[Or the WATCHMEN review that’s not going to see print]
Review by Vives Anunciacion
March 16, 2009
Directed by Zack Snyder
Based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, although Alan Moore has had his name stricken from the credits. Yup, his name isn’t in the movie. On the other hand, Mr. Gibbons is mighty fine with and has actually worked on design aspects of the movie.
More than a week ago, over cocktails while waiting for the screening of Revolutionary Road to begin, fellow reviewers and I were merrily digesting the movie Watchmen unmindful of the presence of the movie distributor’s publicist in our midst. We were literally having fun with the discussion, as it was not often that we talked amongst ourselves, shared views and found a good movie to take apart. We would have continued further but then it was Leo’s and Kate’s time for bashing.
The consensus was that it was a disaster primarily from the point of the source material, but also with the abusive technique and the phlegmatic proceedings. Surprisingly, I was the most lenient among the group. Let me get down to it.
First off, this is a review of the movie and not the novel, and every so often I’ll interject ideas where the movie deviated from the novel, as my memory would permit.
SPOILERS AHEAD (if that were still possible) DON’T READ IF YOU HAVEN’T READ THE NOVEL, JUST GO SEE THE MOVIE.
Set in an alternate 1980s America where Nixon is on his 5th term, the Cold War with Russia is at its doomsday peak and masked crime fighters are part of the ordinary world, WATCHMEN begins with the violent death of one of the Watchmen, The Comedian aka Edward Blake (played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan.) “It’s all a joke,” he guffaws, just before his assassin throws him off of his condo’s window. I sense that the statement is a portent of things to come.
The vigilante Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) investigates his fellow Watchmen’s death, seemingly the mark of a plot to kill and discredit past and present masked crimefighters (obviously I’m trying to avoid the use of the term, “superheroes”.)
One by one Rorschach revisits the other Watchmen, all of whom at that time have retired and given up the costumes, in a manner of speaking. As Rorschach uncovers an entrenched conspiracy, he himself becomes a victim of the plot and is put behind bars. While Nite Owl (Patric Wilson) and Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman) manage to rescue Rorschach from prison, the god-like Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), the only Watchman with real superpowers, further detaches himself from earthly concerns and is seemingly unconcerned to help.
Here’s the deal.
BY ITSELF, as a film without reference to the source material, it is visually engaging, sometimes thought-provoking, convoluted, self-absorbed in its own mythology and eternally slow. The production is top-notch, the music calls attention to itself (99 Luft Balons? Why not Boom-boom-boom instead of Hallelujiah?) and for some reason, something which I have noticed since 300, Snyder seems to be unable to get the best performances from his actors, whose portrayals range from wooden (Akerman) to misfit (Wilson) to suave (Matthew Goode’s Ozymandias) to too-cool-to-be-human/in-Gotham-I’m-the-Batman (Haley).
It has some politics (which is good I suppose, because most movies don’t), but that is lost almost entirely because this movie neither cares for its characters (despite the flashbacks, which were its main strengths), nor cares for its plot (which, because it is in an alternate reality, renders itself pointless in the real, post-9/11 world).
WITH REFERENCE TO ITS SOURCE MATERIAL, as adaptation, it is visually stunning, generally true to the mood and feel of the graphic novel but IMO is an insult to the core of the novel itself (which I read in college, BTW).
First, Snyder’s own admission that his treatment (The Slo-Mo) is to capture the feel of the comic’s glorious frames. In this sense I believe Snyder misses the point of adaptation, because that is why it is called a MOVIE. It should move, and not slow to a standstill. And the comics in general had nine frames to a page, which to me were like storyboards in themselves, a dynamic one. So keeping one still frame at a time, which seems to be Snyder’s explanation, is against the novel’s dynamic layout.
Next is the novel’s editorial on superheroes, because, as the novel portrays them, the Watchmen, save for Dr. Manhattan, are just ordinary people wearing masks who happened to be determined to help society. The movie loses that, because, somehow, the Watchmen are still superior in strength, agility and speed over “ordinary people” – negating the novel’s very point that people need not look for superheroes, because there are none.
I know the novel’s story came in 12 installations or chapters, but the movie need not have been structured the same, OR, the extended running time could have been devoted to further backstory (as, say, how Rorschach seems to be an intelligent, tertiary-educated person if he was detached from society by his own doing; or, say, why was Laurie Juspeczyk REALLY devastated to learn that Blake was her dad?)
Last is the ending. The novel’s way of ending made sense, squid and all. This one gives a hint of the squid, shows the tiger (what for) and the corniest comic-book ending worthy of Spider Man.
In these terms I think it was a failure in adaptation, but a wonder in presentation. By all accounts Watchmen is still better than the average Hollywood presentation, but its main handicap is that it is based on a monolith of towering proportions, and the film is but a small block of stone standing under its shadow.
Please, no sequels. The novel didn’t have any.