March 10, 2009

I’ve only casually glanced across the Watchmen dissection on the internet, but what I’ve seen seems pretty tame. This is something of a surprise considering what everyone for the past decade would have imagined happen when the day the film adaptation of one of the most beloved graphic novels of all time finally saw the light of day. Fanboys crying ‘foul’ over the supposed bastardization of their treasured properties has plagued everything from comic book films to Lord of the Rings, and will continue full-throated when the Star Trek reboot debuts this summer. Watchmen has been made by one of their own, however, and in this case, it is probably about as good as it could be without causing a ruckus.

Zach Snyder, he of 300 and Dawn of the Dead (the remake, where he no doubt got his fair share of fanboy abuse), is slavishly devoted to the source material. He always knew filming the whole thing would be too long for theatrical release, which is why he was working on the DVD extended cut at the same time. Now there are some disturbing implications with this frame of mind (Why would you release something you deem to be an inferior product at all? Will filmmakers get lazy, knowing they can tinker and change with it by the DVD release?), but that discussion is for another time. What it tells us here is that he was aware of what he had to do for a reasonable running time, ever mindful that he could put all the other stuff back in later. And that is exactly the film we get. Even at 160+ minutes, this is a stripped down version of the book, and it is also probably the best anyone can expect.

I’m not generally one to pick apart an adaptation from a different medium, but it is important here. Snyder has made the decision to change as little as possible. In fact, he seems obsessed with taking out the ‘interpretive artist’ aspect of the director’s job altogether. As such, we lose much of what made the book great. Any subtext is gone, we don’t have enough time to let the characters fully form, and we lose the attention paid to seeming background players, like the people at the newsstand and the kid who reads the comic within the comic, which itself enriched the themes of the narrative whole. The book is very deliberately paced, and all the elements come together beautifully. Without all that, we’re left with a plot. On the upside, it is a doozy of a plot. In an alternate 80’s, where the Vietnam war was won by the US and Nixon is still president, costumed vigilantes have been outlawed. Most have given up the game, but when one of their numbers is murdered, the still-operating Rorschach suspects something larger is going on. I won’t go into any further detail, but suffice it to say, he’s right.

Having read the book and knowing what happens, I was able to follow along easily. A friend who saw it with me had never read the book, and he said he found it easy to comprehend as well. All credit to Snyder for streamlining a dense plot into something reasonably manageable, so solely as a film, I think it works. There are some structural issues, as the book itself is comprised of chapters that tend to focus on one character or storyline, meaning the film has the tendency to drops narrative threads for too long. I’m not sure cross-cutting would have made it any more intelligible, but such are the problems of adaptation. The Silk Spectre’s emotional arc doesn’t come off very well because of this, though a certain amount of blame must be laid on the actress, Malin Akerman (certainly the weak link in the cast). Patrick Wilson as the impotent nerd Nite Owl and Jackie Earl Harvey as the sociopathic Rorschach are exceptionally good, while Billy Crudup’s motion-capture performance as Dr. Manhattan does well given the emotive constraints.

The film looks great, of course, as Snyder does well bringing the images of the page to life, and because there aren’t very many fight scenes, we’re spared his penchant for annoying slow-motion. The flip side of that coin is that there is an awful lot of talking and explaining. I’ll admit to a certain giddy amusement watching a cinema full of people expecting sci-fi/fantasy action getting scene after scene of long discussion, and I was reminded of the climax of The Matrix Reloaded, which consisted of Keanu Reeves being talked at by a bearded man. I don’t mind this at all as the genre has never been short on too-long action bonanzas, but I can imagine some people might start dozing off.

There are two major artistic decisions made by Snyder and his writers, and they’re worth noting because they are both successful. The first is a virtuoso opening credits sequence set to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’”. There is an incredible amount of backstory crammed into a little over three minutes, and it’s done beautifully. It’s visually exciting and it tells a lot of stories in a sensible and sometimes moving manner, and that’s no easy feat. The second is the only major plot change, which is the ending. I won’t give it away, but it stays true to the tone and purpose of the original while also making it easier to swallow in the context of the cinema. These two creative elements make me wonder if Snyder could have made a smarter film with more emotional impact if he wasn’t so in love with the source, or maybe if he wasn’t so scared to alter a sacred text. Perhaps he should have had the guts to cause a ruckus, because he might have pulled off something special after all.

As a fan of that text, I thought the film worked reasonably well. It was pretty, it was interesting, and it was nice to see the characters moving around on screen. It was also a bit empty, lacking the subtleties that made the book great while also detracting any emotional resonance the story had. If you aren’t familiar with the material, I imagine it would be something similar to my experience of seeing The Golden Compass. That film was a real mess at times, but there were enough interesting ideas floating around the edges that I felt compelled to read the book, which (along with its sequels) I deeply cherish now. So Watchmen isn’t as bad as it could have been, nor is it as good as it should be, and I guess the conclusion “ho-hum” is pretty damning, though I don’t mean it to be.


3 Responses to “Watchmen”

  1. Kevin Says:

    This pretty much sums up my opinion, too.

    Except I would’ve had more vitriole for the abysmal music choices. Hallelujah for a love scene? Sound of Silence for a funeral? Have been seriously questioning in the last few days if Synder has *actually* seen The Graduate…

  2. chiaroscurocoalition Says:

    Music was pretty awful, but I did wonder for a time if there was some purpose to his choosing these massive pop-culture touchstones to scatter throughout a story that was somewhat politically motivated.

    Then I felt I gave him way too much credit. That said, have read other reviews where folk claim the use of Hallelujah and the filming of that whole love scene was meant to be an ironic throwback to the 80’s, but I’m not so sure about that.

  3. Kevin Says:

    Yeah, I tried to figure it out a bit – Ride of the Valkyries obvious parody but even the hit-you-over-the-head bluntness of that shows how terrible the logic behind it is.

    Love your phrase ‘somewhat politically motivated’. Dead on.

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