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REVIEW: “Watchmen”

Hey, long time no blog, blah blah blah.

So, “Watchmen.” It seems that I’m one of the last people to actually see this film, but that isn’t going to stop me from rantin’, no sir!

“WATCHMEN”
**1/2

Directed by: Zack Snyder
Starring: Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Haley, Billy Crudup, Malin Akerman

They finally did it. After twenty-three years of false starts, budget concerns, and directors such as Terry Gilliam dropping out of the project and declaring the source material “unfilmable” as anything other than an epic mini-series, they’ve finally released a film adaptation of Alan Moore’s “Watchmen.”

First, the good news: this film isn’t the awful, terrible injustice that so many fanboys want it to be. In fact, the one thing that you can credit Snyder with is filming an adaptation that is at times shockingly faithful to the original source material. And although there was concern over the changed ending, the modification actually serves the film far better: it not only makes more sense in terms of adapting the story for film, but admittedly also makes a Hell of a lot more sense in the context of the antagonist’s master plan.

There is, however, one major problem with this film that kept it from being great, and his name is Zack Snyder. Having seen him do something that’s supposed to resemble a serious film (rather than a goofy live-action video game), I can now confidently label him as a creatively lazy filmmaker who is about as clever as a book of matches. The fact that he remained as faithful as he did to the source material isn’t necessarily a good thing, despite the close-minded framework by which many comic book fans on the internet will judge a film’s worth.

A director, in my mind, should not be praised just because he used comic book panels as storyboards and whose only modifications to the story itself involved changing a detail in the ending of the film and omitting minor sub-plots. Snyder, for all his efforts, simply doesn’t have the imagination or skills as a storyteller to put his own stamp on a story or add anything to the concept. Watching Snyder’s film version of “Watchmen” after reading the original comic is much like watching an original film and then reading the novelization of it, which simply reproduces in text form what’s already been presented on the screen. What’s the point?

What’s worse is that when Snyder does put his own personal stamp on the presentation of the film (rather than the story), it’s all in hyperactive aesthetics. Which would be fine except Snyder’s aesthetics involve fetishizing each violent act that occurs to laughable absurdity, the over-use of slow motion sequences (I think if just half the slow motion shots were at regular speed this film would clock in at about 90 minutes), and inserting cute visual puns into the most important parts of the story and subsequently destroying their emotional ramifications. The last one was particularly frustrating and made me want to tear my own hair out.

Watching this film also made me realize that beyond just being a director with questionable taste, Zack Snyder is all bells and whistles. When “The 300” came out, I actually enjoyed it quite a bit and praised Snyder for taking a pretty brainless concept and at least making it interesting with a unique visual style. The problem is that we now know his tricks, and he doesn’t have anything for an encore let alone to get you to come back the next time he rolls through town. I suspect that any future work will confirm my suspicions and expose him for what I think he is – a bad director and even worse storyteller.

As for the acting, there’s some hokeyness in the portrayal of the characters due to both decisions made by the director and by actors who work on the assumption that camp is the only method one can employ when portraying a character from a comic book. In particular, Mathew Goode as Ozymandias is so wholly unbelievable and unnatural in his role that you’d think he felt the role was beneath him and held the audience in contempt for wanting to see the film. Patrick Wilson falls into cheese in the role of Night Owl, but much of that comes with the character and I can hardly find fault with an actor for not being able to pull off the highly difficult (and nearly impossible) task of displaying a second-generation superhero’s naivete and cheese in a way that makes you pity and sympathize with him rather than laugh derisively.

On the other hand, Jackie Earle Haley’s portrayal of Rorschach not only does justice to one of the most iconic fictional characters in comics history, he actually manages to carry the film with his performance. Billy Crudup does what’s required in portraying Dr. Manhattan, a detached super-powered being who only shows brief glimpses of being able to relate to the people around him and, in turn, the audience. It’s almost unfortunate that Crudup was cast in this role, as he’s got far more range than the character will allow.

The one big shocker was how much I enjoyed Malin Akerman’s turn as Laurie Jupiter, particularly since I’ve read some reviews that almost or outright buried her as an actress. For somebody with relatively little experience, she more than held her own and deserves credit for making Jupiter a lot more sympathetic and likable than she was in the original comic (in my opinion, anyway).

All credit for this film being watchable goes to the strength of the concept, story, and the creative vision of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Too often I’ve read that “Watchmen” was “unfilmable” and that any problems the film might have are just proof that it’s not possible to to effectively tell the story through a camera. I call bullshit on that. To me, a good story is a good story, and the intricate details contained within it are just that; details and nothing more. Some people may not like to hear it, but that’s the reality of telling stories in different mediums. Moving a story from text with images to a moving visual is going to come with its own unique challenges, and therein lies the opportunity for creativity and art.

So long as you hit all the important notes and plot elements, you can adapt any story to any medium. The problem is when Hollywood does it just because it can rather than because they think they can do it well. Such is the story of “Watchmen.”

You’ll enjoy it to an extent if you’ve read the original comic, because you get to imagine these characters you’ve become invested in “come to life” so to speak. If you haven’t read it, you might enjoy the story based on its own merit. Unfortunately, there’s absolutely no art in its transition to film or its presentation, and that’s woefully unfair considering what the original “Watchmen” did for its own medium. It deserved somebody who got what it meant and what it tried to do in terms of both the story itself and the context of when it was written. What it got was Zack Snyder, a man who knows how to mimic greatness but has no idea how to duplicate the results.

But hey, at least it didn’t turn out like “Daredevil” or “Ghost Rider.” Now THOSE were bad movies.

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  1. March 10, 2009 at 2:54 am

    My uninformed review

    The only reason I’m not seeing the movie soley because Zack Snyder is the director. I’ll say it. He’s a hack. He’s the unfortunate after birth of the Wachowski brothers.

    Every thing you’ve said is pretty much every review I’ve read so far. I haven’t read the Yahoo review, though. Supposedly, the guy wrote his graduate thesis on Watchmen and had a really hard time with the film. I’ll see if I can look it up.

    • March 10, 2009 at 3:08 am

      Re: My uninformed review

      I’m actually on the other end of the spectrum, Kev. It’s just because this movie COULD have been a collosal nightmare. It wasn’t. Should it win for best picture? No. But after 20 years, all the bitching and arguing, it was made, an it didn’t overall suck.

      • March 10, 2009 at 3:20 am

        Re: My uninformed review

        But it also could have not been made at all and that actually would have been just fine. As a matter of fact, people had resigned themselves to the fact that the movie was never going to happen and were fine with it. Despite anticipation once it was greenlit, more talk was focused on the movie never happening rather than demanding that it did happen. So in that sense, I can’t really give Zack Snyder a pass simply because the film was made.

        I agree that it didn’t suck completely and even noted as such in the review. That’s not the same as it being good, and I stand by my burying – harsh as it may have been – of Zack Snyder. I think that with films being what they are these days, we need to hold it up to a standard better than mediocre, especially considering the quality of what it’s adapting.

        It wasn’t a travesty, but it was a flashy and pointless disservice to the original, like that shot by shot remake of “Psycho” that came out a few years ago that I meant to bring up to further illustrate my point of mimicking greatness but not duplicating it (but forgot).

  2. March 10, 2009 at 4:09 am

    While I enjoyed it to a degree, I can’t argue with your review. We’re pretty much on the same page with what we think worked vs. what didn’t work. There were numerous moments where I was saying “Snyyydeerrrrrr!!!” in my head in the theater. Currently, I’m re-reading it and I think, if anything, my opinion of the film will only get worse. Right from the first issue the difference is striking in terms of depth. Making it look right is only one aspect of making a good adaptation. It worked well for Sin City, but that’s a very different situation. That’s just OTT sex and violence and cheeseball dialogue, and once you can mimic the visual style, the rest is easy. Not so for Watchmen. I will see it again, but most likely not until the 305-minute version that splices in “Tales of the Black Freighter” comes out, since I’d like to see how much the additional footage helps to fix the problems (it of course won’t erase the ridiculous sex scene or undo the slow-mo, overly long, overly violent action sequences). I’ve heard pretty good things about the “Motion Comic,” though, other than having a man do all the voices.

  3. March 11, 2009 at 9:30 pm

    You’ll be happy to know that Fox is doing a reboot of Daredevil, as well as a reboot of Fantastic Four. Seriously, they are trying to retell the same basic story less than 5 years after the original. So for all we know, there’s another version of Watchmen already in production. They can call the reboot Watchmen: Daylight Savings Time. Fall Behind this September!

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