Friday, March 6, 2009

#126: Watchmen


Directed by Zack Snyder
Written by David Hayter and Alex Tse (based on the graphic novel written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons)
Released March 6, 2009

I tried going in with my expectations low. I tried to leave the comic books out of my mind completely. I gave Zack Snyder my full attention, with my guard down. I really did.

While I'm a huge fan of the Watchmen comics (and the eventual "graphic novel" spawned from the 12 issue series), I can't say I'm one of the people who obsessed over them for the past two decades. While I grew up a comic book reader, I didn't read Watchmen until about 5 or 6 years ago, when I lived in Chicago and had a friend who ran a major comic book store out there. My buddy Eric, sympathetic to my poverty, would loan me piles of books to read in my infinite free time. The very first thing I had to read was Alan Moore's dark, satirical and groundbreaking work about a group of very flawed, very human (except one) masked crimefighters.

While the book was called "unfilmable" by its creator (and thousands of others), I always saw it as something that would make for an incredible miniseries. Director Terry Gilliam agreed when he decided to shelve his attempt at making the film in the late 1980s, saying the only way he could attempt it would be a minimum 5 hour series.

Snyder's Watchmen clocks in at under three hours, and considering his simplified version of the story, that running time could have easily been trimmed.

While I appreciate that Snyder remained faithful to a lot of the elements of the book, I think the movie suffers for that in certain ways. First and foremost, the movie should be able to stand on its own and make sense to anyone who has never read so much as a plot synopsis. I think it fails at this, and then goes on to fail the true fans of the book, as well.

For those who have never read the book, this part of the review is just for you:

Don't you think a movie that takes place in an alternate reality where masked vigilantes have been banned from America, a country that -- under the continued leadership of Richard Nixon, in his 5th term after winning the Vietnam war (with the help of the only true "super man" around) -- teeters on the edge of nuclear destruction, should seem kind of nutty, edgy and (in a nod to Gilliam) Brazil-ian?

At the very least, it should be fun. Now, when I say "fun," I don't mean it should be a barrel of laughs or an action packed rollercoaster ride. I just mean "entertaining." "Interesting." "Worth investing my 3 hours."

Watchmen is a god damn bore. I wouldn't have a problem with how talky the film gets if the "action" scenes that offset this dialogue weren't so generic and lifeless. One of Snyder's few directorial tricks has been his disappointing abuse of slow motion photography, especially during fight scenes. While this may have worked in 300 (a movie so in love with violence that it is basically pornography), it winds up making the movie drag more than the slow scenes. If given the choice between listening to hammy dialogue that moves the plot forward or lame fight scenes where a room full of faceless antagonists takes on a hero who is obviously going to beat every one of them with a single punch, I'll take dialogue, please.

Most of the performances barely register, and even some of the decent ones are hindered by the movie's insanely melodramatic tone (you've got Tricky Dick Nixon driving the United States to the brink of extinction... HAVE SOME FUN WITH IT and get fucking nutty) or just plain bad make-up (Nixon looks like shit, Carla Gugino looks even worse).

The only exception is Jackie Earl Haley's take on Rorshach, the scene stealing psychopath whose refusal to give up crime fighting is the engine that propels all the other characters to react. Haley is so good, riveting and believable in the role that you'll catch yourself wondering if he's acting in an entirely different movie. Seriously, Haley is once again killer in another role that proves that this Bad News Bear had been criminally ignored for far too long by Hollywood. Few actors are good enough to make a character this insane so sympathetic. There's a scene where Rorshach gets shouted at by his friend Dan Drieberg/the Nite Owl that is one of the most touching, humane moments in the entire brutal movie. There's a scene near the end, where Rorshach and Dr. Manhattan share a final moment, that will make you realize just how much of this entire film has been carried on Haley's shoulders.

For the non-believers, I can only hope this movie inspires you to check out the book, if only to answer the question, "What was the big deal about making this movie?"

Now, for the fans of the book, the rest of my review:

Look, fellow geeks. I understand how much you want this movie to be great. God forbid someone make an actually decent movie out of the work of Alan Moore, an incredibly talented writer who has been dealt nothing but shit from Hollywood (in the form of turds like From Hell and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which is easily one of the worst movies ever made).

Snyder should be given some credit for keeping so much of the source material intact. I mean, who would have thought that a studio would allow -- for example -- Dr. Manhattan to actually walk around completely nude?

For me, the biggest weakness of the movie is the fact that it plays things so straight. I understand why you would cut the Tales from the Black Freighter story-within-a-story, but that story is a huge chunk of the brilliance of the book. What's going on in that comic informs so much of the many subplots in the story. Plus, the Minutemen have been reduced to a few photos in the opening credits. It's like taking the footnotes out of a David Foster Wallace book. It may help tell the main story better, but you sure lose the heart.

And what's up with Bubastis in this movie? Why even have the cat in the movie if you're going to change the ending and not even discuss the genetic engineering that lead to the finale of the book? There's no mention of where this crazy lynx comes from. . . it's like it's just there to please us geeks.

Originally, I could also understand why the "giant squid" was cut. But now that I have sat through this unforgiveably boring adaptation, I have to say that this thing was screaming for an ending like the giant squid. Even if you alienate some of your audience, it would have made for an infinitely more memorable ending than the one we've got here. Kudos to Snyder for at least having the balls to kill a few million people, but turning the smartest man on Earth into a lame ass mad bomber? Snore.

The more I think about the squid, though, the more I'm bothered by it not being there. Moore could not have created a more poignant and accidentally pertinent metaphor for our current times than his squid that destroys New York. Ozymandias decides to distract the superpowers from their nuclear war and unite them against a "common enemy" by creating a false alien attack on a major city. Any 9/11 conspiracy theorist would shit their bed with the conclusions one could draw!

I can already hear angry fanboys sharpening their knives for their next attack. I wanted this movie to be great just as much as any of you guys. The book is biting, incisive and like nothing I had ever read. It creates its own world, parallel to ours but with just enough creative licensce to seem like another universe. It's serious, but it doesn't take itself too seriously (see, I don't know, the giant fucking squid for further proof). The movie, for me, does not maintain this vibe at all, creating a world that seems much like ours, just a lot more oppressive and with much more rain.

Shit, when I see trailers online, I still get excited to see the movie. It's like I wanted this so much that I feel like it could still be good, regardless of my knowledge of the truth.

I have read a few blurbs that mention Snyder may assemble a full Director's Cut version of Watchmen that brings back in deleted scenes and the Tales from the Black Freighter story. I'd be willing to scrap this review and give that version a second chance.

As it stands now, Snyder's movie (to paraphrase the book) is just a bunch of photographs of lifeless stars.

For more on Watchmen:
- Movie information at IMDB
and Wikipedia.
- Visit the official movie site
- Learn more about the comic books. Your time would be much better spent reading those. Hell, even reading the Wiki entry about the books is much more entertaining than the movie.

The Watchmen trailer:

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