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"Watchmen," belatedly

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Alan Moore was right: You can’t make a movie out of Watchmen. Zack Snyder’s adaptation of the seminal comic book written by Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons is as close to a standalone film as anyone is ever going to wring from this material, but it still doesn’t hold together. Watchmen moves in fits and starts, the way Snyder fiddles with the fast-forward/slow-motion speed controls during the action sequences. It has too many subplots and characters, yet leaves you wishing it had even more. Despite its overall faithfulness to the comics, the movie’s climax doesn’t generate the trippy power you felt while reading the books. The narrative struggles to keep up with the exposition and doesn’t always succeed. It’s an awkward, unwieldy, strange movie. I loved every minute of it.

There is thrilling, inventive filmmaking sprinkled throughout Snyder’s three-hour director's cut, which runs 25 minutes longer than the theatrical cut (I didn’t see that version, so I can’t compare the two, but I have to assume it was a lot murkier and harder to follow, since this version still feels too short; regardless, the theatrical cut is now officially obsolete). The ten-minute sequence depicting the origin of Dr. Manhattan is like a fantastic little sci-fi movie of its own – Billy Crudup’s performance as the blue-skinned demigod is one of the most underrated acting jobs of the year - and there are many others like it.

As a visual equivalent to the books, which did groundbreaking and daring things with traditional comic-book art and panels, the film does more than hold its own. I wouldn't want every movie to look like Watchmen, but for a stretch of three hours, Snyder's dense, demanding eye-candy is transporting to behold - and, like the comics, will be the prime motivator for repeat viewings.

Watchmensadface But most people - i.e. anyone who hasn't read Watchmen - will have trouble making it through the movie once. I was surprised when the film's box office gross plummeted after its $55 million opening weekend - a resounding rejection of the movie by the mainstream public. Having seen it, I'm no longer surprised.

 Most of the people I know who saw Watchmen didn't like it at all, and those who did were all enthusiastic fans of the books, with an emphasis on the enthusiastic. Fans of the comics know what it means when you see a couple of shots in the movie of a kid sitting on the curb reading Tales of the Black Freighter at a sidewalk news stand. To non-readers, the kid and the newspaper vendor barely register - they're just extras - and their deaths mean absolutely nothing.

That's a pervasive problem throughout the movie: Things don't resonate the way they did on the page. Snyder has crammed a lot of the books' details into the film, but they just rush by, with no apparent payoff. Aside from context, though, what ultimately defeats Snyder's Watchmen - what renders the material unfilmable after all, despite his heroic efforts - is that this story doesn't really work outside of its original medium. Watchmen was as much a deconstruction of superhero mythology as it was a deconstruction of the literal act of reading comic books: A big part of the thrill of what Moore and Gibbons created came in the way you interacted with the story, turning back pages to look at a previously meaningless panel again, discovering the layers of allegories and foreshadowing built into the artwork, teaching your eyes to surrender to, instead of shrinking from, the off-putting color palette used in the inking of the books (instead of bold primary colors like red and blue, a lot of Watchmen was rendered in sickly hues of orange, purple and green). 

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Transplanting Watchmen from the comic-book page to the movie screen immediately negates its reason for being, no matter how carefully you strive to preserve its essence. This is why Snyder is wrong, I think, when he says that casting Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise or Angelina Jolie in the movie would have been a mistake and detracted from the experience. Yes, Pitt as Dr. Manhattan or Cruise as Nite Owl would have made for an entirely different Watchmen in terms of tone and feel. But it would have also given the movie a distinct identity other than  a carbon copy - would have connected the movie to popular culture, the cinematic medium and the uninitiated viewer's reality in a way that the current incarnation can never achieve.

Snyder tries to accomplish that by other means, such as the movie's diverse jukebox soundtrack (I especially liked the subtleness of the Muzak version of Tears For Fears' Everybody Wants to Rule the World piped into Ozymandias/Adrian Veidt's office). But it's not enough. For all its artistic daring - and the fact this movie even exists, with its fat budget and R-rated sex and violence and epic running time, is kind of insane - Watchmen just sort of sits there, incomplete and distant, if you can't juxtapose the viewing of the movie with the experience of having read the comics.

Watchmeninsignia I recognize and agree with all this. And yet I still say: So what? The Watchmen books were a unique, once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing - Moore and Gibbons are both monstrously gifted, but they will never surpass their achievement here - and so I don't care that the movie feels like a supplement to the comics, forever tethered to and reliant on them, instead of standing apart as its own deal. I don't mind that one of the best things in the film is a departure from the books - Snyder's ingenious way of replacing the giant squid, which really was unfilmable, with something even better than what Moore dreamt up.

I suspect Stanley Kubrick would have loved Watchmen - its coldness, its merciless emotional tone, its unlikable protagonists (something more shallow critics complained about, as if it were written somewhere that all movies had to center exclusively on people you love), its shifting chronology that doubles back on itself, the shot of a bathroom door swinging back and forth, giving us glimpses of something awful transpiring inside.

I'd bet even the crabby Moore, if he ever sat down to watch it, would begrudgingly admit that Snyder did practically everything right (although I wish he and every other Hollywood filmmaker would stop with the computer-generated gore and go back to old-school Karo syrup and rubber prosthetics; CGI violence looks fake no matter who does it). No, Watchmen doesn't really work. I can't wait to see it again.

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Richard Pachter

Exactly. Nice job, Rene.

Juan

What a brilliant write up! That pretty much says it all. I love the Watchmen graphic novel, and I love the movie. It was about as perfect an adaptation as you can get, and it also proved why the book was unfilmable. Still, it's one of my favorite films of this year so far.

mrbluelouboyle

I never read the book, and I'm a comic reader.

I still loved the film. I saw it in the theatre. I just bought the dvd but haven't watched it yet.

I read someone online comparing Zack Snyder to Michael Bay. I'm not quite sure I would agree. Although Zack makes beautiful looking action films that keep me coming back for more.

Rene Rodriguez

You should read it. Seriously.

And whoever compared Snyder to Bay was way off base. I don't see a single similarity.

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