"I really liked it," said my girlfriend as we exited the IMAX theater in Rochester, NY, where we had just attended a special midnight showing of Watchmen along with three hundred or so of our fellow college students. "But while I was watching it I wasn't thinking, 'Wow, this is a really good movie,' I was thinking, 'Wow, the book this movie is based on must be a really good book.'"
I couldn't have said it better myself.
Zack Snyder's Watchmen can hardly be called a movie any more than it can called Zack Snyder's, for the supposedly "visionary" director of the fun 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead and 2006's chest-thumping action epic 300, also based on a graphic novel, seems in this case less a director than one of those ancient Benedictine monks, hunched over a podium, reverently illuminating a sacred text.
Snyder's sacred text of choice: Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' seminal graphic novel of the same name, originally published in single-issue form by DC Comics over the course of 1986 and 1987. (Moore famously refused to attach his name to any future adaptations of his work after the box office and critical failures of From Hell in 2001 and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in 2003, a policy to which he continues to adhere even after the comparative success of V for Vendetta in 2005. I wonder if he will renege after what is likely to be the phenomenal box office success of Hollywood's latest attempt, released March 6th.)
Despite its palpable, back pain-inducing length (I saw little blue lights flicker on and off several times as people slipped their cell phones discreetly out of their pockets to check the time) all five of my party remained apparently engaged for the full 163 minutes, which struck me as odd; typically, if a movie failed to distract its viewers from the passage of time, that means it failed to entertain them.
Not in this case. Somehow, Watchmen inspires its viewers to endure the back pain and the sleeping buttocks even as they remain acutely aware of them. It is not unsimilar in this way to the experience of reading the entire graphic novel in one sitting (I should know, that's how I read it): even as your neck aches from poring over its 416 pages and your eyes burn from scanning all the diminutive text in its various emotive fonts, you grow only more stalwart, determined not to be defeated by the enormity of the task.
Or perhaps "entertain" is simply the wrong word. Watchmen is more impressive than it is entertaining. Snyder reportedly set out to produce a more faithful adaptation of a source material than had ever before been produced, and in that he seems to have been successful. Taken thus, as an experiment in stretching the limits of page to screen translation, it is truly an awesome feat to behold. He gets every detail right, from the chromatic scheme (secondary colors such as orange and purple as opposed to the traditional primary colors of comic books such as the blue and red of Superman's cape and tights) to the sound a would be assassin makes when he is punched in the stomach (described onomatopoetically in the graphic novel as "hugYUH").
The credit for little else of what makes Watchmen watchable belongs to Snyder, however, as characters that should have been wooden robbed of the internal monologues that flesh them out in the graphic novel are brought to nuanced life by what must be one of the finest ensembles of actors ever assembled for a lowly comic book flick.
While you won't find any one performance as brilliant as Heath Ledger's in last summer's The Dark Knight, there are the always appealing Patrick Wilson (Little Children, HBO's Angels in America) as a nebbishy Night Owl and Billy Crudup (Almost Famous, Stage Beauty) as a dispassionate Dr. Manhattan, both Tony award winners.
There are also:
- Jackie Earle Haley (Little Children, All the King's Men), an until recently obscure character actor of distinct visage, as the sociopathic Rorschach.
Akerman, almost certainly cast for her looks rather than her talent, is the weak link. Her teenage girlish mannerisms are distracting, her uniform line delivery drains a pivotal exchange with Dr. Manhattan of the emotional punch it should have packed, and her evident pleasure at her own admittedly considerable sex appeal is inconsistent with the character of a young woman frustrated with what she perceives as the demeaning role of superheroine-cum-bombshell thrust upon her by a controlling mother, the original Silk Spectre (the much sexier Carla Gugino).
Her scenes with Wilson play nicely, however, perhaps because Wilson draws genuine spontaneity out of her with his own, perhaps because all that is required of her in those scenes is to provide the kind of sexual foil that Dan Dreiberg (Night Owl's alter ego) sees as out of his league, thus becoming endearingly bumbling whenever she is around and thereby providing the audience with some much needed comic relief.
Which brings me to the plot: It is 1985 in an alternate reality America. Nixon is in the midst of his fifth term as president and the country is on the brink of nuclear war with Russia. A giddy opening credits sequence set to Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'" informs us of an alternate history in which superheros have played an integral role in shaping our society (S&M leather-clad superheroine Silhouette replaces the American sailor kissing the nurse in the iconic WWII photograph, then later they both show up murdered in the bed they presumably shared, the words "lesbian whores" scrawled across the wall in blood; we witness the assassination of JFK in unflinching slow motion, then pull back to reveal none other than a rifle wielding Comedian perched on the proverbial grassy knoll). Vigilantism has since been outlawed, and only Rorschach remains active, his face concealed by a white stocking mask across which black ink blots continually ooze and shift, inviting viewers to project whatever emotions we will.
When the Comedian is murdered Rorschach naturally assumes that somebody is picking off costumed heroes and begins to investigate. Eventually, however, we learn the Comedian was killed for having stumbled onto a much larger, darker scheme. Without giving away the ending, it suffices to say that the moral of the story seems to be that sometimes the only way to prevent evil is to commit evil.
In the graphic novel, Moore softens what might otherwise be an oppressively nihilistic world view by including subplots that center around peripheral civilian characters, the often touching details of which lend it a humanity that is markedly absent from the film. So cynically detached are we that even when the entire population of New York City is killed in a weird sort of bright blue electromagnetic explosion our only reaction is disappointment over the lameness of the special effect, especially after how consistently impressive they have been so far: bad guys explode in confetti showers of shredded flesh and sinew, a giant, whirling UFO spontaneously crystallizes out of the dust of Mars and rises like the impossibly intricate inner workings of a clock at Dr. Manhattan's telekinetic command.
Nothing, however, is quite as remarkable as Dr. Manhattan himself. Naked, musclebound, bald and blue, he might have looked ridiculous on screen. But the folks at Sony Imageworks pull it off. When during an origin sequence set to unsettling effect to Philip Glass's "Prophecies" he materializes for the first time, floating and effulgent in a Christlike pose above the heads of a cafeteria full of stunned onlookers, we share their wonder. Jaded moviegoers that we are, when's the last time you uttered the word "wow" in a movie theater?
Unfortunately, Snyder botches the action sequences, glorifying the violence with the same hyper-stylized slow-motion technique he used for 300. For that film it worked. For this one it is egregiously inappropriate. The violence in Watchmen should be gritty and unpleasant, not cool. It should leave the same bad taste in the viewers' mouths as it leaves in its perpetrators', with the exception of course of the sadistic Rorschach and the remorseless (or is he?) Comedian.
For example, in one scene Dreiberg and Sally Jupiter (Silk Spectre II's alter ego) are assaulted by a gang of thugs on their way home from dinner. To protect themselves they must resort to the martial arts skills they haven't used since they retired, and perhaps inevitably they get carried away.
In the graphic novel, when the thugs lie bloody and broken at their feet, Dreiberg and Jupiter shy away from each other's gaze, ashamed.
Snyder completely misses the point. He shoots the fight like pornography, and afterward has Wilson and Akerman lock eyes intensely, panting, as if about to start making out.
When they finally do have a sex a few scenes later it is nothing short of painful. Snyder again employs a slow motion approach, focusing first on Akerman's leather-booted legs wrapped around Wilson's waist, and then on her impeccably made-up face contorted with pleasure, all while Leonard Cohen's self consciously hokey "Hallelujah" plays obtrusively in the background.
Thank God the awkwardness is diffused at the last second by a flame thrower-as-orgasm gag or else I might have given up on the movie right then and there.
In short, yes, Watchmen is flawed. Most ambitious movies are. But I give it credit just for being ambitious. After all, they said a Watchmen movie couldn't be made, and now, imperfect though it may be, one has. Someday another visionary young filmmaker may wish to improve upon Snyder's attempt.
Lucky for him someone broke the ice.
Lucky for him someone broke the ice.