As a self-professed comic book nerd you can bet I’ve read Watchmen a few times and keep an Absolute Edition within easy reach.
I will also admit I didn’t read the series when it hit shelves in the late eighties. It took a few years for Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ work to find itself into my hands. Perhaps its because I first read the graphic novel as an adult that I can look at it through a different filter than something like Star Wars, Transformers, or Batman, and I can separate my appreciation for the subject without childhood wonder coloring my opinion.
Although it brings to life several moments of the comic in vivid detail, and includes a superb performance by Jackie Earl Haley as Rorshach, it also condenses, mangles, and distorts the tale into a movie that only slightly resembles the comic. And for a movie which is style over substance it adds very little in terms of look or technology. The most memorable shots are either taken directly from the page or borrowed from better films (such as a war room eerily similar to that of Dr. Strangelove) you would rather be watching.
In 1985 the world is at the cusp of nuclear destruction. Richard Nixon is President and costume heroes have been outlawed for years. As tensions rise we are brought into the mysterious death of a former hero known as The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and the circumstances which surrounded his untimely end. Through flashbacks we learn about the former heroes inhabiting this reality, their past successes, and the present struggles of their private and professional lives. I will give director Zack Snyder credit for cramming an incredible amount of information and detail into nearly every cranny of Watchmen. He takes the time to give us a look at the rich history of these characters, even if he makes a few too many mistakes along the way.
The film the “visionary” director presents us with is filled with many issues perhaps the biggest of which is Snyder’s misinterpretation of the film’s complexity and length as something big. Rather than peeling back the subtle layers presented in the original work, Snyder chooses what to leave out and to make everything included in the film big, loud, cool, and colorful, without anything resembling subtlety or context. And when he tries to add meaning it’s with a hamfisted fury that disrespects both the audience’s attention and intelligence. There are several moments big flashing letters “THIS IS IMPORTANT! DID YOU HEAR THAT LAST LINE? LET ME REPEAT IT FOR YOU!” would have been less intrusive, and more natural, than what we are forced to endure.
For years Watchmen was described as unfilmable. Many drifted to and away from the project. It was too dense and too complex to condense into a feature film. Unable to include everything Snyder and his team give us a “greatest hits” version of the graphic novel. Given the time frame available that’s all we can really ask, but quizzically the best moments are either changed (the ending involving the space squid, Rorshach’s cigarette in the eye) or completely left out (Dr. Manhattan’s conversation with Hollis Mason about electric cars, the dispersal of a angry mob-to their own homes-by the world’s only super-hero). Instead what we’re given feels hollow and empty. Sure it’s pretty, but it’s also vapid and mostly incoherent and uninteresting (those with whom I talked afterwards who hadn’t read the comic were more than a little confused). It’s as if we’ve been handed a greatest hits volume of one of the world’s premiere artists only including the b-sides and performed by a cover band who doesn’t really get the music.
By cutting various story elements, and truncating the rest, we’re left with a film full of logistical issues, both large and small. At points throughout the film characters react to situations that the movie hasn’t bothered to inform them of. The most grievous of these is the reporting that Dr. Manhattan has gone to Mars on the local news. How does the reporter know this? Manhattan simply ducks out of a on-air appearance, is able to teleport anywhere (including a number of locations on Earth), but somehow the reporter instantly knows where he’s gone, and how long he intends to stay? I want access to his sources!
Even after cutting some of the best material, at more than two-and-a-half hours the film is still too long. Of course it doesn’t help that Snyder has chosen to present every action sequence in slow motion (which creates numerous new problems, not in the least of which gives the appearance of super-human powers to what are supposedly normal human beings). I hope you enjoyed this Mr. Snyder, because I’m revoking your slow-mo privileges for the remainder of human history. Of course it’s not bad enough that everything is slowed down, but sound effects are added as well for each kick or punch. I didn’t know that the human body made those sounds. It actually became so distracting to me I half-expected big “POW” and “ZOWIE” signs from the old Batman TV-show to appear as well.
Tied into this is the misguided attempt to make these heroes of yesteryear cool. There’s a scene relatively early in the film where Dan (Patrick Wilson) and Sally (Malin Ackerman) reminisce about old times and laugh at how silly they were to dress up in bad costumes and fight crime. The scene works in the graphic novel because the costumes were indeed hideous. It doesn’t work here, where seemingly ever character has been given their own fashion consultant. Nite Owl is heroic, but he’s not supposed to be cool, and by making him into a poor man’s Batman (able to knock people across a room in slow motion in his kick ass costume) you lose an important piece of what makes Moore’s character work.
If the plot is a problem the film also fails in terms of character. The story is over-burdened with too many for a film of this length. As a result important small roles are reduced to little more than cameos or removed completely. It also doesn’t help that aside from Haley’s performance the acting is spotty at best. Obviously each of these actors were chosen for their appearance, not for their talent or ability to make us believe or care about the characters they are portraying.
I love Carla Gugino but she’s horribly miscast here as the original Silk Spectre and is saddled with some laughably bad old-age make-up for most of her scenes. Ackerman, who gets the larger role as her daughter, is simply horrid. She’s a lovely woman and fills out the latex costume quite nicely, but she simply doesn’t have the range or gravitas for the role which leaves us with a pretty, but rather dim, leading lady who can’t deliver her lines but is willing to get naked! Maybe my standards a bit too high, but do we really need a gratuitously long nerdcore Skinemax moment in Watchmen?
Crudup does what he can with Dr. Manhattan but is burdened by the film’s inability to come to terms with who, and exactly what, the god-like being is and what, if any, limitations he has. Crudup attempts to play the character as detached, which works in some instances but also makes a character who should come off as a genius often appear slow. His stilted dialogue, which I’m sure was meant to highlight his disconnect with reality as humans perceive it, felt more to me like a stroke victim struggling to communicate basic ideas.
You might think from this review I didn’t like anything about Watchmen, which isn’t the case. I liked the kitty. Okay, that’s not the only thing I liked about the film, but it is a good example how even the things I enjoyed about Watchmen still don’t quite work. Adrian Veidt’s (Matthew Goode, who spends most of the film dressed up in one of Chris O’Donnell’s spare costumes from Batman & Robin) genetically enhanced pet Bubastis looks great and I wanted to see more of him. However, by removing the space squid (in favor of a far inferior ending that doesn’t even work on its own terms) and Ozymandias’ genetic research the existence of Bubasitis makes absolutely no sense (like so much of the rest of the film). It’s as if the makers of the film decided every billionaire former hero with an Antarctic retreat would own a genetically-enhanced cat. Maybe PetSmart Antarctica sells them by the litter.
The great failure in Snyder’s film is that it takes one of the greatest comics of all-time and transforms it into a film which is the cinematic equivalent to Batman & Robin. Given a choice between watching either of the two again, at this moment, I honestly can decide on which I would choose.
The entire enterprise is made up of seemingly random choices. Snyder revels in the level of gore and exploding bodies (which I would argue is only used to sell one lame joke late in the film), yet balks at giving us a single drop of blood when it comes to the story’s horrific climax. Why? Of course it doesn’t help when your saddled with screenwriters and a director that don’t even understand that there is no group actually called the Watchmen in the story (Minutemen, yes. Crimebusters, yes. Watchmen, not so much). That’s one of those small facts somebody might have wanted to check.
I apologize if in this review I’ve come off as someone slavishly devoted to the source material as I’ve tried, with somewhat limited success I’m sure, to rate the film both on its own merits as well as an adaptation. Snyder fails in his attempt to both recreate scenes in lavish detail without so much as a shard of glass out of place, and yet, at the same time, makes a series of odd changes that not only make little sense for the film but detract from the story Moore originally gave us. For years people argued that Watchmen was unfilmable, it turns out, despite the best efforts of Snyder and his team, they were right (at least in terms of making a good theatrical version).