Dir. Zack Snyder
Critical discourse on cinema is dialectically centered around an abstract concept of quality and its relation to success. The more a film is surrounded by advertising, hype, direct and indirect forms of attention, the higher the likelihood that upon its release and posterior analysis it will become something it is not. Take Synecdoche, New York for example. My favorite film of 2008 found critics praising its ingenious structure and unparalleled scope OR dismantling it as a piece of esoteric fiction, too personal to reach a mass audience and too precious to be thrown away. I remember in junior high school going to see some trashy B-list film (The Replacements...starring Keanu Reeves), and observing two middle aged people who entered the theater, sat through the preview of Lord of The Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, and left as soon as it was finished. That film, released in 2001, was my first introduction to movie fanaticism. A midnight showing the night it came out; teenagers and adults alike dressed in costumes; a strong showing at the Academy Awards that same year, et cetera. A few years later the “original” Star Wars trilogy was horribly mangled and shipped back into theaters, for the poor kooks who didn't get enough the first time and the pathetic borrowed nostalgia of wayward and lonely teens. Same deal, sans awards. I did not see Watchmen at its midnight showing. I did, however, see it the following afternoon. Good choice. The 6:30pm showing that followed had lines out the door and I saw several costumed Rorschachs. Jump back 6 months. I read Watchmen the graphic novel and am floored. The sophistication of its combatant philosophies, the pure ecstasy of its visuals, and the crushing brutality of its final conclusion (which finds its earliest links in the Platonic theory of “the noble lie”) were enough to get me more than excited, and suspicious, about a film adaptation by one of the rising stars of visual carnage: director Zack Snyder. In the months that followed, a countdown (which finds an ironic parallel in the novel's famed Doomsday Clock) to the film's release began and Watchmen garnered a zealous following. Rumors that Snyder and his screenwriters were using the original novel as a visual map were stimulating but reports that the novel's writer, Alan Moore, refused to have anything to do with the adaptation on the grounds that what was done in his and illustrator Dave Gibbons' work was untranslatable to the silver screen were worrisome. Now, 23 years after its initial publication Watchmen is a major motion picture. The near sexual pre-release tension has entirely dissipated and the only thing left to do is wade through the rubble of a masterpiece self-destructed.
There are several ways to approach reviewing a film that has been adapted from another medium. On the one hand a reviewer can assume that his/her reader is familiar with the original manuscript. This however is not always the case. On the other is just the opposite: take the film as a film and relieve it of its paralyzing history. Neither is entirely just. However, the legacy of Watchmen as a graphic novel and seminal piece of 20th century fiction cannot be ignored. Its transference to the cinemas of the world was not a mistake, but the film fails to compete with its brainchild on so many levels that it is sometimes painful to watch. On the whole, all points of the film are underdeveloped. Characters, moral philosophies, mayhem, politics, et all. Even essential plot devices and explanations are completely avoided or left out. A film that underwhelms so completely and still clocks in at over 160 minutes needs to take its inspiration from the sweeping epics of the 1960s. Where was David Lean's influence on tragic heroism? Where was Kubrick's ideas on odyssey and science? With such a tremendous opportunity to make a picture so impactful and profound it terrorizes the mind to remember the minute and a half long soft core porn scene after Sally Jupiter (Malin Akerman) and Nite Owl (version Dull Dan, aka Patrick Wilson) rescue a group of minorities from a burning tenement building. Seriously. What the fuck? Not only that, but their intimacy was as phony as Akerman's acting, which was cringe inducing at best. Her performance was as void of humanity as Dr. Manhattan's (Billy Crudup), only without the original intent for it to be so. In fact the only characters that took on any semblance of multi-dimensional presence were The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) even if his internal narration reads like a Godspeed You! Black Emperor text. Between these two characters a dull death rattle is blown and instantly drowned out by visceral and trope-ish Hollywood violence.
Having said all that, I'd like to now make a point that will seem to entirely contradict all those before it: Watchmen is the most iconic film of the decade. Not since The Matrix has a film been released that is surely to be parodied, impersonated, and gracelessly flaunted for its sheer visual presence. It really doesn't matter that the film was a near complete abortion of creative integrity or the fact that its original plot, with devices swinging wildly in huge, untraceable and gyroscopic movements is stripped of its inertia and forced into a linearity of which it can only toss and roll awkwardly unsure of where it's actually supposed to go, or that its characters are flimsy and lifeless, or that compared to The Dark Knight, which saw its own release less than a year before, it is a step backwards in the culmination of the long, painful history of filmic science fiction. That history began in the 1930s, saw a surge in popularity in the 50s (thanks in part to alien takeover becoming subconsciously equated with the threat of Soviet invasion), pinnacled with 2001: A Space Odyssey in the late 60s and since then has been sticking its head up every now and again (Blade Runner, Terminator, Solaris, and so on) to remind audiences that sci-fi is not a genre for nerds and engineering students, but rather a body of work that is both glittery and serious, in fact the self conscious realization of the best (but still sadly under-indulged) side of Hollywood: glamor and sophistication.
Here's another contradiction: Watchmen is not an abject failure, although its pretty damn close. As films go, it is a little too sure of itself, playing on its own absurdities (every punch comes with that ridiculous “whoosh” noise) and temperance (Adrein Veidt hung out with David Bowie...great...). It wouldn't have been a great or for that matter predictable choice on the part of Snyder to have made a film that didn't take itself seriously. For all its glorious action 300 can be really really boring, and that same kind of unmistakable triteness assimilated into Frank Miller's godawful 2008 film The Spirit (which tried desperately to cash in on the Watchmen hype by literally stealing visual cues from the novel). Snyder has the budget and Hollywood backing to make incredibly good looking pictures. A close friend likened his directorial style to Kinko's, insinuating that he makes a product look snazzy but adds nothing to its value as an object. Moving beyond that questionable fault, Snyder does seem to have a relative devotion to making these spectacles mostly enjoyable for his audience. In a sense he is very much a stereotypical Hollywood director but one that has, by no fault or appearance of effort, found himself ahead of the curve, producing the pictures that go on to affect the types and kinds of films that are subsequently released in theaters. In that respect we can all look forward to Watchmen knock-offs for the rest of this decade, which will only increase the film's undeserved reputation as a remarkable motion picture.
Regrettably I have to admit that as entertainment (read: stimulation) goes Watchmen is pretty top-notch. Its least impressive digital (and this movie is tres digital) effects cop directly from the formative action films of the last 15 years, but its most memorable are highly inventive and original, again excusing the almost certain cult like replication of the film's visuals in the near future. With any luck someone in Hollywood, preferably a high powered director with good taste (Hello? Is there anybody out there?), will recognize Watchmen's inherent faults as an adaptation from a still underrated and misunderstood medium, but also its potential as an incisive and intelligent film, and learn from it. Perhaps Watchmen will even prove to be the jumping off point for the public's true and final embrace of science fiction. Yes, and maybe Americans will learn to love anime...
On the whole, the dialectics of Watchmen are pretty cut and dry. Fans of the graphic novel will likely despise it, shamelessly, for not living up to the original. Action movie fanatics and young movie goers everywhere (especially those under the age of 18 who probably snuck in to see the film by the millions this past week) will be super stoked and buy the uncut, extended and ludicrously expensive special editions as they are released from now until the end of time. But most of all the critics will have no idea. I recently saw a web post with egregiously poor grammar that essentially said that it was the fan's decision whether the film was any good. This is pretty close to the truth. The truth is that it's anyone's decision, fan or not, and being a fan hinders the ability to judge fairly. Any personal connection, which is largely inescapable, hinders that ability (right Jon?). So the bottom line is that Watchmen, in its failure to live up to the iconic and philosophic standards set by Alan Moore and David Gibbons, and its success (thus far) as a big-budget Hollywood action film, will never be entirely understood. As viewers we can only watch as the legend (of which I am making the assumption that there will be) grows and covers any and all critical relations between the film and its viewership. In short, I think this is bigger than both of us.