Monday, December 14, 2009

Throwing Watchmen Out the Window

When I finally caught up to "Watchmen" on DVD, it felt like watching a film from a different era. Although the film was released just 9 months ago, one cannot help but recall the non-stop hype for months on end leading up to it. Before James Cameron's "Avatar", it was "Watchmen" that was going to change the way we see movies. In several masturbatory reviews, it was compared to Francis Coppola's "The Godfather" and Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner" and even the filmography of Stanley Kubrick.

As per usual, any critic who did not fall in line with the opinion that "Watchmen" was a masterpiece was berated over at Rotten Tomatoes. Even one of the film's screenwriters, David Hayter, wrote an open letter after its opening weekend imploring the masses to see this movie, so that more "challenging" films like this will get made. Needless to say, a lot of this heavy panting over this film left such a bad taste in my mouth that I decided to wait to see it on DVD.

Here I am at the end of the year, watching this movie proclaimed by its most ardent supporters as a work of genius and finally able to clear my mind enough to actually approach the movie as a movie, as opposed to another cog in the hype machine. Luckily, "Avatar" is around now to be the shiny object that distracts fanboys and maybe sometime down the line I will be able to watch that as a movie.

Needless to say, watching "Watchmen" with as clean a slate as possible was probably not to its benefit, as it is a shockingly lumbering mess of a film that is a failure as both storytelling and filmmaking. I know that the first question most people would ask is whether I actually read the source material for the film. No, I haven't, although it has been widely reported that the film is rather faithful to the structure while removing/condensing scenes and changing the ending. I am aware of the original ending and would probably agree that changing it was actually one of the few right choices they made.

I always find myself in an odd position, regarding comic book movies. At best, I had glanced at a few comic books when I was very young, but, for the most part, could not care less about them. That has not affected my enjoyment of some previous comic book and graphic novel adaptations as "Superman", "Ghost World", "Road to Perdition", "Spiderman 2", "A History of Violence", "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight". What matters more than anything is that these need to work as a movie, regardless of how faithful they are to their sources. But, let's face facts, most films adapted from comic books and graphic novels are pretty awful. Most operate under the mistaken notion that a book with pictures will translate better to another medium that tells story through images.

Zack Snyder, the director of "Watchmen", seems to make adaptations under this notion, as both this and his previous film "300" were considered faithful recreations of the graphic novels, even appropriating many of the same images from the panels in the books. For me, "Watchmen" and "300" share a similar problem. They are both supposedly visual films that mostly inject mindless eye candy in between long, and I mean long, stretches of exposition and voiceover that explain and tell us everything and shows us absolutely nothing. "Watchmen" is 160 minutes of painfully on the nose dialogue in a bizarrely structured story with no dramatic momentum whatsoever that contains very little genuine emotional content. Do you want a dialogue sample? How about this?

Dan Dreiberg: What happened to us? What happened to the American Dream?
Edward Blake: "What happened to the American Dream?" It came true! You're lookin' at it...

This exchange happens in the middle of a riot. Not too forced, right? Right?

The story of "Watchmen" involves a group of superheroes, most of them with no actual superpowers, who have mostly retired in an alternate 1980's America where an apparently Muppet-like substitute for Richard Nixon is still President. The members of the group are Silk Spectre II (Eye Candy), Ozymandias (allegedly the Smartest Man in the World), The Comedian (Thuggish Asshole), Rorschach (Crazed Vigilante), Nite Owl II (Wettest Blanket in a movie filled with them) and the only one with superpowers, the big blue radiating Dr. Manhattan (2nd Wettest Blanket in the group). By now, most have read the comic book created by writer Alan Moore, artist Dave Gibbons, and colorist John Higgins or have seen the film, so I can point you to a more thorough summary of the story.

The film starts with the death of the Comedian who is tossed out the window of his apartment after a fight that is filmed with the same nonsensical, momentum-killing fast, then slow, then fast, then slow-motion aesthetic that Zack Snyder used to drain all the excitement out of every scene in "300". Thankfully, Snyder resorts to this style less for this film, most likely because the action is so scarce. Not that I am a mouth-breather looking for big action sequences in my comic book films, but little did I know the film was going to be so chatty between all the exposition and the voiceover passed around like a baton from one character to another that explains emotions without ever dramatizing them. In some sense, this was an improvement over having the character with the most obnoxious voice narrate the entirety of "300", pausing only for Gerard Butler to growl a line or two.

The Comedian's death sets up a possible plot that may involve someone out there trying to kill the remaining Watchmen. Outside of a few scenes with Rorschach attempting to get to the bottom of this, this main plot thread of the movie gets lost generating little to no suspense about what is actually going on. Instead, for the entirety of the first half of the movie, "Watchmen" awkwardly goes into random flashback mode to deliver us every little detail of who the Watchmen are. The funeral of the Comedian begins at about the 25 minute mark and ends about 20 minutes later because the director and editor thought it was a good idea to keep breaking into it to give us more back story.

I am quite stunned at the leaden storytelling in "Watchmen", which seems more interested in cramming information (much of it unnecessary) into the film's running time, while never attempting to involve us with any of these characters as human beings. Silk Spectre does not do much except wear a tight outfit for me to leer at her body. Nite Owl cannot get it up in bed unless he's out fighting crime, which is a problem introduced in one scene and resolved in his next scene with the help of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah". Ozymandias does not register much at all, which makes the revelation that he is the actual villain of the story not much of a surprise. Dr. Manhattan, who has 15-20 minutes devoted to his origin story, basically mopes around and then goes to a planet to mope privately.

Oddly enough, Rorschach is the only character allowed any human dimension, as well as the only character trying against all odds to move the narrative forward. I do not remotely agree with his character's extreme right wing ideology, but he was still, by far, the most relatable person of this group, also helped by the intense performance by Jackie Earle Haley. The section where Rorschach is locked up in jail, allowing Haley to act without the mask on, is the strongest part of the film. Though, once again, it actually does very little to provide narrative momentum to this movie.

Once Rorschach is broken out of jail by Nite Owl and Silk Spectre, the movie decides to remember there was an actual plot, where the true villain is revealed about after 10 minutes of rather easy detective work. Not willing to actually satisfy on any level at that point, the story sends Rorschach and Nite Owl to Antartica to confront Ozymandias while Silk Spectre goes to Mars with Dr. Manhattan to have a college student-like debate about the worthiness of mankind. In one of the most unintentionally hilarious moments of the film, Nite Owl and Rorschach break into Ozymandias' lair (I remind you again that the other Watchmen referred to him as the "Smartest Man in the World") and then basically try to tiptoe behind Ozymandias and jump him. Their plan is much like the beginning of "Ghostbusters" where Dan Aykroyd shouts "Get her!" to try to snatch the library ghost.

I am guessing that many who have read "Watchmen" as a graphic novel believe that the end of the story is profound. Ozymandias, using power from an unwitting Dr. Manhattan, basically nukes a great deal of the world killing millions of innocent people because, in his opinion, there would no longer be any threat of war between the United States and Russia if they can unite against a new enemy, which would now be Dr. Manhattan. Okay, raise your hand if you think this may be the offensively absurd logic for wiping out a good percentage of the human race. It is the equivalent of the notion that you have to crack a few eggs to make an omelette.

If anyone wanted to compare "Watchmen" to a Kubrick film, they should have compared this plot to Buck Turgidson's infamous line: "Mr. President, I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops. Uh, depending on the breaks."

The film sets up Ozymandias on one side and Rorschach on the other, as if these two options were worthy of a serious debate. To be honest, this time, I sided with the right winger in this case, as being, by far, the most rational. Any student of history knows that teaming up to fight a common enemy does not necessarily result in two countries sustaining a relationship over time. The truth of the matter is that every country is out for themselves and that, in this case, the United States and Russia would not let a common enemy stop them from being the leading superpower on the globe. Look at how the United States on its own became more polarized by being attacked by our enemies on September 11th, a rift that has yet to heal in these days of birthers and truthers. And we are supposed to believe they would unite with another country?! Did Alan Moore educate himself on global politics reading the back of a cereal box?

You may feel that I am being overly dismissive of the film's ideas, but I wonder why anyone would take this movie's ideas seriously to begin with? That the story offers little beyond the deconstruction of comic book mythology and then offers this psychotic Save the World scenario up as its big idea at the end of it? I also have to wonder what kind of director Zack Snyder is that he directs a film that operates at the other end of the ideological spectrum from his previous film. Not that there is anything wrong with doing that, but I strongly suspect that there seems to be no interpretation or thought put into the material beyond cutting and pasting whatever is on the page and plastering it up on the screen, which, to me, makes him the anti-Kubrick.

A better director would have spent less time delving into back story or, at least, weaved it in more gracefully into the main narrative. A better director would have spent more time trying to convey the ideas of the film more visually than having characters announce them with the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the skull. A better director would not have placed literal-minded soundtrack cues again and again throughout the film. Do you need a song for an opening credits sequence that shows the passing of time? How about Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A Changin'"? Or why don't we use Simon & Garfunkel's "The Sound of Silence" for a funeral? I'm surprised they didn't use The Police's "King of Pain" during the scene where Rorschach buries a hatchet again and again into the head of a child rapist/murderer.

Snyder is probably on a level above the Michael Bays and McGs of the film world in staging scenes with an attention to space. His eye candy shots show that he understands composition, but doesn't understand much about infusing these images with meaning or thought. Anyone who saw his remake of "Dawn of the Dead" can see Snyder has the ability to make a film that moves at a clip, but still slows down enough for quieter character moments. This may be heresy, but I prefer Snyder's "Dawn of the Dead" to Romero's version which is a lumbering film itself that runs the same "zombie-ism=consumerism" idea into the ground for two and a half hours. I wonder what happened to the Zack Snyder who directed "Dead". "300" and "Watchmen" are pretty labored and tedious films that employ style at the expense of feeling for anything up on the screen. These films also share the basic problem of separating the visual from the storytelling, as opposed to letting one help the other. This leads to films that contain pretty images, but with excessive narration and exposition that feel lifeless as cinema.

I am also aware that many of the problems I had with "Watchmen" originated with the source material. When fanboys criticize anyone who finds fault with a comic book movie, their first line of defense is often, "Well, that's the way it happens in the comic book." But, let's also consider the possibility that perhaps the original graphic novel is not such an unimpeachable source. I understand almost everyone considers it great, but the reasoning for Ozymandias' plan is taken from the source material which makes it hard for me to believe that this story was the work of genius it has been hyped as over the years.

Perhaps, one day, removed from the hype that seems to surround movies like "Watchmen", others will sit down and watch this as a movie. If anyone can explain to me why this shapeless and lifeless movie works as cinema beyond the reasoning offered by blind fanboy devotion, I would be interested. Like many films of this kind and what we're currently witnessing with "Avatar" are that critics and audiences seem to be content with reviewing the spectacle or, even worse, simply celebrating the idea that a movie got made whether it be from a comic book from the '80's considered a classic or a movie employing the latest 3D technology. The problem is that these movies need to live beyond the shock and awe phase and eventually need to occupy our hearts and minds. I am getting a little tired of watching these event movies months down the line and simply shrugging my shoulders, wondering what the big deal was all about.

Was the hype really worth it?

Watchmen was viewed on DVD via Netflix.


Jason Bellamy said...

Well done! As I was reading through this I kept coming upon passages that I wanted to paste into this comment, but by the end I realized I was basically saying "Amen!" to the whole thing.

A few responses ...

I never understood the hype for this film. I understand that the book was a hit of its genre, but it's still a niche hit. The hype for the movie reminded me of Paris Hilton: all of a sudden all these entertainment media types were suggesting that "everyone is talking about" this thing but without saying anything interesting or explaining why people are talking about this thing or why we should care. It's almost as if the movie wasn't hyped. The hype was hyped. Follow me?

In theory, Avatar is a little different. I had no reason to think Watchman was going to be different. Avatar gives me the sense that maybe, just maybe, I'll see something I haven't seen before. Doesn't mean it'll be great. But I understand the anticipation there.

Anyway ...

I saw Watchmen in the theater, but still felt I saw it as a movie, having no interest in it or the hype. I remember thinking the conclusion was overlong and just ridiculous, for the reasons you note. I did like Haley, and I liked the "Hallelujah" moment, which many found laughable but I thought was slyly melodramatic by design. (We're supposed to smile.)

On the whole though, it's a forgettable film to the point that I can't believe I saw it within this calendar year. Feels like that was ages ago.

Great review. Great thoughts. Great Ghostbusters comparison!

Steven Santos said...

Jason, I do admit that Avatar interests me on a technical level and it is important to filmmaking in that regard. Pretty much the only way I'd consider seeing it is on the one true IMAX screen in NY in 3D. But I'm not going to exactly rush out to see it, since I admire Cameron's abilities as a filmmaker, but don't really think he's ever made a truly great film.

You put it best that the hype around Watchmen was like Paris Hilton. It seemed like a cult novel that was mistaken for something more, as opposed to a story that may have only been relevant during the '80's. The hype was hyped is a perfect way to describe that.

I do admit the "Hallelujah" moment did at least make me laugh. The appropriation of Dylan songs was considerably more annoying to me.

Jake said...

Pretty much nailed everything I hate about this film. Fanboys loved it because it looked just like the comic, but even with Moore's upfront, anarchic disregard for subtlety with his satire, Snyder didn't come close to getting the point. The politics of Moore's violence was murky, but Snyder just revels in it: that lingering shot of the black inmate being boiled alive by hot oil was horrifying, more so because Snyder plays it as a badass moment.

Besides, if you think the movie is great because it looks like the comic, just read the shitting comic again. I've also had it up to here with fans defending the uproariously bad music selection with "But Alan Moore quoted those songs in the book!" Yes, and a single lyric from a song that fits does not mean you should then play the whole thing over scenes that suffer for them. You should also not let My Chemical Romance cover one of the best songs ever written.

Ed Howard said...

I don't know, I went to see this as a big admirer of Alan Moore (though I'd place Watchmen somewhere in the middle of his work, personally) and felt like Snyder did a decent job — great in certain moments, excrutiating at others. The film is a mess in many ways, but an enjoyable and stimulating mess at least.

A few further thoughts:

1. 300 and Watchmen reveal that Snyder is basically only as good as his source material; the former is utter fascist trash, the latter an interesting Cold War fable, and the films reflect this. Snyder doesn't get across the subtlety of Moore's work, by any means, but the film can't help but be interesting in that it gets across some of the book's substance.

2. I guarantee you Alan Moore does not think Ozymandias' plot was profound or that it really would bring lasting peace. The ending creates a situation where exposing a great evil would potentially just screw things up even worse. Rorschach, though, is the only character who absolutely refuses to compromise his (warped) principles to get the best possible outcome out of this disaster. On a thematic level, it's about people used to thinking in black and white having to come to terms with the frightening fact that the world works in shades of gray.

3. Of course you'd be forgiven for not getting this impression from the film since Snyder pretty much botches the ending, which in Moore's comic is a quiet, mournful comedown from the superhero hysteria of many of the earlier scenes. Snyder's too impatient for such nuance.

4. A lot of this stuff is also unintelligible outside of the specific context in which Moore's Watchmen was made, as a response to the stagnating superhero genre. It's a thought experiment about how superheroes, with their simplistic punch-first-ask-questions-later approach to every problem, would deal with a more realistic and nuanced world. The answer, of course, is not very well, and that's part of the point. The extent to which Watchmen relies on it being a response to more superficial superhero stories is one of the reasons I prefer Moore's From Hell or Promethea, which more purely express his aesthetic and thematic ideas. Watchmen is fairly dated at this point, though not entirely in a bad way. It's just very of its time; which of course makes the proposition of adapting it in 2009 a weird one.

5. One thing I really, unambiguously enjoy about the film is its imagery, which draws on Gibbons' images but definitely takes them somewhere different in a way that 300 didn't do at all. It's some gorgeous use of over-the-top CGI. The sequence of Dr. Manhattan on the moon, though not as quietly affecting as it is in the comic, is still really stunning eye candy in Snyder's movie.

Steven Santos said...

Ed, I very much appreciate the thoughts, especially from someone who read the original book. I can probably expect that the book took more time to make its point, which, in the film, as you mentioned is too impatient which makes it seem rather callous to the loss of human life. The shades of grey that you say are in the book are not present for me in the film.

It also doesn't help that I rarely got a sense of the world these characters existed in, since the focus of the movie seemed very insular. I never felt what was at stake in this universe.

If the issues I had with the movie are handled better in the source material, then I'm willing to keep a more open mind on that. Though I agree that Snyder creates some strong imagery, I truly feel his weakness is thinking about the material and interpreting it for film. Which you may be suggesting when you say Snyder is as good as his material.

As many problems as I had with "Watchmen", "300" was more excruciating to sit through probably because the source material was probably simple-minded fascistic nonsense. I can tell that "Watchmen" is straining for something more, but these ideas required a more nuanced interpretation which I don't think the movie provides in any way.

Ed Howard said...

Fair enough, Steven. I think you're right that Snyder isn't especially strong as an adapter, that's sort of what I was getting at: if he starts with a good source, as he does with Watchmen, he winds up with something decent, but watered down, while if he starts with 300 he winds up with, well, 300.

The other issue of course is that Moore's Watchmen is a very dense book, with a lot of detail and lengthy backstories, and its flashback-heavy structure probably doesn't come across that well when Snyder tries to translate it directly to film. Maybe I'm guilty of filling in the blanks a little when Snyder falls short, and those without the context of the source won't be able to do that. Snyder is too indebted to the idea of "faithfulness," I think, but then of course a lot of critics and fan types are into that idea, too.

Anyway, basically I'd recommend checking out some Moore comics instead. Especially From Hell, one of the best things I've ever read.

MarcosL said...

Great piece! Haven't really much more to add, you're piece pretty much covers all my problems with the film.

Just want to say that I think The WATCHMEN should never have been made into a movie. Not now, not when it first came out (and was arguably more relevant).

When reading the books, I found myself reminded of that moment in the film "Crumb" when Robert and one of his brothers were talking about their early comic book collaborations. His brother (who later in life went insane I believe) would write the books and Robert Crumb would do the artwork. His brother's writing would get longer and longer until almost every panel was filled with words and at the bottom would be the two heads doing the talking. Well, needless to say, that image kept coming up for me while reading THE WATCHMEN. Too much exposition talk. I think the books in general went for too much and by doing so watered down the message(s) the story was going for. I understand that it is a very important work in the annals of comic books, I can see why people say that. When it comes to story telling I think Mr. Moore has done much better in his other works.

So if I feel that way about the books, the film won't fair any better and it doesn't. In fact I think Zach Snyder, a competent filmmaker, turned out a faithful and facile work.