines and digressions.  It is much slower burning than recent superhero films, for which I am thankful.

I chose to review this film due to the recent release of the ‘Watchmen’ adaption.  ‘Superman’ is, essentially, the tonal and philosophical antithesis of ‘Watchmen’. ‘Watchmen’ is primarily concerned with the question, “Who watches the watchmen?”  The superheroes of the story, analogous to “watchmen” or guards, are shown to be morally incapable of handling the problem of power.  What makes their vigilante authority necessary, or legitimate?  ‘Watchmen’ suggests nothing directly in answer.  It is far too complex a work to pin down a conclusion.  ‘Superman’, on the flipside, is quite clear.  The hero is justified in his quest to help the people of Earth due to his nobility and integrity.  Superman is the good guy, the Big Blue Boy Scout, always trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, etc. etc.  Going back to ‘Watchmen’, it is suggested that no vigilante, regardless of his intentions, is ultimately trustworthy.  Humans are simply not good enough as a whole, it is suggested.  Again, this is never put forth as a clear conclusion, but the implications are there.  Returning again to ‘Superman’, we see this is never a concern with this ideal individual.  But, since we don’t live in this world, and there is no (as far as we know) alien human from Krypton fighting crime with completely noble intentions, is it wrong to indulge in such fantasies?  I personally think that the pessimistic view of ‘Watchmen’- while arguably more realistic –is not any more correct than the view ‘Superman’ takes.  Humans tend towards corruption, yes, but I would argue that paradoxically they also tend towards integrity.  As a flipside to ‘Watchmen’, ‘Superman’ shows us what could be, not just in an ideal but also in a grounded world.  There is wisdom in the view of ‘Watchmen’ and there is equal wisdom in ‘Superman’.  So how do we solve the problem of this paradox?  One of the ways is not to entrust too much power to one person.  There should be, in a sense, watchmen watching the watchmen.  Hence the separation of powers in modern democracies, which themselves are watched by the people, who in turn are watched and judged by God.

Well, now that my necessary digression is over, I’d like to say something in conclusion.  I don’t think this is the best superhero film of all time.  Considering just how varied the genre has become, even the granddaddy of all superheroes doesn’t by proxy take the cake.  It is definitely one of the best ever made.

Classic Review: Die Hard

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie.

Stars:  ★★★1/2

Review:  By the mid-1980’s the quality of the modern action movie had reached its all time low.  Whatever sense of the pacing and suspense that had had coated the genre in such classics as ‘North by Northwest’, ‘The Great Escape’, or even ‘Apocalypse Now’ had given into a conglomeration of senseless explosions, bare-chested macho-men, and boring plots subservient to the action.  In short, they sucked.  Thus it was truly a surprise, I imagine, in 1988, that people felt when they went to see the modern classic of ‘Die Hard’.

‘Die Hard’ tells the story of John McClane (Bruce Willis), a New York police officer who flies out to L.A. on Christmas Eve to visit his estranged wife, Holly, at a party in the 30-plus-story main building of Nakatomi Plaza.  Sadly, however, a group of dissident Eastern European terrorists, led by the cunning Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) have the same idea, as they take the whole building hostage in an epic attempt to steal the half billion or so dollars locked away in its vault.  Luckily though, John McClane manages to escape to an unoccupied floor and, armed with only small weapons and his intuition, wages a one-man war.

So what makes this movie such a revival for the action genre?  Well, the script for one thing.  It takes time to actually build a plot before the action begins.  In many ways, it almost doesn’t try to be an action movie at all in the beginning.  The first fifteen minutes of the film consist of John and his wife having a serious talk on their separation and their mutual frustrations with each other.  This could just as easily be the beginning of a romantic comedy.  This makes it all the more exciting and surprising when the terrorists show up and we, the audience, are reminded that this is an action movie.

This sense of pacing is seen in other parts of the film as well.  Take the famed explosion on the roof.  In other action movies, there have been bigger explosions, but the brilliance of this movie as that there is a great build up to it, starting early on in the movie.  We aren’t quite sure when there is going to be an explosion, but we are given clues that it’s coming, and our anticipation only grows.  Thus, when the explosion finally does occur, it does not seem random or stupid, but satisfying.  These are just a couple examples of how excellently this film paces itself.  The location helps as well.  By setting it in a building in Los Angeles and not, say, the jungle, it adds to the believability and helps bring the action closer to home for the viewer.

The casting in this film is perfect.  Bruce Willis gives his most memorable performance as John McClane.  Unlike “Arnie” or “Sly” in their movies, Willis is the common man here.  He is not some highly trained special-forces commander, bulging with muscles and a kick-ass attitude.  He is un-muscular, foul mouthed, and in many ways very scared in this movie.  This makes him all the more genuine and identifiable.  The audience roots for him unquestionably.  Equally great as McClane’s foil is Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber.  As a villain, he isn’t some perfect mastermind.  He isn’t always calm and cool.  He becomes angry and frustrated when his plans don’t work, and at times he makes noticeable blunders.  In short, the characters are allowed to be human, as opposed to stereotypes in other action movies.  The only true criticisms for any of the characters in this movie are when they are given bits of corny dialogue.  This movie does have its fair share of one-liners, but they are spaced far enough apart that they don’t really detract from it.

Lastly, though this film benefits most from its plot and acting, its technical aspects helped to bolster the film well.  The cinematography is truly impressive.  A lot of quick cuts and hand held camera work add to the action, as does the relatively dark lighting and frequent low angle shots.  An often over looked part of the cinematography is that almost every shot shows intersecting walls, a key to creating a claustrophobic feeling for the viewer, which is the desired affect when all the action takes place in a building.  The music for this movie is done well.  As opposed to lame pop songs and corny techno-beats, this movie goes old school with classic orchestration.  Michael Kamen, the composer, mixes classic Beethoven with his own brand of brass driven melodies and fast beats to create music fitting for the action.

In short, this movie helped bring the action movie out of its rut and reinvented it for a newer generation.  Its influence is still felt today.  Almost every action movie made after ‘Die Hard’ takes something from it, and they are all the better for it.  If you haven’t seen this one, give it a watch, it’s worth at least that.

Classic Review: The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)

Stars:  *** out of Four

Summary:  A splendidly photographed parable that would go on to set the standards for sci-fi films for decades.

This scene never happens, but that what 21st century fan fiction is for.

This scene never happens, but that's what 21st century fan fiction is for.

Review:  Military officials throughout the world track an unidentified object in Earth’s upper atmosphere, which is speeding in for a landing.  The United States deals with panicking citizens as the vessel from another world lands in Washington D.C.  The military creates a perimeter, and just in time; an alien emerges, claiming to have come in peace.

It all sounds so… cliche.

Robert Wise’s ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ created this formula, which would be imitated and aped by inferior directors with inferiors stories ever since.  Though suspenseful, ‘Day’ is not a horror movie.  It is intelligent, thoughtful, slow-paced science fiction, its focus on character, not carnage.

The film opens in what I just described.  What happens next is simple, but interesting.  The alien- a very human-like being named Klaatu -is shot by a nervous soldier, bringing the wrath of his robot protector, the now famous Gort.  The machine unleashes a ray that vaporizes many of the soldiers’ weapons, until Klaatu orders him to stop.  He then allows the military to take him in for medical treatment and examination.  At the hospital, he meets with a government official, attempting to convince him to arrange a meeting of all the world’s leaders.  Due to the Cold War attitudes, the official laments, this will be impossible.  Klaatu insists.  When nothing is done, he escapes military custody.

The film chronicles his attempts to accomplish his mission on Earth, namely warning the world of some danger.  Eventually he works with Gort to cut off all the world’s power for a limited period of time, hence the title.

The cinematography and editing is very easy on the eyes.  There seems to be little about the photography that is special, but it is very pleasant to watch.  The special effects, though, are truly innovative.  The shots of Klaatu’s saucer landing and taking off are impressive, as are the various effects of Gort.  The ship design is elegant and utilitarian.

Bernard Herrmann, famous for his work on ‘Citizen Kane’, ‘Vertigo’, and ‘Psycho’, among many others, composed the music.  Utilizing the eerie, ethereal sound of the theremin, he created a signature soundscape that is pulsating, emotive, iconic and unsettling.  The themes would go on to be parodied and imitated like every other aspect of the film.

The acting is not striking, but workable.  The lead, Michael Rennie as Klaatu, surpasses all the others.  He carries both the warmth and wrath of his character equally well.

The film is in direct response to the Cold War.  Klaatu’s mission, it is revealed, is to warn Earth’s nations that they must give up their violence, or at least severely limit it, or else the federation he represents will be forced to intervene.  The execution of the final scenes, though memorable, seems forced and contrived.  Nevertheless, the message he brings raises several questions.  Is it ethical for a third party, such as Klaatu’s federation, to enter into a strange conflict and dictate terms?  Isn’t Klaatu’s threat of annihilation just perpetuating the same ideas that were fueling the Cold War in the first place?  After all, isn’t he taking the position that the U.S. often takes, being the nation with the bigger guns?  What makes his message, from a more advanced civilization, so much more progressive than our own collective culture?

The film suffers from a dated feeling in some cases, yet it is still a breath of fresh air.  I gave it three stars for its ideas, but I removed one for a contrived ending and a dragging second act.  All things considered, if you are a fan of sci-fi, this film is required viewing, and if you are a film buff, this is a guilty pleasure.

Classic Review: Rear Window

Stars:  **** out of Four

Summary:  A completely unusual and charming mystery classic.

This image speaks for itself.  Thats what was so cool about old ad campaigns.

This image speaks for itself. That's what was so cool about old ad campaigns.

Review:  What if your leg was broken, forcing you to be confined to a wheelchair for months with nothing to do but stare at the neighbors?  James Stewart’s character finds out just what it would be like in Hitchcock’s ‘Rear Window’.  Shot almost entirely in one room, Hitchcock defies the conventions of film for a seemingly pedestrian premise.  The result is dialog-heavy, but not unbearably so, and lacks the benefit of multiple locations to pique audience interest.

Hitchcock proves he doesn’t need them.

The filmmakers built a magnificent set for ‘Rear Window’, which comprises the protagonist’s apartment complex.  Every shot is either of the goings on inside the protagonist’s own apartment or the courtyard outside his rear window, hence the title.

Photographer L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies (James Stewart), still recovering from a broken leg he received by getting too close to danger in his line of work, spends his days watching his neighbors.  He is criticized by both his nurse, Stella, and his socialite girlfriend Lisa Fremont for his habits.  Multiple stories are going on around the courtyard.  The denizens of the complex each have their own quirks, and everybody feels real.  This film’s pedestrian look at life in the complex is not dull.  Modern audiences might not appreciate the slow burn of the film, however.

Over a series of days, Jeff witnesses strange behavior by his neighbor, Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr).  Jeff suspects him of killing his wife.  He soon wins both Stella and Lisa over to his side of the argument, but Lieutenant Doyle, his friend in the police, is unconvinced.  Evidence continues to mount for both sides.  Is Mr. Thorwald a murderer or isn’t he?

The big issue of the film is voyeurism.  Hitchcock is questioning the nature of film itself through the narrative.  Is it right for us to watch even fictional strangers experience pleasure and pain, for our own satisfaction?  Hitchcock doesn’t provide us with answers, but the film doesn’t feel empty because of this.  The questions are subdued enough not to distract or confront us.  Eventually, Jeff gets too close to danger once again, showing in a humorous way that watching people for a living- or for enjoyment- has its costs.

The musical score for the film is entirely diegetic. That is, every musical cue has a source within the film.  Most of the music is provided by the character of the songwriter who lives in the courtyard.  This serves to enhance the feeling of audience involvement in the story.  We are a lot like Jeff, watching fictional neighbors.  This film couldn’t be described as a purely suspenseful drama.  It is more a benign, intelligent mystery with a romantic undercurrent.  The suspenseful moments near the climax, of course, don’t disappoint.  The best moment is when Thorwald, angry with Jeff for being accused of murder, breaks the ‘fourth wall’ by looking directly at the camera, and thus the audience.  It’s creepy fun.

I like this film less than Hitchcock’s later work, ‘North by Northwest’, which I have also reviewed.  It is less thrilling and fun at face value than that film, but they both are perfect in their own manner.

“See it!  If your nerves can stand it after ‘Psycho’!”

Classic Review: Vertigo

Stars:  *** out of Four

Summary:  A spellbinding, terrifying predecessor to the modern psychological thriller, as only Hitch could film it.

Best not to look at that too long.

Best not to look at that too long.

Review:  Hitchcock is known more for his thrillers than for anything else in his body of work.  This film shows us why. ‘Vertigo’ is a twisted tale of obsession, deception, and distortion.  More than anything else, it is a cautionary tale, showing the disastrous effects of the aforementioned elements in the lives of both its protagonist- if you can call him that- and his ‘love interest’.

It is darn creepy.

It opens with a strangely psychedelic journey through a kaleidoscope of multicolored spirals.  Kinetic (moving) text introduces the filmmakers, while we are treated to Bernard Herrmann’s eerie score.  By this time, we already know we are in for something bizarre.

After this journey into the weird, we are thrust into a dramatic, though brief, rooftop chase.  Two police officers are in pursuit of a criminal, and when he jumps across a gap to another roof, they try to go after him.  The first one makes it fine, but the second, police detective John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart), slides down the sloped tiles and hangs onto a drainpipe over certain death.  The first police officer goes back for him, but in the process of trying to save John’s life, he plummets (in a well composited shot) to the ground.  The emotional shock ingrains a fear of heights in John, which causes vertigo, a disorienting and often debilitating condition.

After retiring from the force due to the incident, he spends his days with his best friend, Midge Wood, a kindly young woman he was once engaged too.  Throughout the film she represents his good sense, and when that slips away from him, so does she.

He meets a friend from college, Gavin Elster, who asks him to follow his wife, Madeleine.  She seems to be suffering from a severe mental illness, such as schizophrenia, or possibly even spiritual possession.  Gavin wants to know where she is wandering to every day.  Initially reluctant, John takes the job.

As he follows, evidence begins to mount that Gavin’s claim- that she is possessed by the spirit of her great grandmother- is true.  Meanwhile, John struggles with his increasing attraction to Madeleine, which Midge disapproves of.  She makes attempts to charm him into forgetting about Madeleine, but these backfire, much to her chagrin.

The film crackles with tension.  The cinematography and music perfectly compliment each other, unnerving the audience.  This is not an outright scary film (except, perhaps, for a couple dream sequences).  Hitchcock is too smart to rely on shock.  Suspense is a much more powerful tool. One notable aspect of the cinematography, is the first use of the now famous ‘vertigo effect’, where the background rushes forward or backward from the foreground by use of a clever blend of camera movement and zooming.  It would be later replicated, among other places, in ‘Jaws’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’.

John’s vertigo could be seen as a metaphor for his increasingly distorted view of Madeleine, and later a woman named Judy.  While serving as the protagonist in the first half, the distortion forces him to become an antagonist to Judy, bringing the film to its startling and haunting climax.  Now, I am someone who loves happy endings… that is something this film does not have.  The story, in my opinion, is not too bad, but it lacks a magnification of some elements which would have made it a clearer experience, at least for me.  A greater involvement of Midge would have been excellent.  She seems to vanish once John’s obsession transforms him into a manipulator.  Since she serves as the moral ground zero, it would be appropriate- in my opinion- to show her reactions to John.  This would reinforce the cautionary aspect of the narrative.

‘Vertigo’ is not one of my favorite films.  In fact, when it is all said and done, I dislike it, and even hate some elements.  Nevertheless, it is well-designed, compelling, and everything else you would want from Hitchcock.  It is certainly a masterpiece of design and form.  The story’s dark turns make it an unpleasant experience, however, which I suppose is part of the point.  We really don’t want to be like John.

Watching the Watchmen?: Analyzing Alan Moore’s Dystopia

This is a special feature.  I don’t intend to do this often, but I have an abundance of thoughts, and they are very relevant to cinema.

So what is ‘Watchmen’?

It’s primarily a graphic novel, by British author Alan Moore.  He is considered a legend in the comic book world.  ‘Watchmen’, winner of the prestigious Hugo Award, is considered his best work.  It was released in 1986, and along with Frank Miller’s ‘The Dark Knight Returns’, dramatically changed the face of comics forever.  In the truest sense a superhero epic, it chronicles the lives of truly dysfunctional costumed vigilantes in a dystopian, alternate 1985.  A complex and innovative narrative bobs and weaves through eras and viewpoints, as the world approaches nuclear war.  The basic action-idea (central driving plot) is that someone is killing off these vigilantes, possibly to prevent them from interfering in… something.  By the time it is all over, everyone is morally challenged and forced to embrace a horrific reality, as the whole world changes.  But is it for the better?

If you happen to care, there are many plot spoilers throughout this review.

I read ‘Watchmen’, you see, out of curiosity that was piqued by the coming of Zack Snyder’s adaption to the screen.  I heard many say it was visionary, challenging, and the best graphic novel ever made.  I figured I should read it before I saw the film.

After reading it, I can guarantee that I have no desire to see the film.  Not because the film will not be enough.  It will be too much.  ‘Watchmen’ is not just a challenge of comic book clichés, but also of classic morals.  Brutality, murder, misogyny and explicit sexuality are laced throughout the work.  This only serves to undermine the wealth of philosophical and psychological depth in the story.  It comes off as cheap, gratuitous, and unnecessary.  As I stated in my review of the film ‘Jaws’, an implication is enough.  The audience does not need to experience everything the characters experience in order to sympathize with them.

‘Watchmen’ is a structural masterpiece.  If you haven’t read it, I don’t know how to describe it to you.  It’s like nothing I’ve seen before.  An excellent sense of art, symbolism, pacing, dialog… nearly everything.  It is the story, not the structure, that makes ‘Watchmen’ a failure.

Alan Moore is something of an extreme left-winger.  As such, he tends to engineer his stories (most notably “V for Vendetta”, another graphic novel-turned-film) as, well, thinly veiled propaganda.  I don’t wish to be unreasonable in suggesting this is the case.  After all, C.S. Lewis once said (I’m paraphrasing, of course) that his own views “bubbled up” into his stories.  It’s natural.  You wouldn’t be human if that didn’t happen.  Regardless of this, there is a point that you cross that makes a work more about your specific messages than the strength of the narrative.  It is a hard line to walk.  ‘Watchmen’ is strange (for Moore), in that it contains, not so much propaganda, as much as a clear agenda.  Moore’s agenda, reasonably, is to make us question the superhero genre, through an intricate set of moral dilemmas.  The problem with Moore is that he’s great at asking questions but terrible about answering them.  One could argue that this is point:  asking questions, for the sake of asking them.  In a strictly dramatic presentation, though, I find this deeply unsatisfying.  The reason we ask questions is for answers.  As it is absolutely vital that a dramatic work bring its audience to catharsis (emotional satisfaction and release), unanswered questions seem to fly directly in the face of classical dramatic structure.  I’m sure that some absolutely love ‘Watchmen’, and honestly, I can understand why.  It is very well made.

The reason I hate ‘Watchmen’ is that, well, I’m an idealist.  Essentially.  I believe that people are created in the image of a noble, wise God, with a great capacity for good.  I don’t think we are the results of a dramatic cosmic accident.  We are icons of God on Earth.  Yes, we’ve fallen far, but there is redemption through Christ.  I don’t say this to preach.  I say this to illustrate how different my philosophy is from that of Alan Moore.  I get the impression Moore doesn’t know what he believes, hence the unanswered questions.  ‘Watchmen’ reflects a distinctly fatalistic worldview.  In ‘Watchmen’, the universe is a clock without a clockmaker.  There is no greater meaning.  Morality is relative to the end that is achieved… sometimes.  Or maybe, all the time.  We are never presented with a character that grasps the end of humanity, who understands a grander meaning.  Nobody is at peace with himself.  The ending is very open to multiple possibilities, to a fault.  We’re left unsure.  Certainly, this is by design.  Depending on the story that precedes such an ending, I may not mind.  In this case I do.

The off-kilter philosophy, the brutalizing of the audience through gratuitous content, the failure of the ending to tie up loose ends, make this graphic novel, supposedly the greatest of all time, a work I regret reading.  Needless to say, I won’t be watching the ‘Watchmen’ film.  I don’t need more of Moore.