HBO’s triumphant Watchmen: cinema V television

Damon Lin­de­lof’s Watch­men.

First things first; Damon Lin­de­lof’s Watch­men is some­thing to behold. It’s Back to the Future direct­ed by Lars von Tri­er on a par­tic­u­lar­ly good day, and script­ed by Den­nis Pot­ter. Except it’s been fused in a par­al­lel uni­verse on the oth­er side of the look­ing glass, so that race and gen­der have been reversed.

We’ll come to that in a bit. But to begin with, how has this suc­ceed­ed where so many oth­ers have failed?

Scosese’s Rag­ing Bull.

As has been well doc­u­ment­ed, two fun­da­men­tal changes have tak­en place across the media land­scape over the last cou­ple of decades. On the one hand, we’re in the midst of a prover­bial gold­en age of tele­vi­sion. And on the oth­er, the world of cin­e­ma has become com­plete­ly polarised. 

Super­fi­cial­ly speak­ing, that polar­i­sa­tion has always been there. 20thcen­tu­ry cin­e­ma was made up of Hol­ly­wood films, and inde­pen­dent films. But those two can­vas­es pro­duced a wide vari­ety of dif­fer­ent kinds of films. Hol­ly­wood could mean Dou­ble Indem­ni­ty, The God­fa­ther or Rag­ing Bull. Inde­pen­dent could give you The Unbear­able Light­ness of Being, Amélie, Babette’s Feast or Prospero’s Books.


It’s impos­si­ble to imag­ine any of those being made today with the aim of screen­ing them pri­mar­i­ly at the cin­e­ma. Because there are only two kinds of films that you’ll find in the cin­e­ma today; fran­chise prod­ucts, and real­ly low bud­get, gen­uine­ly inde­pen­dent fare.

That’s what Scors­ese was com­plain­ing about in those series of inter­views that he gave towards the end of the year just gone, and which cul­mi­nat­ed with that op ed piece in the New York Times, here.

He can’t con­nect, he says, with any of those super­hero movies, because there’s noth­ing at stake. How could there be? They’re super­heroes. And none of the peo­ple mak­ing those movies have the room to take any kind of risks. Because there’s just too much mon­ey involved in the fran­chis­es they fuel. Which is why, if you’re an adult hun­gry to explore grown up themes and ideas, it’s to tele­vi­sion that you today turn to. And not, alas, cinema.

So what would be the biggest risk when explor­ing the com­ic book landscape?

The Wachowskis V for Vendet­ta.

Ignor­ing the super of your heroes and view­ing them instead as grown ups dressed in masks. If they don’t have their super­pow­ers, then there’s no need for all that green screen non­sense. And when you don’t have that to fall back on, you’re forced to explore instead the rela­tion­ships between your var­i­ous char­ac­ters, and how they fit in in the world in which they find them­selves. What would dri­ve an artic­u­late, intel­li­gent per­son to put on a mask and fight crime?

That was why V for Vendet­ta worked so pow­er­ful­ly, and it’s why Lindelof’s Watch­men is such a tri­umph. The DC uni­verse of masked crime fight­ers allows him, and the Wachows­ki sib­lings before him, to explore indi­vid­u­als whose time is out of joint and who feel cursed to set it right. Not because they’ve been arbi­trar­i­ly gift­ed with some neb­u­lous super pow­er. But because they can do no other.

And what, if you are a 21stcen­tu­ry Amer­i­can, are the two most press­ing per­son­al and soci­etal issues? Race and gen­der. So here we are in Watch­men, pre­sent­ed with a cast (and crew) who are pre­dom­i­nant­ly black, and female. And older.

Lin­de­lof’s The Left­overs.

Inter­est­ing­ly, both V and Watch­men orig­i­nat­ed with the peren­ni­al­ly grumpy Alan Moore, who, pre­dictably, has dis­owned them both. I tried read­ing (is that what one does with a graph­ic nov­el?) his Watch­men, and I have to con­fess it sailed serene­ly over my head. I just found it flat, and sta­t­ic, and all too black and white.

Lindelof’s Watch­men is so much more dynam­ic. And relevant. 

You can see the trail­er for Watch­men here.

And if you haven’t already, you should watch Lindelof’s The Left­overs, which I reviewed ear­li­er, here.

Sign up for a sub­scrip­tion right or below, and I shall keep you post­ed every month on All the very best and worst in film, tele­vi­sion and music!

The Leftovers, another gem from HBO.

the Leftovers.

the Left­overs.

HBO’s the Left­overs is a decep­tive­ly high con­cept series. On Octo­ber 14th 2011, 2% of the world’s pop­u­la­tion sud­den­ly dis­ap­pear. Which doesn’t sound ter­ri­bly cat­a­stroph­ic until you do the maths. In a vil­lage of 100 peo­ple liv­ing in 25 hous­es, two of those house will have sud­den­ly lost some­one, lit­er­al­ly into thin air, nev­er to see them again, with­out ever find­ing out how or why.

Under­stand­ably, the sub­ur­ban town we find our­selves in, in upstate New York, has been utter­ly dev­as­tat­ed, as has every oth­er cor­ner of the coun­try. The Depar­ture, as it’s referred to, is effec­tive­ly a What If addressed to the Evangelicals.


Father and daughter.

Evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tians believe that the Rap­ture is immi­nent, by which they mean they expect it to occur with­in the decade. When it does, the cho­sen few will be spir­it­ed up to Heav­en, and the rest of us will be left behind. The Left­overs asks us to imag­ine, what would that actu­al­ly look like, in prac­ti­cal terms.

Except it doesn’t. Because it’s even worse than that, as no one can iden­ti­fy any­thing that might con­nect those who were spir­it­ed away – if that was what hap­pened to them – any more than they can explain why they, the left­overs, were not. So nobody can be sure exact­ly what hap­pened on that fate­ful day, and all too many char­ac­ters have their own par­tic­u­lar theory.

The result is a post-apoc­a­lyp­tic land­scape where height­ened reli­gious fer­vour merges with unman­age­able guilt and sus­pi­cion, so that every­one and every­thing, how­ev­er appar­ent­ly mun­dane, is viewed with unimag­in­able anx­i­ety. Dogs have become fer­al, deer con­verse­ly wan­der in and out of hous­es. Mes­si­ahs mate­ri­alise, cults are formed and everyone’s addict­ed to pre­scrip­tion drugs and alco­hol. Smok­ing increas­es, and there’s a gen­er­al sense of law­less­ness. But more than any­thing else, fam­i­lies fall apart.

Oh dear.

Oh dear.

The series revolves, just about, around the fig­ure of Justin Ther­oux, the local cop whose mar­riage fell apart around the Depar­ture, and whose father, who was the chief before him, is cur­rent­ly hos­pi­talised in an insti­tu­tion. But as often as not, an episode will focus on a periph­er­al char­ac­ter. A pas­tor, a mem­ber of a cult, a woman who lost her hus­band and both her chil­dren, imme­di­ate­ly after argu­ing with her youngest, all of whom are con­nect­ed to Ther­oux in dif­fer­ing ways.

The Left­overs was aired on HBO and is effec­tive­ly the fol­low up to Lost for Damon Lin­de­lof. And what­ev­er he might say pub­li­cal­ly, he clear­ly has leant many a les­son from that less than sat­is­fy­ing expe­ri­ence. The prin­ci­ple improve­ment is scope. This is a far more focused affair, hom­ing in on a much small­er group of characters.

Lyv Tyler.

Lyv Tyler.

Iron­i­cal­ly, what this allows for is a far more exper­i­men­tal approach to sto­ry­telling. The Left­overs is sur­pris­ing­ly flu­id and neb­u­lous, which only adds to its sense of eerie dread. None of us know what’s going to hap­pen next any more than any of the char­ac­ters do. There’s a par­tic­u­lar­ly mem­o­rable dream sequence – almost impos­si­ble after David Lynch – where you only realise that what you’ve been watch­ing is in fact a dream at exact­ly the same moment as the char­ac­ter does, as they wake up out of it in a pan­ic. Which is stag­ger­ing hard to pull off.

Impres­sive­ly, sea­sons 2 and 3 are, if any­thing, even bet­ter. And, best of all, and he clear­ly did learn this from his Lost expe­ri­ence, there only a total of 3 series. The only blot on an oth­er­wise per­fect copy­book is the series’ finale. Apart from the damp squib that is that con­clud­ing episode, the Left­overs is a triumph.

You can see the excel­lent trail­er for the Left­overs here

Sign up for a sub­scrip­tion right or below, and I shall keep you post­ed every month on All the very Best and Worst in Film, Tele­vi­sion and Music!