BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The film is set in an alternate 1985, in which Nixon has remained in office far longer than two terms, the Doomsday clock is ticking ever closer to the fatal midnight mark…and super-heroes have been existing in the world for some time now. The story begins with the murder of one of them, The Comedian. The mystery of who hunts the Watchmen begins to be explored by Rorschach.
PROS: Gorgeous imagery, with scenes from the comic copied exactly. Also, a soundtrack that you can’t help but notice as it turns up throughout the film. Some of the most amazing opening credits out there.
CONS: Almost everything else. The acting is extremely dodgy at times. There is no emotion or context or explanation for what’s happening.
BOTTOM LINE: Since one has to read the comic to really get anything of interest out of the film, the film is little more than some brought-to-life panels. Interesting to look at, but it doesn’t have a leg to stand on.
I think that we’ve all known the Watchmen movie was coming. It was inevitable, and it’s been in the works for an awful long time. Terry Gilliam was attached briefly to direct. Which led to him having lunch with Alan Moore and asking Moore how he would make the film. Alan said, “To be honest, I wouldn’t.” Terry took that to heart, it seemed, and left the film. It floated in limbo, the way things do in Hollywood.
And then, Zack Snyder, fresh from directing 300 — a Frank Miller graphic novel — was attached to the project. Comic book movies became a big deal around the same time. Suddenly, Watchmen had legs. Hobbled legs, occasionally, as there were lawsuits, and there was Alan Moore who said, and I quote, “I will be spitting venom all over it.” (and good for him, says your faithful reviewer).
When it was out in theaters, I couldn’t bring myself to get interested. The trailers were pretty, but…frankly, I wasn’t impressed by Snyder’s 300 (I didn’t care for the graphic novel a great deal either), and didn’t expect that this would be much better, intellectually. Alan Moore hasn’t fared well in the theaters. I was waiting to watch it until someone convinced me it was worth seeing.
No one did. So I waited much longer, until I could get it through Netflix.
I watched it with my wife, who had never read the Alan Moore comic series, and who asked that I not tell her anything about it, so that we could see how well the film worked for someone who comfortably reads comics all the time, but who is unfamiliar with this particular piece of work. I thought that was a fine experiment. I’ve read Watchmen many times, and I’m a tremendous Alan Moore fan, so I was the other end of the spectrum: the loyal comic fan, who is willing to be convinced, but still has to be talked into the thing.
The movie let us both down, sadly, and perhaps unsurprisingly.
I was very aware of something else Alan Moore had said, as I went into the film. He said, and I paraphrase here, “that Watchmen was intentionally designed to be a comic, to do things only a comic book could do.”
Unfortunately, the movie can’t decide if it’s going to slavishly adapt the comic, panel-by-panel to the screen, as was done with Sin City by Robert Rodriquez…or if they were going to take the initial material and adapt it. They wander between the two.
What this means is that while the images are gorgeous and really look like live-action versions of some of the comic panels…the whole thing feels a bit odd. It doesn’t feel adaptive, it feels imitative, if you see what I mean. It has the odd imitative creepiness that Superman Returns did, because it wasn’t just being a Superman film, it was trying to be a Christopher Reeves Superman film. Odd imitative fan-fiction, in a way, you see?
For me, as a fan of the comic, it was frustrating to watch. Because they would show all these beautiful images from the comic fully realized — from Dr. Manhattan’s amazing clockwork home on Mars, to the initial fight scene that results in the Comedian’s death — but it doesn’t give the emotion and resonance and context that the comic book does.
A good example of this, is Dr. Manhattan wandering on Mars, and we briefly get his voice-over as he experiences all of these different moments in his own personal history. The problem is…in the comic book, this is done in such a way that what you are supposed to realize is that for Dr. Manhattan, all of these various moments in time are happening right now. You are given this amazing sense of how he views time, and you suddenly understand why he’s so cold and distant and disconnected. But in the film, it just plays out like a recap. A pretty recap, but it doesn’t give you any reason for its long existence.
Another problem the film has is, there aren’t a lot of strong actors here. In particular, the lady playing Silk Spectre II…cannot act. Or find the commas in a sentence, one suspects. (And, and this is not a complaint against the film, but I was constantly thinking that the man who played Night Owl looked like Chevy Chase, from certain angles). The strongest actor in the film is Billy Crudup, who we know to be a strong actor from other pieces. Here, though, he plays the emotionless Dr. Manhattan.
The movie does very little to explain itself to the viewer who has not read the comic. You are not given any way of realizing that these super-heroes had really not worked out, and were a bit of a scary joke, and now they were all in retirement, except for Rorschach. Why is Nixon still in office? Why is the global situation bad? Why did the heroes not work out?
Essentially, the movie flounders the moment you challenge anything by asking “so what?”
Comic fan, or not, you are left with a sequence of pretty images. And you are left with some emotion, and some good bits…which mostly are there because the emotional power of the original work bleeds through the clumsy film-making.
There are good bits to Watchmen, besides the visuals. For one thing, there’s the soundtrack, which makes itself notices (from songs like “99 Red Balloons” to “The Sound of Silence”). It was a bit blatant in its cold war, nuclear theme…but I really didn’t mind. It really seemed to fit well.
For another thing, there is an amazing — and I do mean amazing — opening sequence, which kind-of-sort-of tries to explain how the world got to where it is. It does the back-story of the super-heroes in these amazing frozen images, with Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin”. It’s an amazing, evocative, beautiful sequence. And watching it, I really had hopes for the rest of the film.
Something else good in the film is Rorschach. They captured him faithfully. His character is interesting and well-done. Particularly, the sequence in the prison, when he kills Big Figure’s henchmen without ever leaving his cell…that whole sequence is faithfully adapted, and really, really good. full of energy and attitude and gleeful bloody fun.
(But here, again, we briefly glimpse Rorschach in a psychiatry visit and then move rapidly on, leaving us with a random look into why he’s gone mad, but not as comprehensive as the comic, and more or less useless to us).
And the ending, Rorschach’s ultimate ending, is handled well. None of the other characters particularly are, especially not at the end, when we are guided to a shocking and horrible realization which is not shocking at all, because the movie has really failed to make us suspect who the real killer is (unless you already knew from reading the comic).
Finally, there is the matter of the ending. We all knew they changed the ending, away from the odd-but-workable ending of the original Watchmen comic. I was nervous to see what they would do. (and I’m being vague, so as not to give too much away). I must say, I actually preferred the movie ending to the comic book. That is, the final situation that brings the world together…I preferred who the movie made a scapegoat, as opposed to the comic book. It felt neater, it was useful, and it made good sense. I liked that quite a lot.
I would also offer, in my defense as a viewer, that I don’t need a comic book film to slavishly stick to the source material. Christopher Nolan’s Batman films are all the better for picking and choosing what they want from the comics, and then going where they will. Hellboy was the same way. I don’t want faithful adaptations, necessarily, I just want something that is a pleasure to watch and perhaps accomplishes something along the way. I don’t need faithful substance, just substance.
In the end…I mostly came away from the movie with some pretty images, a nice soundtrack, and a desire to re-read the comic book. The movie can’t stand on its own without someone reading the comic, and it doesn’t augment and support the comic enough to really justify its existence in that matter. What breaks the film? Is it the sheer complexity of the comic book? Is it Zack Snyder’s inability as a director? Did Alan Moore cast a curse over the film, and it worked?
Regardless of the reason — I like to think it’s all three — it’s an ineffectual movie that plays no emotional chords, gives no context, and leaves you neither thrilled to have seen it, nor especially angry at having watched it. It exists, and that’s about all you can say for it.