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Movie Review: Watchmen

March 14, 2009

The graphic novel Watchmen has been on this earth very nearly as long as I have, and lauded from here to the horizon and back that whole time, but it was only a few years ago that I actually got around to reading it myself. A lot of people were talking about comparisons to Heroes and how it felt like it was ripping off Watchmen, so my initial reading was superficial, cursory. I was speeding through it looking for the vaunted similarities to Heroes and I got to the end of the book without having any idea what people were talking about.

(Of course, I was a week behind in my viewing, so when I watched the next episode, “.07%,” it all became clear.)

I came away from that reading thinking the book was okay, but not really seeing what was so great about it. The fault in this case was mine, as I hadn’t bothered to engage with the text or make any attempt to dig beneath the surface. (A woeful admission, considering my degree from UCLA is essentially in literary analysis!) But I left it there for quite some time — in fact, I didn’t give Watchmen a second look until after the first trailer had been released.

I was in the audience of the Watchmen panel at Comic-Con last year, and it was the way the cast and crew spoke about the material, and about the depth and complexity of the story and characters — to say nothing of the fan interest — that made me think I ought to give the book a second look. This time, on its own terms. I found that this time around I really loved the book, so I had to keep my fingers crossed that the passion and understanding of the material that I saw at that panel discussion would translate to the screen. 

So, did it?

Well, first of all let’s talk about the marketing. Everything Watchmen, from posters to trailers, touted them as being “From the Visionary Director of 300,” Zack Snyder. Now, Snyder seems like a cool enough guy in interviews and such, so it’s nothing against him as a person. But I fail to see how using someone else’s imagery with no deviation makes you anything more than a transcriptionist. If anyone gets to be called visionary for 300, it’s Frank Miller. Likewise Watchmen belongs equally to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon. 

Zack Snyder is certainly no visionary. The few bits of the film that aren’t straight from the pages of the comic are dull, lifeless, unimaginative compositions. Most of the dialogue plays out in medium one-shots, edited so that the camera cuts to each character as they speak. This isn’t visionary filmmaking, it’s elementary. 

Much has been made of the idea that Watchmen is unfilmable, but I think that’s bullshit. Watchmen is eminently filmable, in fact probably moreso than many other books because it has the advantage of already existing in a visual medium. Perhaps, before the advent of digital effects technology to today’s extent, it was once unfilmable. Although even that is a qualification I’m unwilling to accept. Look at all the films that have been made throughout the past century or so that the art form has existed. Special effects have ridden along side-by-side every step of the way.

I think Watchmen could have been made, and relatively effectively, any time between its publication and today. It might have been difficult, and it might not hold up as well today, but it’s certainly always been more than filmable. 

I suppose the argument is that you couldn’t translate everything effectively to the screen, but again, I think that’s quite untrue as well. By that argument, everything that does not begin life as a movie screenplay is “unfilmable.” The Harry Potter films certainly don’t carry everything over from the books. Sometimes the cuts or condensations make sense and don’t affect the story, sometimes the omissions leave me baffled. But it’s not impossible, just challenging. 

I suppose it’s telling that, of the five Harry Potter films so far, my favorite is Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. I say that this is “telling” because, of the five, it is the one that is least faithful to the plot of the book. Events are omitted or altered quite liberally, and while many fans are angry that Cuaron took such liberties with the letter of the book, in my estimation he has been the most successful in translating the spirit of the work to the big screen.

Compare his work to Chris Columbus’ treatment of the first two. They hew much more faithfully to the events of the books, and yet they feel plodding, artless. They’re merely plot summaries, failing to breathe any life into the story or the characters. 

Watchmen, unfortunately, is like the Chris Columbus Harry Potter films. It is so focused on remaining “true” to the source material’s plot, that it fails to bring any truth to the story. We speed from scene to scene, and lots of things are happening, and they’re pretty much all from the book, but the film doesn’t take any time to help us understand why on earth we should even begin to care. It’s so focused on fitting everything in that it has to cut most of the scenes, even the important scenes, down to such quick bits that their inclusion almost becomes pointless. The conversation on Mars between Dr. Manhattan and Laurie takes up nearly an entire issue of the original story, is filled with tons of existential and philosophical stuff. In the film it’s maybe five minutes long, and it’s all expository. 

In fact, pretty much everything in here is expository. The characters don’t get the time to breathe, don’t get the time to crack a joke or make a weird comment or be quirky like real people. And that’s a problem, because the whole point of Watchmen was the idea of “what if comic book superheroes were real people with real problems.” Yeah, you fit all the events in, but they’re almost besides the point. Watchmen is supposed to be a character drama more than an action piece. And although everyone on the Watchmen panel at Comic Con echoed how “deep” the source material is, how “rich” the characters, it doesn’t seem that they bothered to find out what’s in the depths. 

I would have preferred to see a movie that was less successful in terms of getting all the events onscreen, but more successful in telling the story in a different medium. I should have felt horror at what Ozymandias did at the end, I should have felt just as conflicted as the other characters as to whether or not what he did was right. But I felt nothing — in fact, I very nearly felt boredom.

So drop the scenes that may be iconic but don’t help you care, and focus on what creates the feeling that you need in order to pay it off in the end. Sure, the uber-fanboys would have raised a stink, but it would have stood the test of time as a movie in its own right, rather than its more likely legacy: a novelty best appreciated only if you’re already very familiar with the book. 

There are some saving graces. Rorschach is certainly the most interesting character here, and on the basis of his performance I recommend seeing the film. The effects are very good, certainly better than they would have been in the 80s with, say, a stop-motion Dr. Manhattan in lieu of a digital character. 

And yet, I also can’t help thinking that an 80s version of Watchmen, made by an actual “visionary” — or even just a “more experienced” — filmmaker, would have had more quirk, more charm, and more lasting appeal now, than this version will have even a year or two from now. It’s all up there on the screen, visually, but when the credits rolled, I found I just didn’t care. 

Watchmen is not unfilmable. But the version of Watchmen that has a soul; that has a beating, vital heart; the Watchmen movie with the same unsettling emotional impact as the source material is, as of yet, unfilmed. And, sadly, because so many people seem to think this is as good as it’s going to get, it may always be so.

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One Comment
  1. That sounds like a movie that did not connect with the audience.

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