RIORI Presents Installment #191: Morten Tyldum’s “The Imitation Game” (2014)


The Movie…


The Players…

Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightly, Mark Strong, Allen Leech, Rory Kinnear, Matthew Beard, Matthew Goode and Charles Dance, with Alex Lawther and Jack Bannon.


The Story…

When England entered the fray back in World War II, she was a starving nation. As an island country, supply ships were the lifeblood of the nation. However said ships were regularly torpedoed by the Axis’ U-Boats and the Allies’ planes shot down before landing. Why? It was an enigma.

Or rather the Enigma: the Nazis’ supposedly unbreakable coder/decoder, the ultimate machine made to deliver encrypted orders. Every day the codex changes, and every day Allied aid is rendered flotsam, jetsam and burning flak. Impossible to determine when the next attack will strike. The UK needs to crack those codes and soon, or all will be lost.

England’s best mathematicians have been beset to cracking the damned machine, and have been bested over and over again. Time is running out, and who could ever be sharp enough to find a pattern? Well, humble, eccentric mathematics professor Alan Turning has a notion, but first it must pass military muster. And it eventually does: Fight fire with fire. Create a machine to defeat a machine.

Turing’s so crazy that he just might make it work.


The Update…

Yeah, yeah. I know. Always streamlining yet still dropping down traffic cones. Those orange ones. They mean beware. Like Pete Townsend lyricized, “The music must change; For we’re chewing a bone.” I’m now getting down to the marrow, out of respect for my subscribers. Namely be more direct and quit the fluff. You’ll get it later. Hopefully.

*clackboard*


The Rant…

Here we are, yet again. This is the penultimate installment of historical fiction movies (until a fresh one comes a-creeping), that the formers have been received quite well here at RIORI. I’ve been genuinely surprised and quite pleased. I guess it’s kinda significant, since the likes and visits have been off the minor scale that this blog reaches. Thanks fer yer support.

Here we go…

Once a while back while waiting for my auto to be serviced, I picked up a then recent issue of Time magazine while in the waiting room. Time magazine, where I always go for the truth. Some article I gleaned was about a computer program that could beat the “Turing Test” courtesy of the nice folks at Google, natch. It broke down the program algorithms of human speech so to mimic responses to the user’s questions and answers. There was a sample of the journalist’s discourse with the computer that ran Google’s digital Rosetta Stone to illustrate how smart the program was in imitating human conversation. Nifty.

Before we lurch any further, I feel the definition of what the “Turning Test” (AKA “The Imitation Game.” Hey! Like the movie!) is. Dr Turing hypothesized that a test for intelligence in a computer, requiring that a human being should be unable to distinguish the machine from another human being by using the replies to questions put to both (definition courtesy of the OED). Sort of a like a game of poker, with a heavy amount of bluffing.

I’ll cut to the chase of what the article said: Google’s advanced whatsit failed to pass. Why? By responding to human questions in an all too human way. Simply put, Google Turing kept changing the subject when it did not know how to respond. This happened often. A lot. Not unlike a lot of flesh and bloods who find the conversation awkward. Since the interviewer knew he was chatting with a computer didn’t make for a decent double blind, how the program kept changing the subject was key to making it feel akin to dealing with a telemarker rather than a member of the human race.

In true Google fashion, the conversation ran like ads, suggesting products, demographics and the (failed) Google Glass quite a bit. Much face was lost. Blame the humans with the discourse, not the one that started it. It felt to me that the program didn’t fail at mimicking human conversation (it was transcribed in the article). It failed mimicking human nature.

More on that later. Open the pod bay door, Hal.

Do computers really “compute” anymore? The original, ginormous, granddaddy of ’em all computer ENIAC did just that back in the day. Calculating mathematical equations that, in short, helped the Allies to win World War II. ENIAC was the first digital computer. It was as big as a trailer home, used vacuum tubes instead of non-existent microchips to store memory of less than that of ten digit decimals, and was modular but never really portable—it could be dismantled for transit to another lab, which required a few trucks. ENIAC didn’t have WiFi or even Solitaire. Not a feature was stirring. Not even a mouse.

Ho ho ho.

Modern computers, like my iMac, iPhone and iPad, do indeed compute. They use math in order to run programs. However they don’t use a ten digit decimal memory, instead they employ bytes. 00 and 01. Positive and negative. Kilo, mega, giga and tera. Yes or no, perhaps what Turing was getting at when he hypothesized how a computer could “think.” Could a computerized device think for itself? Hence his imitation game, which—Time magazine notwithstanding—has been lost time and time again over the past thirty years or so. Modern computers don’t think in the classical sense, but they do the thinking for us. Modern computers suck at human nature, but they excel at predicting it.

What am I getting at? Glad you failed to ask. Here’s a quick Turing-esque question: what’s your mother’s phone number? I’ll wait.

….

…..

Did you look at your phone or did the correct ten digits ran through your brain? These days, I’m placing my bets on the former. I do it too, and my senior mother lives with me. Chances are your entire contact list is there on your smartphone so you don’t have to bother remembering it. Here’s a relevant story: once upon a time I called Apple tech support to deal with something hinky with my new phone, and knowing full well it’s hard to tweak your mobile while talking on it I opted to use mom’s phone to make the call.

It didn’t go as planned.

The IVR was useless, so I pressed zero. The CCR was useless, because she failed to hear me say I was not on my iPhone but was using my mother’s which was why the accounts didn’t jibe plus it’s hard to tweak oh you get it. Long story short after our planet made its annual stroll around the sun the Tech asked me to specify exactly which iPhone was I calling about. I gave her my number and clarified I was talking on my mother’s line, and then gave her mom’s.

“Wow! You knew that off the top of your head?”

Sheepishly I said, “I checked my contacts list on my phone.”

My mother. As of this installment I still haven’t committed her number to memory. Any why not? That’s what mobile phones are for.

It’s about the anti-Turing test. Computers can’t think outright, even in these challenging times. But they can think for us. Examples? I don’t know your phone number, but you could call me if you wanted. I don’t know what level your PC is at in the latest iteration of Gears Of War, but your team does and you’ve never met any of them IRL. Nor should you, nor does it matter. Spotify knows what you want to listen to. Tinder knows how desperate/horny you are. Your Apple Watch knows your pulse rate and you don’t and you never thought about your pulse rate until you strapped that gizmo over your wrist in the first place. You’re welcome and thank you.

I figure you follow, but thanks to the tenor of this tale I’m probably going to retell a story of why I gave up online video games and why MMOs concern me. The reason? It was an addiction, and my brain left my mind for two years. It was also something bit more sinister, and I’ll bet Turing would’ve never calculated this game:

I heard about some matter back in 2001 regarding some plane crashes in NYC. I knew about hunting for 7 star plus weapons for my PC in Phantasy Star Online, v 2.0 on my Sega Dreamcast via side quests and trading between myself and my online cadre at 2 AM, every AM from London because the USA server was littered with dooshes. It cost me 5 Euros monthly, but was worth it.

My Dreamcast and Sega.net knew this so I didn’t have to. Pew pew pew. Rather my diminutive, curvy, cutie pie HUnewearl could score free items from my teammates just by me being high level as well as being female (BTW the Dreamcast was the best 6 gen console ever). The game had it’s primitive algorithms; being the first console with built-in online capability (56k dial up or broadband. No WiFi yet), and you could download games as well as upgrade hard copy in the forms of new quests, advancing difficulty and of course always new hacks and treasures. For 2001 online gaming, it was very immersive. So much so that were three priorities in my life back in 2000-02: PSOv2, work and booze. Eating and the g/f became mere distractions. I’m not kidding that the game became my life. Like so many addictions, you cannot wait for your next fix, be it a drink, a smoke or a raid party. It becomes all consuming, and when your addiction is calmed by the power of a machine, a computer, well you’ve just given up freewill and sunshine to level up your team of customized skins.

The computer is thinking for you by that point. It guides your moves, urges and business. It’s not really that different than saving numbers in your smart phone, or digital photos on your hard drive (the app can sort them out for you) or every bit of info about your life in the Cloud. You don’t have to remember sh*t anymore, even how to write a proper blog. Grammerly will tell you how to write good. I mean well. It’s all there in the bits and bytes of your lives, either waiting for you to initiate something or finding some link that may engage you. Sad? Cynical? Doomspeak? Yeah. The truth? Getting there.

As if wasn’t made clear by now, I’ve always been wary of unbridled technology run amok. It’s usually tied to advertising and profit in some fashion, telling what you want, by billboard and website alike. I’m not a luddite, though; I don’t think technology is evil in itself, but how it is used isn’t always about creating viable COVID vaccines. Sometimes tech is used to create COVID and its evil brood, if you hear what I’m screaming. Computers are only as helpful as their users, and what they program and access can make our society rise and fall. These days, thanks to the Internet we have a wealth of information and a dearth of wisdom. Social media is an echo chamber and crypto currency is a select swindle. Did you put a third mortgage on your home to finance a PS5? Why do I ask this stuff?

So, is what the imitation claimed accurate? Can we tell if computers can think, even in the abstract, like HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey? Like AI? I don’t think so, not yet anyways. However if we reach that point in the not so distant the computers will do fully think for us like in The Matrix and we’ll be downgraded to just mere applications. Apps, the programs that run your “lives.”

Turing may have been right in his conjecture. I can almost hear him turning over in his ashes…


The Review…

In my never-ending quest for simplicity and efficiency I decided with this installment to forgo The Story section en toto. Hope you read the above Warning. I finally figured there’s no need to re-encapsulate the movie’s plot that I already encapsulated in The Basics section. We can all read. That’s why we’re here, I hope. Otherwise you got lost and the link to DraftKings is here. Now double down, ante up, whatever and thank your mom for the sandwiches.

Ostensibly, The Imitation Game was about how the eccentric and brilliant mathematician Alan Turing (Cumberbatch) created the first truly digital computer to decipher the Nazi’s uncrackable Enigma. And you’d be correct on that notion, to a point. You could’ve also viewed the story of Turing coming to (reluctant) terms with his homosexuality, and that’s not far off either. Myself, ever the contrarian, had a different view. Mine was about “passing.”

It’s a sinister term, trying to prove/con oneself an equal citizen in an intolerant society. Racism, sexism, ageism. Happens everywhere around the globe. Even the Japanese, some of the most accepting people on Earth harbor some prejudice against the native ainu that live on Hokkaido island to the north. Akin to how the Aussies regard the abos, or the failing caste system in India, or how the American white majority get over on the black and the brown. The other. The misunderstood. Like classic Greek playwright Aeschylus proclaimed, “Everybody is quick to blame the alien.”

When all others were not, that was Alan Turing. Passing. If not for a military strategist and no more than a vacuum cleaner salesman, he had attempted to assimilate himself into a man’s world. Back then, I guess being eccentric and creative wasn’t macho enough. And if you were gay playing in a straight domain? Heaven help you and your naughty bits. As the Brits say Turing was “quite the other thing.” As was his intellect, work and inspiration. Consider this irony: back in the day being a gay man in Britain was a crime, not unlike with Nazi Germany. Think about that.

In this context, passing is a dangerous game. I believe the terminology harkens back to the antebellum South during Reconstruction. You know, when all black slaves were freed but not really “freed.” Passing was where lighter-skinned blacks could hoodwink for white folk and thereby evade racist antagonism…so long as they kept a low profile. Passing for white. Due to intolerance, bigotry and the threat of violence “mulattoes”—an ugly term in and of itself—had to hide who they were to survive. Passing meant denying a very basal part of all humans: identity and lineage. Cumberbatch’s Turing was very much in the closet before the closet was built. Going so far as to marry “his girl Friday” Joan Clarke (Knightly), his number one cryptographer. It was more like a man married to a man really married to his work. It was icky to watch, despite Turing and Clarke were ideally fast friends and great partners. Turing and Clarke knew it was a sham, but their union was for the greater good. Heck, even being the man who hired a woman as supervisor on the greatest codebreaking is history? That got Turing into a lot of hot water, if not from the Army than that of public opinion.

All right, enough muckraking. Should’ve said all this in The Rant, but all that truck does come to bear on the overall feel of Game. Namely, this movie was a period piece, but not like Merchant/Ivory or Shakespearean whatnot. The film could’ve only been told in a few sparse years. None of Turing’s seeds would grow to bear fruit if not for the War. That’s a matter of historical fact. The story would not have worked if not under all that pressure. Turing’s story of his imitation game (computer or homosexual) could never be told across a continuum. It’s like the story of John Harrison, who back in 1700s developed a successful, working chronometer for ships at sea to measure longitude. It took five years for Harrison to build it and a few centuries later to understood how it worked (it was still in use in the early 20th Century). We could not have had such a leisurely pace afforded with Game. We just couldn’t. It wasn’t like Charles Babbage woolgathering about his “difference engine.” stakes were too high, and the events could’ve only happened in WWII.  A sort of synchronicity, if you will. There have been other recent biopic films that tackled similar scenarios (EG: The Theory Of Everything, Hidden Figures, Lincoln, etc), but none of them had so much palpable urgency. If not for WWII, and the US not entering the war, the Great Depression would never end, the baby boom would never have happened and we wouldn’t have any iMacs to post blogs on an nonexistent Internet. Desperate times invite desperate measures, and desperation was Turing’s primary modus operandi. Not necessarily to beat the Nazis at their own game, but to prove his theories could be not only feasible but true and even put to positive use. Turing would’ve proven right, earn validation and not have his little secret discovered. Yes, he was indeed driven, but to what end? Turing needed to pass.

It was all about the passing. For all the sexual identity navel-gazing Game indeed had excellent tension, and did not dwell on homosexuality in the abstract. The dire cryptography race got laid on thick and fast; we learned the stakes at hand, and right quick. Game may had been labelled either a drama or a biopic. In execution it was neither: it was a spy thriller. Not like James Bond per se, but there was this always looming tick tick tick and Turing had got to get his sh*t together before he cracked after hearing the daily death tolls on the radio once more. Again, the stakes. Okay, Game was a biopic, but it played like a keen thriller. Time was ever running out, for the Allies as well as Turing’s grip.

Cumberbatch’s perpetual exasperation with duty to king and country and trying to reconcile his research as an extension of his emotions made for delicious drama. The man really sold it. His Turning was angsty but not drenched in cinematic bathos; no hand wringing thought there was a lot to wring about. I did some snooping around online to determine whether or not Turing was a prodigy, autistic, or just a plain eccentric genius. Maybe all three, but not all at the same time. Results were inconclusive. Cumberbatch’s performance and idiosyncratic behavior gave me pause. Sure, it was just acting—really convincing acting, mind you—but it smacked of something. And all the better film for it.

Speaking of autistic tendencies that Turning may or may not have had, I’ve found that really sharp people relish patterns, not unlike our good doctor did. Consider this tale: I had a childhood friend who was an ace at math and music. He played a few instruments and sang, both quite well. But his room was always a mess. No, check that. It only appeared to be a mess. In fact, his yard sale run amok living quarters was a very particular filing system. He always knew where everything was, he just didn’t bother to put things away normally like we passing do. Here: three large mounds of laundry on the floor in selected parts of the room. One clean. One dirty. One comprised of what to wear for the week, socks and all. Books on the floor he had read or wanted to reread. New stuff piled on his dresser. CDs strewn all over the floor for this month’s playlist. New, still wrapped discs at the foot of his unmade bed. He never made his his bed. Quite logically since it was just going to get all messed up come bedtime. And please, don’t touch anything unless you ask first. You might f*ck up the system.

After you have watched Game, you may be nodding your collective heads. My old friend had Asperger’s Syndrome, a mild form of autism. Namely, it results in abnormal but usually harmless behaviors revolving around patterns and rituals as a matter of some senses of control, regardless of the circumstance. Kinda like not changing your socks in the middle of a winning streak, but with a purpose. C’mon, we all let our dirty laundry pile up too much once in a while. But do you have a tape measure at the ready to gauge how high the pile was before it was laundry day? Not that, but yes him. One meter. Always.

Moving forward, I read a sobering response on Quora (hey, it’s better than anti-mask Uncle’s Facebook screed about COVID was created on Venus…which might begin to make sense after a bit) as to whether or not Turing had Asperger’s? Here’s what the forum post reported:

“Diagnosing historical figures can be tricky, and can get a lot of people riled up. That said, if you have enough anecdotal evidence of their behaviour during life, there are diagnostic criteria that can be applied. Psychologists have done this with Turing, and found he met all six of the…criteria for Asperger’s.” Courtesy of P Howell, who also claimed to be autistic. It was a thoughtful response from someone with a similar condition, so I decided to include it here? Valid? Yes. Sound? No, but more honest than anything on TikTok.

Coming back to Earth, Game was a character study alright, but not just the usual tortured genius type. Kinda wondered if Cumberbatch did his research of the character beyond just research. I understand one open-ended comment from a Quora forum does not a doctorate make, but still Cumberbatch sold a quirky genius serving his country with a not-too-deep seated agenda: proving if a computer could think like a person and (you guessed it) pass the grade. All the while you watch Game you know full damned well that Turing does not give two rat sh*ts about the war. He’s used the military’s funding to prove his theories to others and himself. Cumberbatch’d Turing was trying to prove to England that he was something. He was right. He could pass as well as Christopher could calculate. The desperation of this sweats out of Cumberbatch’s performance of Turing, even when he wasn’t sweating. In sum, the man was perfect for the role and really, really sold it. I wasn’t watching stoic Sherlock Holm—er, Ben Cumberbatch. I was watching Alan Turing as if I had met the man (yeah, Ben was that good). I can’t say enough good things with Game.

Except in one way. It wasn’t the fault of the performances, god no. It was the tonic when his Turing slipped in to analog rather than digital mode. These were the scenes where Game got cringey, but deliberately and may scare away erstwhile, adroit, well-heeled moviegoers. Pay attention.

First of all the subject matter of Game was kind of a niche market. Namely early computer science nerds and WW2 history buffs (EG: nerds with a Masters’). Stuff like that is not the flavor in Columbus, which is why despite rave reviews the sales showed it didn’t reach the masses. It’s funny, though. Even for the somewhat arcane history stuff Game was pleasantly accessible, more so than one might’ve thought. The acting is top notch, duh. There’s all sorts of intrigue, drama and palpable tension. My g/f found the movie very interesting and she’s usually into rom-coms and Disney flicks. But she’s also a big Cumberbatch fan, and we found his Turing, terse and angsty as he was he was still human, flawed and may have spent way too much time with “Christopher.” Cumberbatch played more like a computer himself, rather than a flawed human. He lacked sympathy towards others and was often impatient with his peers. Petulant and believing he was the smartest guy in the room (he was) and better than the rest. Sympathy and redundancy, that’s how computer interface works. Little wonder of Turing’s frustrations. Being logical only goes so far. Sometimes it’s best to pick one’s battles, even if you’re unsure as to what you’re battling. That kind of dichotomy requires patience to digest, and since most of Middle America has precious little—always screaming at the microwave to “Hurry up!”—to simultaneously watch and digest a film is anathema and that’s how Waffle House stays in business 24 hours.

…I did it again, didn’t I? No matter…

Here’s a conceit that screams white light in Game: It’s often said that characters are supposed to be likable. Wrong. They’re supposed to be relatable, interesting. Here’s an example: horror writer Clive Barker who created the Hellraiser franchise claimed that the demonic Pinhead never did one nice thing over the span of seven movies, yet he still gets marriage proposals via email to this day. Interesting, just like Cumberbatch’s Turing. I’m not talking proposals, I’m talking posthumous respect. In the final analysis, cracking the Enigma was his show all the way. Cumberbatch’s portrayal will never achieve Gump-like adoration, since he was such a snot. But his performance was about an interesting snot. Gold stars all around for characterization. In sum, you need to see this film.

Speaking of acting, Mark Strong is fast becoming one of my fave character actors. His is very good at being mean. From 1917 to Green Lantern to John Carter Of Mars he has raised being callous, indifferent and belittling to the protagonists he has to deal with in his films. He’s also very smug about it. It’s always a ton of fun to find a villain you love to hate, especially when the bad guy believes erroneously he’s in the right. And who wouldn’t like to bust a stuffy bureaucrat in the chops? Moving on.

Secondly, Game was a non-linear movie, but again strangely more accessible than one might’ve believed. Yeah, I covered a few non-linear flicks here at RIORI (EG: The FountainTristram Shandy, I’m Not There, etc) and they have been a little disorienting to watch. However the flashbacks and jumps in Game are tastefully done. Meaning they are bookends to the A plot. We get involved in Turing’s mission, and once there’s a breath, boink, back in time forward in time. It felt the director was very “calculating” to lighten things up once in a while, if only just for a change of pace. It was kinda akin to when Shakespeare would inject some levity in a play moments before the sh*t went down. Catch us off guard. Tyldum wanted us to catch up, take a breather and then back into the churning circuits. I found that neat.

Towards the final act of Game, I found myself asking, “Was all of this just interrogation?” Was the movie designed to make you question identity, digital and/or analog. If that was the case it was a very good questioning, minus the good cop. Game may have been about cryptography, sexual identity, passing and the never to be fully understood human condition, but it felt to me the movie was prodding me to go a little deeper. I got a hidden message beneath the whole folderol with cracking the Enigma and the dangers of Turing stepping out of the closet. That was overt. Something told me that there was an undercurrent—a code—that director Tyldum wanted me to crack. It may have been all subjective, but I felt there was some code lurking, waiting to be cracked.

The first proto-social media algorithms. Names, times, objectives. Get them all in line and a private code may reveal itself. That’s FaceBook. That’s Twitter. Unfortunately TikTok. Was Tyldum suggesting that accidentally Turing invited social media into our world as we know it today? Let his imitation game reach its fruition to suppose what humans wanted to get from computers? Dictate their lives? Make people second guess everything? Enhance egos? That may be a stretch, right?

Maybe, maybe not. I was probably reading too much into it. But overall Game was a great length of code, inviting decryption even for a basic app like me.


The Final Analysis…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Game is a sturdy flick, filled with lots of intrigue and excellent drama. A solid biopic of an interesting person in a unique situation who exited too soon leaving a lot of unanswered questions. Also with a representative performance that well demands, “Why?” Queue up and make up your mind. I did.


The Stray Observations…

An explanation: I’ve decided to quit the movie watching as a solitary job and now I go over to my girlfriend’s place on the weekend to watch this week’s assault on the senses together. She makes some pretty keen observations with this film, so then I added them to my notes and credit her where credit is due. Whenever you read (K) in the notes or observations, it was her comment not mine. It’s good to get a second opinion.

  • “Pay attention.”
  • (K) That’s a lot of numbers.
  • “The carrots got into the peas.”
  • If only hunting for a job was as easy as solving a crossword. My mom’s a crossword freak. WW2 would’ve ended in week if she were born sooner.
  • “You just defeated the Nazis with a crossword puzzle.”
  • (K) The simple was so simple it was tricky.
  • “When people talk to each other, they never say what they mean….They say something else and you’re expected to just know what they mean.” Kinda like texting.
  • That smirk.
  • “We love each other in our own way.”
  • Here’s a keen urban legend about Alan Turing: One of Turing’s fave snacks was apples (there’s a scene in the movie about that). Turing took his own life, and his bedside was an apple with a big bite out of it (“last meal”) tainted with cyanide, which the police noted. Story went that Steve Wozniak heard this tale and shared it with his partner Steve Jobs. Hence Apple’s moniker and logo. There are two kinds of stories: those that are true and those that should be.
  • “Is that it?”

The Next Time…

Did Micheal Sheen really try to Frost/Nixon, as portrayed by Frank Langella? We’ll see as RIORI‘s series of biopics comes to an end.

Thanks for coming along.


 

RIORI Redux: Zack Snyder’s “Watchmen” Revisited



The Players…

Jackie Earle Haley, Patrick Wilson, Malin Ackerman, Billy Crudup, Jeffery Dean Morgan and Matthew Goode.


The Story…

Adapted from comic laureate Alan Moore’s landmark miniseries, the events that transpire after a superhero is murdered in an alternate universe circa 1985 lead a band of once famed costumed avengers—now outlaws—to solve the mystery. However this is no mere murder, regardless of the victim. There are far more sinister forces at work shadowing this mystery, and very little of it has to do with some dead guy wearing a costume. And a smiley face button.


The Rant (2013)

When I was a pup, I picked up the first ish of Watchmen. Didn’t get it. I guess I was not the target audience. Sold the thing for five bucks. This was 1986 dollars. I was too young to know the oys and joys of beer, drugs and sex. I guess I was a wastrel when it came to comics as well. Who’s the latest X-Man? What’s Spidey up to? What’s sex? They do what? To each other? Eewww.

Ha. Since then, I’ve grown up. Sort of. Through waste and disgrace I now have all 12 issues of Watchmen hermetically sealed in a binder somewhere. First issues. Ugh, the geekiness of it all. Am I boasting? F*ck yeah I am.

So when the whirling dervish that is Zack Snyder got the green light to tackle a full-flung take on the mini-series (which had been languishing in production hell for lifetimes) and plaster it to the silver screen, a million comic geeks over were harping about either two things: this had better work or this ain’t gonna work.

And here I am to declare the results in a sober, reserved geeky mindset. Keep in mind, I’ve been a movie nut well before there were ever comic book movies…

Where to start?

Okay, the plot. It’s painfully simple, right? Painfully simple, which is all but this comic series and ensuing film is. Funny thing is it’s almost impossible to give too much away about the movie for how dense it is for its 2 hour 45 minute running time. I’m actually amazed the studio heads and/or editors allowed this length. Then again, I doubt a movie could do the comic book justice in only 90 minutes. The book and the film are that inscrutable.

My take on certain points of the film is cursory at best, because there is a sickening amount of details crammed into the near three-hour running time. I’ll try to make this work. Remember, I’m not a professional movie critic. Just a loudmouth with a blog.

At its core, Watchmen is a murder mystery. All the allegory and satire is just applesauce. Very good applesauce, mind you. But try telling a neophyte the plot of Watchmen without tying up your tongue and his mind. Right.

There is a lot more going on here than my perfunctory synopsis the story. I can’t explain it all, and that is what is the most damning about this film adaptation. There is too much going on. Props for Snyder trying his hand at it. He did what no other director managed to do thus far. He managed to do what Terry Gilliam, David Hayter, Darren Aronofsky and Paul Greengrass could not. He got it on film. Not only that, but he captured the spirit of the comic quite well, if not the complexity.

There is a holy host of touches that make this movie work. The fact things work at all is practically a miracle. It feels like Snyder got into most of the heads of the readers of the series and tried to make celluloid flesh out of what the mind’s ear heard and of what the imagination piqued.

First of all, the voices are important. It’s hard to believe that the dulcet voice of Billy Crudup (Dr. Manhattan) that assured us for everything else, there’s MasterCard would be such an eerie complement to the omnipotent Doctor. There’s a wistful innocence and dare I say pity in Crudup’s performance that marshals up emotions that we as the audience should have for him: pity and awe. On the flipside, Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorschach snarl was dead on for my mind’s ear. The voice of a demented, so-called hero. The monologue in the prison interview was especially effective. The dialogue was tight and didn’t seem forced or purple, which could be construed that way if delivered by a different actor.

Along with the voices was the music, especially the now-infamous Leonard Cohen romance scene. Some of these songs also appeared in the miniseries proper, also cued up and overlapped as scenes in the book as well as the screen translation. It’s nice to know the writers did their homework. Then again, all that homework might’ve hurt the film some. It’s always difficult to translate a book into a movie. Something’s always going to be either padded or jettisoned (for Watchmen it was the whole “Black Freighter” subplot, which was later and adapted for a straight-to-DVD release). But scenarists Hayter and Tse may have adhered too closely to the source material, not leaving a lot of room for cinematic interpretation. It’s one thing to see the images leap onto the screen. It’s another to have to keep turning the pages.

The sets reflect the hard, colorful angles of the nine panel pages of the original book. Everything sort of takes a kind of surrealist focus, as if to remind the audience that this is—was—not the 1985 you knew. You get the feeling that despite the heavy-handedness of the source material, Snyder’s having a lot of fun making the film. Granted the fun is dark and sometimes demented, but let’s face the truth: sometimes the best kind of fun is dangerous.

I gave up following the movie frame-by-frame along with the original comics I cracked out for the occasion by the third act. Biggest carp? The ending was racist Hollywood, and with that a lot of other stray thoughts clutter up my mind. Being beaten over the head with exacting efforts can leave one woozy.

Do any of these points sell the film for people who’ve never read the comics? Probably not. They are but touchstones of a valiant effort to bring one of the most complex, dense and literate comic books to the screen. So…


Rant Redux (2019)…

Again, I was surprised that I didn’t sound so bloated as I thought. Being a comic book fan I am one of a few individuals that are given a wide berth when it comes to their fetishes (eg: comic geeks, pro wrestling fans, CosPlayers, pedophiles, etc). Meaning I’m faced with a certain degrees of bemusement and “Sir, this an Arby’s” when it comes to my—and others—blathering on about their manic, fevered obsession over the machinations, codex and philosophy about a fictional universe that admittedly stinks to high Heaven of life arrest and taking up indefinite residence in their folks’ basement. Fantasy, exactly. Glad you’re following along.

One of the major achievements of Watchmen I glanced upon was that the dang film ever got made. With Zack Snyder at the helm, of all people. I say that based on past becomes prologue over the years here at RIORI. Snyder is the most scrutinized director here, which says something. Not that all his films are lame (Sucker Punch  was a fine exception), but most are in some way, bland, ethereal and…well, assuredly mediocre passing entertainment. Over the years here at RIORI Snyder’s aforementioned Sucker Punch, his take on Watchmen and Man Of Steel have gone under the microscope, and if The Standard doesn’t change (it won’t) we’re gonna see a lot of more of Snyder’s craft end up here unless his style changes (it won’t).

Still Snyder’s taste for spectacle over craftsmanship suited the abstract Watchmen well enough even I was surprised—surprised the comic series ever made the leap to cinema at all. In the endgame it was a herculean task to rescue Alan Moore’s magnum opus from infinite Production Hell. Watchmen was optioned back in 1986, the year the comic was released and didn’t hit the theaters until over 20 years later. The main reason why it took so long is because Fox failed to secure a director. Those names I mentioned above? All were qualified for the job as far as I was concerned; they could all tackle such a recondite, culty, socio-conscious detective story out of a comic book, before God. But I don’t think seeking the right director was what Fox (later Warner Brothers and later Paramount and even later Warner Brothers) found tricky.

It was the source material. Not so much it being sourced from a vital, however still obscure comic book, no. And not exactly what the plot of the comic book was, either. I feel that the source material’s sophistication and an execution would not have been taken seriously, or at least the studios defiantly did not understand the opportunity because—

*drum roll and drop the mic*

it came from a friggin’ comic book. Up until 1986, the only comic book hero to grace the silver screen was Superman, his cinematic exploits couched firmly in action and fantasy suitable for all ages. What Moore and Gibbons had cooked up was topical, complex, loaded with social commentary, satire and major head-scratching  in equal measures. This was a comic book? Where are the capes,? Joel Silver cried. Why, daddy why?

Yep, believe or not Hollywierd. And they shuffled the option around and around like a hot potato with tertiary syphiliis, too hot for any conventional studio at the time to touch. The aging powers that be deemed Watchmen unfilmable (not out loud) and down to the Seventh Level the script was laid dormant for over two decades. The party line goes that Watchmen was never picked up in a timely fashion for myriad of reasons: all the usual Hollywood folderol. Budget. Casting. Revolving door of perspective directors. Rewrites. Budget. “Creative differences,” and last of all budget.

To wit I say: hogwash. Zack Snyder made the impossible possible and got Watchmen to theaters. Better late than never, especially up against the dimwitted myopia studios have “unfilmable books” (read: return on investment) been regarded, and often incorrectly. If Kubrick could get A Clockwork Orange and Lolita—of all books—to film, one would be hard-pressed to ask, “Hey. What about that Miracle Man guy?” And for better or worse, master weird guy David Lynch got a crack at Dune (much to author Frank Herbert’s dismay. I think the fiasco contributed to his death a year after release. That and the cancer, but the cancer came after the movie, so hmmm). Naked Lunch got the movie treatment, ‘tho I’m still not sure why. Gonzo journalistic epic Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson directed by (once tapped, erstwhile director of Watchmen) Terry Gilliam to good effect. And for some other whacked out reason (other than a bet) Steve Coogan tried his hand a Tristam Shandy but shouldn’t have.

This brings me back to my point: my reluctant praise for Snyder full pulling off the greatest jewel heist in comic book movie history. It was Alan Moore’s K2, and Snyder planted a flag at the summit, for better to worse. I still only claim that because of course the final product could’ve been better, but most audiences’ attention spans with movies have been trained to be reliable only up to 100 minutes. Watchmen was almost three hours long and even within that “restricted” boundary Snyder still did  the best he could with the cards dealt him.

And Snyder did yeoman’s work. Watchmen the movie was acceptable and not uninteresting. All that made a good movie good were in place: good story, decent acting, cool action, pacing, what have you. It was serviceable to the masses and frustrating for the fanboys (like me). But one a final, honorable note Snyder made his mark with graphic spectacle. His version of Day Of The Dead and his breakthrough 300 (technically another epic culled from a graphic novel rather than historical record) with unabashed spectacle. That signature of spectacle sticks around in Watchmen, but this time out Snyder brought out the CGI fireworks and martial arts to accentuate plot points, not as wallpaper (think the birth of Dr Manhattan or the “foreplay” between Nite Owl and the Silk Spectre). I appreciated that; he let the story ride on without a lot of naive audience appealing conflagration for the sake of eyewash. How the studio must’ve hated him for it in a “basic comic book” movie.

Too bad the takeaway proved him wrong. Chin up, Zack. Later on you’ll be back on par soiling Superman’s cape and f*cking up the non-existent DC Cinematic Universe with such joie de vivre.


The Revision…

Rent it or relent it? Sustained: Rent it. It’s a good movie, even if it was only made against all odds. Will it please fanboys? Hells no. Is it a cool murder mystery? Yep. Erm…sue me.


Next Installment…

I take another Drive with Ryan Gosling as my murderous Uber. This was the first movie I watched based on someone’s recommendation. Said recommendation was from the unofficial co-founder of RIORI, the mischievous Jordan. He was upset that I didn’t like Drive. Maybe this time around I won’t be sippin’ on the sizzup for a less hazy judgment. Maybe.


 

RIORI Vol. 1, Installment 2: Zack Snyder’s “Watchmen” (2009)


Image


The Players…

Jackie Earle Haley, Patrick Wilson, Malin Ackerman, Billy Crudup, Jeffery Dean Morgan and Matthew Goode.


The Story…

Adapted from comic laureate Alan Moore’s landmark miniseries, the events that transpire after a superhero is murdered in an alternate universe circa 1985 lead a band of once famed costumed avengers—now outlaws—to solve the mystery. However this is no mere murder, regardless of the victim. There are far more sinister forces at work shadowing this mystery, and very little of it has to do with some dead guy wearing a costume. And a smiley face button.


The Rant…

When I was a pup, I picked up the first ish of Watchmen. Didn’t get it. I guess I was not the target audience. Sold the thing for five bucks. This was 1986 dollars. I was too young to know the oys and joys of beer, drugs and sex. I guess I was a wastrel when it came to comics as well. Who’s the latest X-Man? What’s Spidey up to? What’s sex? They do what? To each other? Eewww.

Ha. Since then, I’ve grown up. Sort of. Through waste and disgrace I now have all 12 issues of Watchmen hermetically sealed in a binder somewhere. First issues. Ugh, the geekiness of it all. Am I boasting? F*ck yeah I am.

So when the whirling dervish that is Zack Snyder got the green light to tackle a full-flung take on the mini-series (which had been languishing in production hell for lifetimes) and plaster it to the silver screen, a million comic geeks over were harping about either two things: this had better work or this ain’t gonna work.

And here I am to declare the results in a sober, reserved geeky mindset. Keep in mind, I’ve been a movie nut well before there were ever comic book movies…


It’s 1985. But not a 1985 that you’ve ever known, and this most likely is a good thing. Superheroics, once the bread and butter of America’s elite crime fighting policy, are outlawed. Any costumed avenger that didn’t want to end up rotting in some federal prison somewhere hung up their capes and aliases and joined respectable society. Now it’s just sad normalcy for the once burgeoning superhero community.

Except for one outlaw. Slinking in the shadows, on the trial of a murderer. One who killed another “cape.” He investigates the crime scene, gathers clues and shakes up the underworld for scuttlebutt.

He calls himself Rorschach (Haley). And he is a very dangerous man.

Someone killed The Comedian (Morgan), only one of two government sanctioned “superheroes.” A fed hitman, with connections to everything from the Vietnam Conflict to the Kennedy assassination. Another dangerous man, and possibly connected to a conspiracy that would threaten the entire nation. The Comedian, seemingly indestructible, thrown from his penthouse window.

Rorschach smells a rat, and goes on a mission to warn/interrogate other former heroes about the crime. Our dramatis personae consist of Dan Dreiberg (Wilson), formerly known as the Nite Owl, ornithology nut and one-time partner of Rorschach. Jon Osterberg, now known as the entity Dr. Manhattan (Crudup), who has godlike powers over physics and reality, and his girlfriend Laurie Juspeczyk (Ackerman), the Silk Specter, once a feared streetwise martial arts expert. And Adrian Veidt (Goode), calling himself Ozymandias, who used his heroics to build an corporate empire to rival that of Alexander the Great’s (wink wink) conquests. All of whom could be next on the cape-killer’s hitlist, and all could be suspects.

What’s more is that the Cold War is raging to the boiling point, and nuclear war seems eminent. There is pall cast across the country, a dark cloud that it seems only superheroes could remedy. But how could heroes come out of retirement if it meant federal incarceration? Should they don their capes and cowls again and band together to save the country? Or should they just watch their backs and hope they don’t meet a fate like The Comedian’s?

In any or all of these events, the clock is ticking…


Where to start?

Okay, the plot. It’s painfully simple, right? Painfully simple, which is all but this comic series and ensuing film is. Funny thing is it’s almost impossible to give too much away about the movie for how dense it is for its 2 hour 45 minute running time. I’m actually amazed the studio heads and/or editors allowed this length. Then again, I doubt a movie could do the comic book justice in only 90 minutes. The book and the film are that inscrutable.

My take on certain points of the film is cursory at best, because there is a sickening amount of details crammed into the near three-hour running time. I’ll try to make this work. Remember, I’m not a professional movie critic. Just a loudmouth with a blog.

At its core, Watchmen is a murder mystery. All the allegory and satire is just applesauce. Very good applesauce, mind you. But try telling a neophyte the plot of Watchmen without tying up your tongue and his mind. Right.

There is a lot more going on here than my perfunctory synopsis the story. I can’t explain it all, and that is what is the most damning about this film adaptation. There is too much going on. Props for Snyder trying his hand at it. He did what no other director managed to do thus far. He managed to do what Terry Gilliam, David Hayter, Darren Aronofsky and Paul Greengrass could not. He got it on film. Not only that, but he captured the spirit of the comic quite well, if not the complexity.

There is a holy host of touches that make this movie work. The fact things work at all is practically a miracle. It feels like Snyder got into most of the heads of the readers of the series and tried to make celluloid flesh out of what the mind’s ear heard and of what the imagination piqued.

First of all, the voices are important. It’s hard to believe that the dulcet voice of Billy Crudup (Dr. Manhattan) that assured us for everything else, there’s MasterCard would be such an eerie complement to the omnipotent Doctor. There’s a wistful innocence and dare I say pity in Crudup’s performance that marshals up emotions that we as the audience should have for him: pity and awe. On the flipside, Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorschach snarl was dead on for my mind’s ear. The voice of a demented, so-called hero. The monologue in the prison interview was especially effective. The dialogue was tight and didn’t seem forced or purple, which could be construed that way if delivered by a different actor.

Along with the voices was the music, especially the now-infamous Leonard Cohen romance scene. Some of these songs also appeared in the miniseries proper, also cued up and overlapped as scenes in the book as well as the screen translation. It’s nice to know the writers did their homework. Then again, all that homework might’ve hurt the film some. It’s always difficult to translate a book into a movie. Something’s always going to be either padded or jettisoned (for Watchmen it was the whole “Black Freighter” subplot, which was later and adapted for a straight-to-DVD release). But scenarists Hayter and Tse may have adhered too closely to the source material, not leaving a lot of room for cinematic interpretation. It’s one thing to see the images leap onto the screen. It’s another to have to keep turning the pages.

The sets reflect the hard, colorful angles of the nine panel pages of the original book. Everything sort of takes a kind of surrealist focus, as if to remind the audience that this is—was—not the 1985 you knew. You get the feeling that despite the heavy-handedness of the source material, Snyder’s having a lot of fun making the film. Granted the fun is dark and sometimes demented, but let’s face the truth: sometimes the best kind of fun is dangerous.

I gave up following the movie frame-by-frame along with the original comics I cracked out for the occasion by the third act. Biggest carp? The ending was racist Hollywood, and with that a lot of other stray thoughts clutter up my mind. Being beaten over the head with exacting efforts can leave one woozy.

Do any of these points sell the film for people who’ve never read the comics? Probably not. They are but touchstones of a valiant effort to bring one of the most complex, dense and literate comic books to the screen. So…


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it, especially for fans of the comic book just to see the parallels play out. For non-fans? It’ll make you want to go out and read the comic book. It better.


Stray Observations…

  • I like the fact they got Dan Dreiberg’s hair just like it was in the comics. It’s the little details like that, which enthralls us comic book heads. We’re sometimes easy to please.
  • I wish Nixon were more of a spectral presence in the film. The ex-president only hit the pages for a few panels, and without much dialogue to boot. It was the idea of a twisted Nixon running the country that dug into most of the atmosphere of the book.
  • “I’m not locked up in here with you. You’re all locked up in here with me.”
  • Using the swinging door as Big Figure’s demise in five panels was very good camera work.
  • As with his other works adapted for the big screen, writer Alan Moore refused to be credited. Him not wanting to be credited is almost as much a thumbprint as being credited. It’s like the old riddle: try not to think about a purple octopus. Get it?
  • In the 1960’s TV sci-fi series The Outer Limits, there was an episode entitled “The Architects of Fear” where scientists plan to save Earth from nuclear war by uniting it against a manufactured alien foe. Not sure if Alan Moore ever saw this show as a kid, but it got me to wondering.

Next Installment…

We go for a Drive with Ryan Gosling.