Phil on Film Index
Monday, March 09, 2009
Review - Watchmen
Many fans of Alan Moore's landmark graphic novel Watchmen undoubtedly feared the worst from a Hollywood adaptation. After all, cinema has not been kind to Moore's work to date – particularly Stephen Norrington's execrable League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – and the author has refused to have anything to do with the adaptations of V for Vendetta or Watchmen, even insisting that his name is removed from the credits (Dave Gibbons is oddly credited as the sole "co-creator" here). So those fans may be pleasantly surprised by what Zack Snyder has done with Watchmen. It's obvious that the director genuinely loves the source material, and his faithfulness to the world created by Moore and Gibbons is admirable, but the film's reverence is also its greatest flaw. One wonders if this is what Watchmen fans really wanted, a painstaking recreation of the comic book, or would they prefer something that works as a film; something that retells the story they've loved through fresh eyes?
Any chance of a fresh, imaginative take on the source material was lost when Zack Snyder signed on to the project. Although the trailers for Watchmen have introduced Snyder as a "visionary director" – a truly laughable claim – the truth is that he's a technically proficient hack, who has all of the tools required to bring Moore's comic book panels to life, but is incapable of giving his images any sense of life under the surface. "You know how everything in the world fits together, except people," Silk Spectre (Malin Ackerman) tells her atomic lover Dr Manhattan (Billy Crudup) during the film, and the same accusation could easily be levelled at Snyder. His film has directly lifted everything from the pages of Watchmen, but it has no weight, no emotional depth, and as visually dazzling as it often is, the film frequently comes off as a pointless shadow play.
As someone who admires – but by no means adores – Watchmen, I was most intrigued to see how Snyder and his screenwriters would tackle the problem of the book's narrative complexity, which follows a number of characters across a variety of timelines, and relies on such storytelling devices as a comic-within-a-comic, excerpts from a superhero exposé, and psychiatrist reports. The movie wisely jettisons as much of the extraneous material as it possibly can, but Watchmen still feels overstuffed, straining to include as many plot points as it can within the film's 160-minute running time. That plot takes place in an alternate vision of America in the 80's; a place where Richard Nixon is enjoying a third term in office, the world stands on the brink of nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union, and costumed heroes are a reality – or rather, they were, having been outlawed by the Keane Act in 1977. This legislation forced most crime fighters into retirement, with the exception of Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), but the murder of Vietnam vet. The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is about to reunite the remaining Watchmen.
Watchmen opens with The Comedian's violent death, and then whizzes through much of the backstory and political context in a clever, wittily assembled credits sequence. Thereafter, the film actually begins at a steady pace, and does a decent job of setting up the main players in the narrative. After The Comedian's death, Rorschach begins his investigation by tracking down the dormant Watchmen, to warn them that someone is picking off costumed heroes, but few of them seem interested in donning their tights once more. Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson) is now living a quiet, lonely life, with his Nite Owl outfit stashed in the basement; Silk Spectre and Dr Manhattan are residing together at a military research base, although he has lost touch with humanity; and Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode), formerly Ozymandias and still the smartest man on the planet, is a businessman who has exploited his superhero past to make billions of dollars. These are interesting characters, but Snyder appears to have cast his film by virtue of the actors' physical resemblance rather than their ability, and this has resulted in a mixed bag of performances. The standout is unquestionably Jackie Earle Haley's Rorschach, whose best scenes are the ones in which we can see his tortured face, which unfortunately isn't often, while Morgan's Comedian has memorable moments. Billy Crudup – a talented actor – isn't given much of an opportunity to impress as his performance is submerged beneath the effects required to bring Dr Manhattan to life, but he makes more of an impression than Malin Ackerman or Matthew Goode, both of whom are severely out of their depth.
After a bright start, David Hayter and Alex Tse's screenplay eventually runs into some difficulty as it juggles all of these protagonists, and the film often feels extremely disjointed. It doesn't flow as a movie should, and that's because it hasn't been written as a movie should; the film has lifted incidents and plotlines directly from the book and placed them into the script, without making the changes necessary to smooth out the transitions between them. The same goes for the dialogue, which has been reproduced almost verbatim here, but while long, expository speeches are fine when spread across a number of comic panels, they are awfully tedious on screen. The film's determination to show absolute loyalty to its source material creates a straightjacket for itself; Watchmen is so concerned with matching the look and feel of the comic, it has no life of its own.
And what does the "visionary" Zack Snyder bring to this? Well, he certainly proves he has an appalling taste in music, with Watchmen's jukebox soundtrack offering such clangers as Everybody Wants to Rule the World in Ozymandias' lair, Ride of the Valkyries over a scene set in Vietnam, and an excruciating sex scene set to Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah (which, by this point, I don't want to hear in a movie ever again). He also brings along lot of slow motion, which he utilises in every other scene, normally so we can examine a shot and see just how like the comic it really is; but his most vivid contribution to Watchmen is the way he has ramped up the violence. This film is sickeningly violent, with Snyder's camera lingering on broken limbs and torrents of blood, and the sound design ensures we feel every single cracked bone. I didn't recall the book being anything like as gory as this, and when I went back to it to check, I realised this was because Snyder has actually inserted grotesque acts into the film that weren't in the comic. Instead of chaining the paedophile to the furnace and setting alight to his home, Rorschach now slams a meat cleaver repeatedly into his skull; instead of just knocking out the muggers and breaking a few noses in their alley fight, Nite Owl and Silk Spectre snap limbs and stab knives into necks; in the prison cell, one of Rorschach's assailants has both arms sawn off rather than his throat being cut. For a guy determined to stay utterly true to Alan Moore's comic, Zack Snyder sure knows what he likes to change.
The one major deviation Watchmen makes from the book's plot – the ending – actually improves on the story Moore wrote, but that's about the only surprise this film has to offer. Most of the time it feels bloated, uneven and rather silly, and it may well leave a number of viewers wondering what all the fuss is about. No one can deny that Watchmen has been one of the most influential pieces of writing of recent decades, but while films like The Dark Knight, Unbreakable and The Incredibles – among many others – have drawn inspiration from it, the fact that this film is reaching cinemas after all of those imitators means it doesn't feel as fresh as it once did. Likewise, the cold war paranoia of the film's mid-80's setting simply doesn't resonate twenty years on (partly because we never sense the widespread fear of a world facing imminent destruction), but would updating the story have had Watchmen acolytes up in arms? We'll never know, because this shallow waxwork recreation is the only screen version we're ever going to get. Is absolute fidelity to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' work really the only thing Watchmen fans care about? Maybe it is, and in that case, maybe they're getting the movie they deserve.