Sunday, March 8, 2009

Watchmen


It is nearly impossible to separate Zack Snyder's Watchmen from its source material, the landmark 80s comic miniseries written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons. In Snyder's film, Moore's words find a new home, as do Gibbons' images, the framings reproduced with impeccable accuracy. Incidents are shuffled around and altered, dialogue is sometimes changed, and everything is necessarily condensed from the density and complexity of Moore's original work. But as adaptations go, this is, like Snyder's 300 before it, an extraordinarily faithful translation of a work from one medium to another. Snyder's faithfulness makes him reliant on his source material in a way few great directors are. Frank Miller's 300 is a truly nasty, fascistic piece of work, a comic that manages to be both homophobic and homoerotic at once; Snyder's adaptation followed suit, if anything amplifying the repellent qualities of Miller's worst writing. Moore's Watchmen, on the other hand, is an iconic and enduring work, a moving, sophisticated Cold War fable about the destructiveness of humanity and the hypocrisies and contradictions at the heart of the superhero archetype. To the extent that Snyder's film translates even a fraction of Moore's brilliance to the screen, the film is successful.

More than that, Snyder's Watchmen is frequently breathtaking. What comes through more than anything is how strong Alan Moore is as a writer: long passages are taken verbatim from the comic, and surprisingly they actually work on screen, coming out of the mouths of actors. Moore's prose is often verbose and heavily stylized, particularly the voiceover monologues taken from the journal entries of the psychopathic vigilante Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), but the writing maintains its dark wit and verve when translated off the page. The story takes place in an imagined alternate universe in which America won the Vietnam war thanks to the intervention of the god-like Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), the world's one true super-powered being, a man made unfathomably powerful by a scientific accident. Dr. Manhattan's mere existence changed the status quo in many ways: Richard Nixon, riding high on post-Vietnam public acclaim, is still in office in 1985, when the story opens; Manhattan's near-omniscient intellect fostered great leaps forward in science and technology; a legislative act sent all the other non-powered superheroes, now irrelevant, into early retirement. Both the book and the film open with the murder of former costumed hero the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), more recently a government operative. Snyder chooses to build up to the comic's famed opening page, its slow pullback from a blood-splattered smiley-face button lying in the gutter, all the way up to the high window from which the Comedian plunged to his death. Snyder draws out the fight that preceded this image, tracing its fast, brutal details. He then cuts from the smiley face to the opening credits, a montage of photographs and press clippings that cleverly establishes the contours of Watchmen's imaginary world, including a hilarious variation on the famous image of a returning World War II soldier jubilantly kissing a nurse.

It's undeniable that Snyder's Watchmen is an immersive experience, a distillation of the comic into moving images, each frame packed with details and subtle in-jokes that will be especially resonant for those who know the Moore comic backwards and forwards — like the shot of Mothman getting dragged away to an asylum during the opening credits, an image that could only be puzzling to those not versed in the comic. The film is a love letter to the book it is adapted from, which is both its greatest asset and its greatest failing. Because when the film soars, as it often does, it does so on Moore's wings, and when it falters, as often as not, it does so at those points where it has attempted to leave him behind. Snyder gets a lot right: his way of visually expressing the fluidity of past, present and future that marks Dr. Manhattan's experience of the universe; the awkward middle-aged despair of Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson), formerly the superhero known as Nite Owl but now only a lonely failure; the hateful rhetoric of Rorschach, a heroic crimefighter who's also a right-wing crackpot. Snyder's heavily CGI-processed images are crisp and beautiful, and yet also dark, evoking a futuristic world that is nevertheless grimy and decaying. The framings of the images are often reproduced from the comic panels, but the film's visual palette draws only perfunctorily from the art of Dave Gibbons or colorist John Higgins. Even so, the final effect is not so far from the comic's distopian worldview.


As is often the case in a work like this, where Snyder for the most part slavishly follows his source material, the points at which he diverts from the Moore/Gibbons comic are especially telling. Of course, no adaptation of a book as dense and complex as Watchmen could carry over everything to the screen, and some of Snyder's changes are obvious: he jettisons the pirate comic that served as a metatextual parallel to the main story, along with the text interludes that purport to provide excerpts from primary documents of the Watchmen universe. In many ways, Moore's comic is impossible to adapt completely to the screen, since so many of the effects he achieved could only be done in comics, depending as they do on the juxtaposition of word balloons and the layout of panels in relation to one another.

Some of Snyder's changes are thus unavoidable, and a lot of smaller plot elements are gone or significantly condensed in order to make the film come in just under three hours, already a lengthy blockbuster. Some of these changes are damaging, though: the sex scene between Nite Owl and Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman) is considerably drawn out from the comic, and laughably accompanied by Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." Snyder seems to have made the scene so explicit only to include some T-and-A, though the sequence's capping joke — the couple accidentally setting off the flamethrower on the front of the Nite Owl's airship at the climactic moment, a gag Moore hinted at but didn't quite deliver — nearly redeems the silliness that precedes it. Even worse, though, is that Snyder then substantially cuts the couple's post-coital conversation, which was actually the whole point of the scene in the comic: the sense of power and sexual awakening that these two former superheroes rediscover when they once more don their costumes, the transformation from ordinary nobodies with screwed-up lives into something more. Snyder seems not to have gotten the emotional and psychological undercurrents in the developing relationship between Nite Owl and Silk Spectre, seeing only the opportunity to show Akerman's naked body for an extended period of time.

More ire from Watchmen fans will likely be directed at the film's ending, which is considerably altered from the comic. In some ways, though, the film's version of the mad scheme of Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode) is actually preferable to Moore's ending, at least as it plays out on screen: it's hard to imagine the faked alien invasion scenario of the comic being anything but silly in a film version. The problem with the film's ending is thus not necessarily in the changes it makes from the comic, but in its pacing, which is noticeably off. The comic's climactic showdown at Veidt's Antarctic stronghold is actually an anticlimax, the book's supposed heroes arriving too late to stop the ambiguous "villain" from... well, saving the world, actually, albeit through truly horrifying means. The comic's ending is a slow, elegiac cool-down, as the heroes come to the realization that they must accept the horrors they have witnessed for the good of the world: to preserve peace, they must maintain a terrible secret. This resolution is sad and low-key and quiet, and Snyder is of course adept at none of these moods. He shatters the lonely snowbound death of Rorschach with the piercing scream of the Nite Owl (a cartoonish "nooooo!" that is, believe it or not, not in the comic), and insists on inserting one more brutal beating afterwards.

Whenever Snyder runs roughshod over the subtlety and grace of moments like this, one wonders how he even got so much right in this film. And yet it's undeniable that he does. For every place where his inclinations towards slo-mo violence and grotesquerie run away with him, there's something like the beautifully executed Mars sequence, with Dr. Manhattan ruminating on his life and his understanding of the universe while creating alien designs on the red planet's surface. He has a fine cast — with the exception of the consistently flat Akerman, who is often distractingly awful — and a shiny, richly textured visual aesthetic, and he's building from one of the great works of superhero comics. And yet Watchmen could have easily been an embarrassing failure, yet another brilliant Alan Moore-scripted comic adapted into a watered-down movie. It might sound like faint praise to credit Snyder with finally making a Moore adaptation that doesn't outright suck. In fact, the film is often compelling and smart, even if just as often it seems to miss the point. Snyder has made a fascinating but flawed film that hints at the richness of its source material, suggesting though never quite realizing the depth of the heady concepts and potent ideas at its core.

18 comments:

Sam Juliano said...

God, what a fabulous review. Is there a better one out there on this film? I doubt it.

Well, I took my wife and five kids to see it after school on Friday afternoon, and I was fully expecting to hate this with a passion, even if the reviews were generally favorable. But it's not my kind of thing, and your rightful disclaimers above on 300 seemed quite accurate as far as I'm concerned.

But as you say here:

"More than that, Snyder's Watchmen is frequently breathtaking. What comes through more than anything is how strong Alan Moore is as a writer: long passages are taken verbatim from the comic, and surprisingly they actually work on screen, coming out of the mouths of actors."

and

"It's undeniable that Snyder's Watchmen is an immersive experience, a distillation of the comic into moving images, each frame packed with details and subtle in-jokes that will be especially resonant for those who know the Moore comic backwards and forwards — like the shot of Mothman getting dragged away to an asylum during the opening credits, an image that could only be puzzling to those not versed in the comic. The film is a love letter to the book it is adapted from, which is both its greatest asset and its greatest failing. Because when the film soars, as it often does, it does so on Moore's wings, and when it falters, as often as not, it does so at those points where it has attempted to leave him behind."

I agree WATCHMEN is flawed too, but you certainly seem to have a handle on that part of the discourse as well. Oddly my kids were rather ho-hum on it,(only the 9 year-old was seemingly riveted) my wife nodded off, but I was mostly mesmerized. And I generally hate this genre and superhero movies. Go figure!

This is truly one of your finest reviews. Amazing.

bill r. said...

Ed, you did a great job here, even though I disagree quite a bit. I thought the film was a mess -- a bonkers, sometimes fascinating mess, but still a mess. My review is up, if you care to take a look, but boy do I wish I'd seen the movie you apparently did.

Still, I don't feel crushed that I didn't much care for the film, and I give Snyder credit for going all out. It just...well, I'm a bit burned out on writing about Watchmen at this particular moment, but more later, when I'm refreshed.

Sam Juliano said...

Hey Bill, I saw the same movie Ed did, and I didn't remotely feel it was a mess! LOL! I will check out your review today.

Sam Juliano said...

Bill R:

I just spent over 45 minutes with my wife attempting to place a comment at your site, and your settings are too resstrictive. I changed my google account three times with new passwords and still I was unable to post a comment. I don't know what else I can do except to leave the comment here at Ed's site. I hope I am not offending Ed by doing this. Here is the comment I tried to leave, Bill:

Well Bill, I am definitely one of the "non-fans" you speak of, and have never once laid eyes on the comic. Similarly I generally hate all movies in this genre, as I find they are all noise and bluster, with little substance or emotional resonenance. My wife and five kids were completely indifferent to it at the Friday afternoon show we attended, but surprise! I was fairly impressed! I liked the graphics, and Haley's character/performance (as you did) but I was impressed with the operatic sweep, the deft use of stark visuals and classical music and the philosophical profundity. I loved it's period detail too (that TV spot for THE OUTER LIMITS--1963, was great stuff)

You are a fabulous writer (this is the first review of yours I have read) and you have written a magisterial essay here, and that counts far more than whether I or anyone else agrees or disagrees with you. I just want to go down on record as a "yay-sayer" albeit a surprising one.

A very nice site here, Bill.

christian said...

Excellent review and a fair summation. I would say where Snyder fares worse is in dialogue scenes, so much so that he has Manhattan narrate -- in slo-mo -- over a fight they obviously filmed! But never having read the source comic, I knew I'd be easier on the film. And again, it's all about Jackie Earle Haley.

Ariel said...

Why is there no mention of this being an inadequate comic book movie because there was no Joker?

Sorry, couldn't resist.

bill r. said...

Sam - thanks very much for your compliments. I don't know why you were having so much trouble posting on my site -- the only restriction I have in place is the word verification, which I have thought about dropping -- but I'm sorry about that.

I think it's really interesting that there are people like you who are unfamiliar with the comic who think so highly of the film. This movie really seems to be dividing people, which, despite what I thought of it, probably indicates that Snyder did shoot for the moon. I just thought many (most?) of his choices whiffed.

By the way, that Outer Limits reference comes from the comic, and my understanding is that Moore did that because, in the course of writing the comic, he discovered that his ending bore a striking resemblence to an episode of that show. I don't know how closely (I haven't seen the episode), so it may be kind of ironic that Snyder, who changed the ending a bit, used the reference, if it doesn't apply to the film. Anyway, just a bit of trivia.

Samuel Wilson said...

Ed; I think I must have blotted the Hallelujah scene out of my mind because I had clearly forgotten about it when posting my own review. Apart from that, I was least impressed with the Mars scene, which to me was just so much CGI spectacle plus the usual archetypal sturm und drang over parent issues. Overall, though, your "fascinating but flawed" comment sums up the Watchmen experience, and I'd agree with you that it's the best Alan Moore-derived movie out there. Moore himself might even agree.

Sam Juliano said...

Thanks very much Bill, for the OUTER LIMITS clarification, much appreciated as I am a big fan of that genre classic. And I see this film is really dividing the bloggers down the middle.

hokahey said...

It was very interesting reading a review from someone who knows the source material well; and it seems like you are very fair with the film, not damning it for throwing out a favorite detail or two. I came to the film not having read the comic books, knowing very little about the plot, and I found a lot to enjoy - but I came away feeling the film gets bogged down by being so faithful to the "graphic novel" and I think that fidelity robs the film of drama. Strangely enough, I enjoyed the story's flashbacks more than its present plot.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for all the comments so far. Hokahey, one of the interesting things about both versions of Watchmen is how heavily the past figures in the story. In many ways, the present-day story is just an excuse for all the flashbacks, for the exploration of what drove these people, and this world, to this particular place and time. I think it works better in the comics than in the movie, because in film the constant triggering of flashbacks can be somewhat distracting and disruptive of the film's pacing (this is especially true at the Comedian's funeral, where each mourner has a Comedian-related flashback). I give Snyder a lot of credit, though, for getting the Manhattan on Mars sequence right, capturing the fluid interplay of past, present and future in Manhattan's experience of his life. He didn't use Moore's exact words ("I am holding the photo. It is falling from my fingers...") but he got the feel of it just right. He was less successful with other moments, of course. Snyder's Watchmen isn't even close to matching the great comic, but it's interesting enough to be considered a worthy adaptation attempt, I think.

J.D. said...

Excellent review. I felt much the same way you did. In many respects, Snyder's film is a very faithful representation of the comic book and I have to give him credit for even getting the film made at all considering its long, checkered production history.

I had a few minor quibbles with the film, many of which you addressed, (like Akerman... ugh) but I also thought that the supporting characters from the comic book suffered the most. Obviously, this was going to happen as you can only put so much into a running time of a film and it's amazing he was allowed to have it run as long as he did. Hopefully, the director's cut that will come out on DVD will have more on them (I mean, Rorschach's psychiatrist was reduced to a one-note character which was a shame). I know on the super deluxe edition he is going to integrate THE TALES OF THE FREIGHTER comic book into the film, which I can't wait.

You know, the changed ending didn't bother me as much as I had thought it would. It certainly kept in the spirit of the comic book, altho, pinning it on Doc Manhattan was kinda interesting to say the least.

As most people have noted, Jackie Earle Haley and Jeffrey Dean Morgan are the best performances out of the cast but I also thought that Billy Crudup was excellent as Manhattan, esp. with the eerily dispassionate voice that he adopted throughout. I was also pleased at how faithfully his character's origins were adapted from the comic book.

Aside from the wincing use of Cohen's "Hallelujah" during the love scene, I am also getting tired of Snyder's reliance on the speed up/slow down/sub-MATRIX action sequences that he is so enamored with. It was glaringly obvious in the prison riot scene but in other parts it wasn't too bad but he needs to that technique a rest.

At any rate, I quite enjoyed your post.

Anagramsci said...

great stuff Ed--I think we are substantially in agreement... my one sentence summary is: "politics 1, psychology 0"...

Dave

Ali Arikan said...

I loved it - and in the many instances of deviation from the source, Snyder achieved some sort of transcendental beauty: fully in line with the ideas of the comic.

Rick Olson said...

Very fine review. I lean more toward the "Bill r." end of the spectrum on this, but I did enjoy it.

coffee said...

Rorschach was an especially well developed as a character; i hope the actor that played his role is nominated for some kind of an award (when that season comes around again)

Citizen Scribbler said...

Nobody has a remark about Mr. Juliano bringing a 9-year-old to see this movie?

Dude, that is so f'd up. I'm not surprised he was "seemingly riveted", he was probably traumatized!

There is no way a child that age can possibly process the adult material in Watchmen into something positive. And I strongly doubt that you took the time necessary to put what he saw into the proper context.

People like you should have their children taken away from them. You and your wife are sick!

-Citizen Scribbler

Gavin Burrows said...

Long-time listener, first time caller...

A good review, I certainly agree with much that you say. You're certainly bang on about the lumpen nature of the soundtrack. One probably minor disagreement, which I mentioned in my review was over Dan and Laurie's post-coital conversation. I felt we got enough of the sense of that to avoid it being spelt out. (Though of course it's true I knew what to look for from having read the comic.) Personally, it was lines from the Psychiatrist and Dr. Manhattan I felt the lack of...

PS Apologies for late nature of these comments, only got a chance to see the film recently!