So Judy and I saw Watchmen last night. We went to the 12:01 am preview showing here in Lewisville. The theater was pretty full; not surprising as this is, without a doubt, the most anticipated film in geekdom, and has been for the past two decades. There's a lot to discuss here, so please bear with me.
OBLIGATORY WARNING: If you're spoiler sensitive, go elsewhere and return after you've seen the film. You will not be warned again.
As anyone with even a passing familiarity with pop culture knows, Watchmen is the groundbreaking graphic novel by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons that set the bar for all other such illustrated works when it was first published over the course of a year in 1986-87. Originally intended as a showcase for the Charlton superheroes that DC had recently acquired, the story eventually took on such a dark and disturbing tone that upper management felt it would be better to utilize all new characters. Probably a wise choice. It's a bleak, dystopian look at a world in which masked vigilantes are real, and the world stands on the brink of nuclear annihilation.
Virtually as soon as the maxi-series concluded in 1987, folks started talking about what a great movie this would make. Certainly, Gibbon's layouts were exceptionally cinematic; reading the book one could almost see the pictures move. Part of what made the reading experience of Watchmen great, however, was its visual and literary density. Moore and Gibbons packed an awful lot of ideas and concepts into twelve issues, some overt, many more subtle. The result was an overall package that many believed to be unfilmable. Certainly, there have been efforts over the years. At one time or another, both Terry Gilliam and Paul Greenglass were attached to the project as directors, but eventually threw up their hands, defeated by the densely-packed narrative.
Now, however, with comic book movies proving to be big box office, Hollywood apparently decided that the Watchmen was going to come to the screen, unfilmable or not. And so it has.
Was it worth the wait? Does Watchmen live up to the hype? Yes and no.
It's an odd experience watching something like this on the big screen. I first read Watchmen when it was originally published, devouring each and every issue as it hit the stands. Consequently, Watchmen has been a part of my life, and my pop cultural conciousness, for more than 20 years. Given that, on the one hand, it's pretty cool to see Dave Gibbon's art come to life like this. It's also oddly unsatisfying.
All through the movie, I kept feeling that I had seen all of this before, that it was almost like listening to an audiobook version of a book you've read several times. Yeah, it's a slightly different experience, but not significantly so. While it's cool to see a panel you recognize come to life every now and then (like the Owl Ship bursting out of the Hudson River), after a while it becomes stale and repetitious. For this, I blame the director.
Helming this 163 minute epic is director Zack Snyder, whose previous efforts include a remake of the classic horror film Dawn of the Dead (2004) and 300 (2006), a big screen adaptation of Frank Miller's graphic novel based on King Leonidas's victory over the Persians at Thermopylae. Snyder's biggest problem as a director is that he has absolutely no sense of imagination. He can faithfully replicate someone else's vision on screen in a workmanlike way, but he himself brings absolutely nothing to the production, serving more as a mere conduit than as an actual artist. If you want a director that can simply get the job done, I suppose Snyder is it. If you want someone that's going to actually bring something to the film, look elsewhere.
Based on Snyder's previous films, it seems fair to say that character is not his strong suit. 300 was a perfect example of style over substance, as Snyder brought Miller's graphic novel to the screen without a shred of insight or actual character dynamics. The whole film can be summed up in the line, "Hey, let's go fight those guys!" It's been called "war porn," and for good reason. There's absolutely nothing in it other than a bunch of mostly naked guys oiling each other up, yelling, and fighting a lot. It's a big budget, CGI flex fest. Even Steve Reeve's Hercules flicks had more depth.
That's an even bigger problem in this movie version of Watchmen, in which the characters are as flat and two dimensional as the paper they were originally printed on. They go through the motions adequately enough, but without any real feeling. Unfortunately, that means that the audience has no one to connect with or care about. There's absolutely no sense of emotional connection, a problem with ensemble films that Snyder seems unable to overcome.
An analogue might be the first Lord of the Rings film. Although Peter Jackson was dealing with a large cast of characters, he made sure that his audience liked and felt strongly about each and every one of them. Not so Snyder. His attempts at character building fall flat, as though he really doesn't care about the characters either, simply using them as an excuse to get to another special effects shot or fight scene. Again, a more imaginative director would likely have been able to bring more to the table, creating a rich world out of the tapestry spun by Moore and Gibbons.
Snyder's lack of imagination can also be seen in his horribly cliched music choices. At a number of key points in the movie, Snyder opts to use popular music rather than an original soundtrack. There's nothing wrong with this choice necessarily, but the way he pulls it off is ham-handed and dull. For example, for the scene of Dr. Manhattan striding across the battlefields of Vietnam, Snyder chooses to use Richard Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries. For the opening montage, as we see vignettes tracing he rise and fall of the Minutemen, he plays The Times They Are A'changin'. During the Comedian's funeral, Snyder opts for Simon and Garfunkel's The Sounds of Silence. During Ozymandias's final revolution,Tears for Fears Everybody Wants to Rule the World can be heard, followed by the opening chorus from Mozart's Requiem. It doesn't seem like Snyder spent any time at all picking this music, opting instead for the most blatantly obvious, and cliche-ridden choice available to him. These are the choices that a first-year film student would make in putting together a first film project. More should rightfully be expected from a director working with the budget Snyder was. And yes, I realize that many of these pieces were specifically mentioned in Moore's version, but hearing them in your head and hearing them on the screen like this twenty years later are two vastly different things. It's a reliance on the source material that actually works against the movie.
And therein lies the biggest problem with Watchmen: it's too much like the graphic novel. The novelty of watching individual panels comes to life quickly wears thin, and one soon wishes that there was more to this than simple reverence for the source material. It's ike watching Gus Van Sant's shot-for-shot remake of Psycho (1998). At a certain point, you have to why bother? I'm not necessarily advocating sweeping changes in the story, but a director should bring some kind of vision with him to the filmmaking process. Snyder doesn't. The result is a workmanlike production with no real heart that plods along like an automaton without any real semblance of life.
Part of the problem is that, as cinematic as the original work was, in terms of camera angles and such, there's a fundamental difference between comics and film, a difference that Moore himself observed in a December 2001 Entertainment Weekly interview: "With a comic, you can take as much time as you want in absorbing that background detail, noticing little things that we might have planted there. You can also flip back a few pages relatively easily to see where a certain image connects with a line of dialogue from a few pages ago. But in a film, by the nature of the medium, you're being dragged through it at 24 frames per second."
Snyder looks at each panel, and brings it to the screen - like painting a copy of the Mona Lisa - without considering the story as a whole. It's obvious in reading the graphic novel that Moore and Gibbons knew exactly where they were going before the first line was set to paper. It was that macro overview of the whole story that made it all work. It's equally as obvious that Snyder has chosen to go in the other direction, taking a micro view of each panel and slavishly bringing that image to the screen, without any real understanding or care about the overall story. The feeling that one comes away with is that Snyder believed if he took care of the details, the story would take care of itself. It doesn't. While over the course of a 12-issue, year long series, one can afford a certain amount of digression, for example, in a movie an abrupt shift of scene and tone is often jarring and confusing. But that's exactly what Snyder does here; he flips from one scene to another simply because the comic did it that way, without caring about why the comic did it that way. As a result, he sacrifices the narrative flow and the buildup of tension that should be central to a movie like this.
Directing a movie is like conducting an orchestra. The conductor has the score in front of him, and he knows the notes that each instrument will be playing. he knows the approximate tempo of each section, and the relative dynamics, as most times those are indicated by the composer. So, before he ever sets foot on the podium, the conductor has a roadmap for the piece in front of him. In the same way, a director goes into a production like this armed with a script, that gives him the story and the dialogue, and storyboards, which give him a sense of the visual flow of the film.
When a great conductor steps up to the podium, a conductor like Herbert van Karajan or Sir Georg Solti or Robert Shaw, they don't simply read the score and wave their arms to make sure everyone keeps time together. A truly great director brings something more to the music, an understanding of the composer's intent and the music's purpose. By bringing that extra dimension to the music, a conductor makes each and every performance his own. There's a difference, for example, in the way in which von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein conduct a Beethoven symphony. Both were brilliant musicians, and both brought a unique and valuable interpretation to the music.
In the same way, a great director brings more to a motion picture project than a simple line reading of the script and an ability to line up shots according to a storyboard. Look at the three different film versions of The Maltese Falcon, for example. All three, the first filmed in 1931, the second made in 1936 under the title Satan Met a Lady, and the last one made in 1941 with Humphrey Bogart, are based on the same story, but all are very, very different. The last version, directed by John Huston is an early film noir classic, not only because of Bogart's star turn as Sam Spade, but because of Huston's incredible aesthetic as a director. Huston brought more than the script to his production, he brought an understanding of the source material that enabled him to create a unique and lasting interpretation of Dashiell Hammett's book.
And this is where Snyder fails miserably. He's the equivalent of a conductor who merely stands on the podium waving his arms, desperate to keep everyone at the same tempo. There's no attempt at artistry or interpretation, just a plodding, dull insistence on getting through to the end. There's no shame in not being an artist these days; most director's aren't. But then one should recognize their weaknesses and not accept projects that require a virtuoso performance. I'm sure there are plenty of teen buddy comedies, slasher films, and Adam Sandler films to keep Snyder busy from now until doomsday.
The lack of tension and the lack of any real buildup to a conclusion is a central problem in this movie. In the original graphic novel, there are two main plots that propel the narrative: the world on the brink of nuclear catastrophe, and the mystery of some unknown assailant killing masked adventurers. Snyder effectually neuters both of these issues, leaving little to move the picture forward.
The issue of the cape killer is effectively spoiled in the first few minutes of the film, as Snyder treats us to an extended battle between the Comedian and a black-clad assailant (the whole thing is disposed of in a few panels in the original, a much better choice), a battle that results in the Comedian being flung through a plate glass window to his death. Anyone who can't recognize the black-clad man when he's introduced again shortly thereafter just isn't paying attention. Snyder revels in action sequences, however, and obviously felt this was a good chance to show someone's head being slammed into a granite countertop, so why not go for it? The fact that the extended sequence is pointless and actually harms the film seems to make no difference to Snyder. Also, unlike the book, the movie only shows us one killing. Others, like the death of Hollis Mason, the first Nite Owl, are omitted altogether. How Rorshach pices together a pattern based on one event is something that we, as the audience, apparently aren't supposed to ask.
The second plot point, that of the world on the brink, is central to the story. In the graphic novel, Moore plays this up beautifully, using, among other techniques, a Greek chorus in the person of an old newsdealer who comments on the world situation, constantly updating the reader on the escalation to Armageddon. We see, through his eyes, the perception of the world's common - i.e. non-superpowered - people, an important element as it gives us a broader view of the situation. That newsdealer is gone in the movie, reduced to a single cameo near the end, and so is the function he served. Instead, we get some vague threat from the Russians, and an elderly Dick Nixon (in some of the most embarrassingly bad character makeup I've ever seen), telling someone to "go to DEFCON 1." It feels like a virtual throw-away in Snyder's version, which totally emasculates the ending. If we're not convinced of the threat, we're not convinced of the need for the response to that threat, and therefore Ozymandias is a murderer, not a savior.
And that brings us to the controversial ending, the only piece that Snyder changed significantly. Now, I'm no Watchmen purist. I can accept the need for change if its necessary, but this ending felt forced, an unnecessary nod to The Dark Knight Returns in that it makes superheroes the bad guys. Moore's ending was over-the-top, but it worked: In order to save the world from itself, Ozymandias created an otherwordly threat, a giant squid-like being, that this world could then band against, thus ending the sectionalism and cross-border fighting that was threatening the world's existence. If, he reasoned, mankind had a common enemy to fight, there wouldn't be any time for fighting amongst itself. That he was eventually proved right justified his extreme actions of obliterating most of Manhattan.
Snyder decided to jettison the squid in favor of another ending: Ozymandias has secretly been replicating Dr. Manhattan's energy and creating bombs that are designed to destroy major population centers around the world. The idea is that, once the energy signature is recognized, the world will think Dr. Manhattan was responsible and band together against him (In Snyder's version, it isn't enough to just take out Manhattan, he has to obliterate at least a half a dozen additionally cities around the world as well). Why Dr. Manhattan would do this, when he's spent years working for the betterment of humanity, is never explained.
There's a big problem with this, however: the world knows that Dr. Manhattan is unbeatable. In Moore's version, the US maintains its superpower status because they know no one will dare challenge them while Dr. Manhattan is around. In fact, several time during the movie, Dr. Manhattan's near god-like status is referred to. Why band against a foe you have no hope of defeating? In Moore's version, the threat quite rightly came from without; in Snyder's version, the threat very much comes from within; Snyder puts the blame squarely on an American citizen, thereby entirely negating Veidt's entire premise. In fact, Nite Owl comments at the end, "As long as they think Jon's watching, we'll be OK," turning superheroes into Big Brother fascists with a single line. It's an unsatisfying ending that doesn't make a whole lot of sense.
I mentioned the horrifically bad Nixon make-up before, but the age makeup applied to make Carla Gugino look like a 67-year-old woman is equally amateurish. Even worse are the black areas around Dr. Manhattan's eyes, that are so obviously makeup, it makes him look like a kid who's been playing with mom's Max Factor. It looked great in the comic, but here it looks bad... really bad. These characters in particular look so cartoonish and fake that it tears one right out of the movie every time they're on screen. The fact that Nixon and Sally are played by particularly unconvincing actors doesn't help, either.
Speaking of actors, the cast of Watchmen is a mixed bag. Easily the standout performance comes from Jackie Earle Haley as Rorshach, in what could easily be a career-making role. Haley brings Rorshach to life, not just as a crazed vigilante, but as a rich and complex character who works for the good in a morally questionable way. He is Rorshach in a way that none of the other actors achieve. Patrick Wilson turns in a good, but not great, performance as Dan Dreiberg, the second Nite Owl. The rest of the cast, however, is less than stellar. Malin Akerman as Laurie, the second Silk Spectre, looks good, but is utterly unconvincing in the role of a superheroine. Super model, maybe, but not a dedicated crimefighter. She's stiff and wooden, the Jessica Alba of this movie. Matthew Goode as Ozymandias, is far too detached to elicit any sense of sympathy from the audience. Moore's Ozymandias was a caring, conflicted man who did what he felt he had to do, and felt deeply the pain and suffering he had caused. Snyder's Ozy is aloof and cold, coming across as more supervillain than savior. It's a great performance for, say, Lex Luthor, but not for Ozymandias.
There's not much to say about Billy Crudup's Dr. Manhattan. His flat, emotionless delivery fits the character, I suppose, but it's not very interesting to listen to. His revelation about the value of humanity near the end, a wonderful moment in the comic, here seems forced and unconvincing. He's a big special effect, but little else. Likewise, Jeffrey Dean Morgan's Comedian is adequate, but little more.
Another disturbing aspect of the production is Snyder's insertion of pointless and gratuitous violence and sex. This is simple pandering to a bunch of immature fanboys, no doubt, who will sit in their seats drooling over Malin Akerman's nakedness and nudge each other in the prison scene when an inmate's arms are sawed off. Moore and Gibbons wisely eschewed focusing on these aspects in their original works, and Snyder's including them does nothing to make the film better. Just the opposite, in fact. It's unnecessarily offputting and brings the tone of the film down.
Part of the problem, too, with bringing Watchmen to the screen, is that it's very much product of its times. The Cold War was still a big deal when the comic came out. In 1986, we were on edge about the state of the world, with Afghanistan and the Falkland Islands seen by many as being powder kegs upon which rested the fate of the world. We knew that the world could end at any time; that the world Moore was showing us was disturbingly like our own. Therefore, when Veidt does what he does to bring the world together, we could understand his motivations and feel the fear that drove him to such a desperate act.
Now, however, with twenty years hindsight, we know that the world didn't end, and that nuclear annihilation was not visited upon us. Viedt's fears, it turns out, were groundless, and, knowing that, it's much harder to have any sympathy for him. As things turned out, all those people died for nothing, a victim of Veidt's overreaction. So much for being the world's smartest man. With this sense of hindsight, Veidt becomes, at best, a lunatic, and at worst, a mass murderer. Neither option gains him the sympathy and understanding Moore's treatment gave him.
The real question, of course, is not how this movie is going to play to the fans, but how it appeals to the civilian population. I think that viewers who go to the movie cold - i.e. without having read the graphic novel - are going to come away confused and unsatisfied. My prediction is a strong opening weekend with a fast fall off a word of mouth gets around. So far, the reviews have been mixed to negative, even among the comics crowd. There's little if any over-the-top praise for this film. Rather than being the next Iron Man or Dark Knight Returns, I think this is likely to be the first Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull of 2009.
So, the question remains, is Watchmen a good movie? Not really, but it's not as bad as, say, Catwoman or Elektra, both of which were rip-your-eyes-out bad. As far as comic book movies go, this is about on a par with Daredevil or either Fantastic Four movie, which isn't saying much. It's watchable, but it's bound to leave any real Watchmen fan with an empty feeling, sort of like eating a jam sandwich: it tastes all right at the time, but it's quickly forgotten and ultimately unsatisfying. Perhaps the inevitable remake a decade from now will be better.