[16 March 2009]
Chicago Tribune (MCT)
It’s the one point on which “Watchmen” audiences can agree: Director Zack Snyder’s slavishly faithful adaptation of the graphic novel is not best experienced in an auditorium filled with the cries of preteen children whose alleged adult guardians think it’s fine to bring their kids to any old R-rated film they themselves want to see, let alone this particular R-rated film.
“Watchmen” offers splatter-movie violence and dogs chewing on the severed leg of a victim of child molestation and the specter of sexual assault and - least offensively; 9 out of 10 child psychologists would surely agree - Dr. Manhattan’s cobalt genitalia. Regarding that last one, the sight of a radioactive superman’s gents is bound to cause fewer psychic scars and nightmare-related trauma than any of “Watchmen’s” 10 most “coolest” nasty images (that’s how Snyder works as a director), including the sight of a man’s arms being sawed in half by a buzz-saw-wielding fellow prisoner.
I suspect some of these kids feel like prisoners themselves, stuck in a multiplex with their folks, cringing through “Watchmen” at age 6. Or worse: not cringing.
This bizarrely widespread notion that something like “Watchmen” would, in any respect, be OK for kids because, well, little Billy has already seen “Saw V” over at little Jimmy’s house on DVD, and who can police any of this stuff, really, and - stop.
Think. Don’t be an idiot. It’s not for kids.
I say this as someone who made it his business as a kid to see movies a couple of years ahead of schedule, without a parent or an adult guardian. Some were good: “The Long Goodbye,” “Chinatown,” “Harry and Tonto.” “Harry and Tonto” got an R rating. And “Billy Jack,” made three years earlier, didn’t; it was a mere PG. The Motion Picture Association of America made it easy to see the wrong things at the wrong age, then and now. “Billy Jack,” with its protracted rape sequence and gleeful, vengeful brutality cloaked in a message of peace and harmony, getting by with a PG?
The ratings priorities in this country, skewing toward brainless leniency for violence and puritanical nervousness for nudity and language, continue to this day. My favorite recent example: The Irish film “Once” got an R for language. The notion of “Once” being confined to the same ratings classification as “Watchmen” boggles the mind. But then, I can’t understand parents who would rather their kids see an ax blade jammed into someone’s skull than hear some charming Irish characters deploy the occasional f-word, with that lovely brogue.
The controversy over “Watchmen” and its various talking points - the splatter-movie violence, a superhero-on-superhero sexual assault, a separate, consensual tryst between Nite Owl II and Silk Spectre II - has kicked up the most intense debate of the new movie year. Scan the 350-plus comments under “Who Watches Who Walks Out of ‘Watchmen’?” at chicagotribune.com/talkingpictures, and you’ll see what I mean. Love it, hate it, in-between it, the book written by Alan Moore (whose name, conspicuously, can’t be found on the credits) and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, brings up questions about nearly everything.
Was the big-budget project guided into the marketplace under false advertising? Are some people taking their preteens to it because the superhero costumes and “X-Men”-style ensemble pose lead them to believe they’re in for a rollicking good time that has ended up, simply by chance, with an R rating?
If “Watchmen” is instructive in any way, it’s probably as a Rorschach test - fitting, because Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorschach is one of its few vivid characters, along with Carla Gugino’s Silk Spectre.
Various contributors to the blog have noted, in the freaked-out-preteens department, that parents often let their children witness an act of brutality on screen, dozens of them, hundreds - but along comes a consensual sex scene, and it’s “Cover your eyes! I said cover your eyes, Melissa!”
Everyone draws their own line on these things, and I am certainly in for a few debates of my own, as our son grows up and - with luck - begins to see things on screen that he doesn’t instantly fold into his own playtime behavior, complete with startlingly realistic laser and rifle sound effects.
Some movies make it very easy for moviegoers to draw a line, though you never know until you actually see the results. As “Watchmen” swaggers out of its second weekend, there’s a blatantly disreputable piece of junk staking out its own corner of the marketplace. The remake of “The Last House on the Left,” amazingly, is a more restrained and effective version of Wes Craven’s 1972 original. Yes, that’s right. I used the word “restrained” to describe “The Last House on the Left.”
It makes no apologies for what it is: a sadistic rape-revenge thriller, which is my least favorite subgenre in cinema. The surprise, to me, other than it being any good in any way, had to do with its tone. This movie is the lowest sort of pulp, but director Dennis Iliadis doesn’t treat any of it as a joke or a lark (at least until the conventionally gory climax). What some of us, at least, resent most about the film versions of “Sin City” and “Watchmen” is their moral weightlessness, despite all the heavy, oppressively evil doings. The violence is never not “fun” or “cool.” And I think it’s a mistake to look the other way when kids, sponges that they are, absorb enough of that kind of entertainment at too young an age.