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Watchmen

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 03/06/09 00:00:00

"There must be some kind of way out of here, said the critic to the thief."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

A thought to start us off. The film adaptation of the influential comic book “Watchmen” opens with a dazzling credits sequence set to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” It’s a smart montage that effectively squeezes forty years of exposition into a few quick minutes of slo-mo visuals that take the sights of modern history and tweak them to include costumed superheroes - but that’s not the issue. My thoughts linger instead on Bob Dylan.

The film is packed with pop songs, often of the socially conscious variety. “The Sound of Silence.” “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” “99 Luftballons.” And, of course, “All Along the Watchtower.” It’s pop art supporting pop art. However - and stick with me for a second on this particular However - “Watchmen” takes place in a wildly alternate 1985, a universe where superheroes have changed the world since World War II. Superheroes won Vietnam and earned Richard Nixon a Constitution-busting five terms in the White House. The dangerous actions of some caped crusaders resulted in riots in the streets and laws outlawing masked vigilantism. The United States remains a broken, fearful nation, trapped in the shadow of Cold War annihilation.

My point is this: if music - especially the sort Bob Dylan and Paul Simon were churning out in their primes - is a reflection of the times, would a world as wildly different as the universe of “Watchmen” produce the same songs, the same styles, the same stars as our own? Or would the folk poets of that world find other reasons to sing? Would we get protest songs about the fascist threat of superhero rule? Would we get angry ditties aimed at an aging but still powerful Tricky Dick? Would icons of this world slip into the subtext of its music? Or would we get Nena and Tears for Fears all over again?

All of this might seem a misguided attempt to overthink the film, and you can surely argue that the movie uses our own music as a sort of emotional shorthand, an effective way of subconsciously connecting us to this other world. But I’ll counter that it’s really just a sign of laziness.

You see, “Watchmen” is being advertised as hailing “from the visionary director of ‘300’.” That would be Zack Snyder. But whose vision? While Snyder has proven himself quite clever with camera trickery, he’s built a career on cut-and-pasting others’ concepts. Whether it’s the very good “Dawn of the Dead” or the very bad “300,” Snyder isn’t so much a man of vision as he is a man of interpretation. As with “300,” his intent in “Watchmen” is to recreate as faithfully as possible specific illustrated frames. He’s said he used the original 1986 comic series - script by Alan Moore, art by Dave Gibbons - in the place of his own storyboards. Once again, he shows no interest in anything beyond taking someone else’s work and enlarging it to fill a multiplex screen.

So if he’s not willing to venture away from the source material enough to work out his own camera angles, why would he bother contemplating such things as the pop music of an alternate reality?

The problem, of course, isn’t that Snyder used Jimi Hendrix instead of something strange and new. It’s that his insistence on sticking fanboy-fellatingly close to the source material leaves him creating a work that’s dramatically shallow and thematically irrelevant.

If science fiction is used to comment on the present, Snyder’s “Watchmen” works only in rehashing the allegories Moore and Gibbons brought to the Reagan years. Snyder and his screenwriters, David Hayter (“The Scorpion King,” “X-Men”) and Alex Tse (making his feature debut), are so blinded by source faithfulness (the changes are few, with even the big ones ultimately being minor) that they drain the story of its political edge, so interested in showing match-the-frame slo-mo close-ups of fists slamming into faces (blood merrily splattering in that “300” style) that they fail to take any chances of their own.

In doing so, they seem to miss the point of “Watchmen” completely. The series gained fame as a deconstruction of the superhero genre, showing aging, forgotten heroes searching for relevance; the story wasn’t so much about plot than it was about the people within it, a then-unique study of comic book characters (and, thanks to unique art layout, of the comic book form). Real-life figures, from Nixon to Kissinger, Pat Buchanan, and John McLaughlin popped up in interludes where Soviet incursions in Afghanistan. Moore rarely bothered with subtleties in commenting on Cold War fears and the policies of Reagan and Thatcher.

It’s all so very mid-80s. So what does this movie adaptation bring to our own decade? Sadly, nothing. Granted, updating the timeline of the story to an alternate 2009 might have been a fatal mistake, and I can’t fault the writers for sticking with the 1985 setting. And yet there’s nothing in the script to connect the story to our own situation, our own politics, our own modern world. By worrying so much about how to cram twelve issues of story into 163 minutes of movie without pissing off fans who think anything less than a visual book-on-tape of their beloved comic is some sort of sacrilege, Snyder and his writers turn something that was once fresh and risky into something that’s stale, safe, empty.

Concerns over faithfulness also leave the movie an overlong bore. They get the scenes right, but not the feel; the notes, but not the music. Hayter and Tse do a capable job of stripping the plot of filler, and in the process they manage to lock down a few very effective sequences that remain true to the source while working quite well on their own. But that’s the problem: the movie, so close to the comics yet so removed from the in-between bits that let its story and themes flow, winds up as a two-and-a-half hour collection of disjointed scenes. The structure of the “Watchmen” comic - multiple narrators, various asides mirroring the main plot, etc. - works well in a comic series (or novel, or television series, or any other sort of long-form storytelling), but not so much in a movie, even one of epic length. As such, this “Watchmen” has little cohesion.

I realize I haven’t yet rundown the actual plot, and now’s a good time to start. The story opens with the murder of a government-sponsored, not-really-a-good-guy hero The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan); the killing grabs the attention of his old superhero group, who fear they may be next. An investigation leads the group - some retired, some not - to a mysterious organization and a sinister plot that may spell disaster for the world itself, just as the U.S. and U.S.S.R. are on the brink of their own annihilation.

Moore and Gibbons used this plot as the backbone for a unique, epic character study. What was post-glory days life like for the mysterious, possibly deranged avenger Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), or the lumpy, nerdish Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), or the sexy but haunted Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman), or the god-like Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), or Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), the world’s smartest - and apparently richest - man? What about the first generation of heroes, like the original Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino), who retired into a world of booze and self-hatred?

With threads that weave in and out of each other for twelve long issues, Moore and Gibbons’ comic series has the space to swap points of view frequently; Snyder’s movie does not, and yet it tries, just because it thinks it has to, lest the fans complain about leaving something out. The director is able to craft some fascinating scenes - in one sequence, Dr. Manhattan, who can experience all of space-time at once, flashes back and forward in his life, while in another, a psychiatrist discovers the roots of Rorschach’s obsessions; both are dazzling set pieces that elevate the movie - yet they all come direct from the book, and they all only work well on their own, separate from the big picture.

Such disjointedness leaves the movie without a real emotional core, and without any real interest in where the story is headed. Snyder rolls us through by rote, unconcerned with the human angle. With Dr. Manhattan, Ozymandias, and Nite Owl underwritten as self-absorbed drips, and with Rorschach and Comedian too twisted to earn emotional connection (and rightfully so, really), the script leaves the two Silk Spectres to carry most of the emotional drive - a task that should never be given to actors as weak and unconvincing as Gugino and Akerman. (Akerman’s laughably wooden line readings are doubly embarrassing, and it’s her performance that derails much of the film; Gugino, cast mainly for her cleavage, spends most of her non-flashback scenes hamming it up behind chintzy old-lady makeup.) We never care about these people, sometimes barely understanding their motivations or connections; at times, it feels like Snyder figures the gaps in development can be filled in by viewers familiar with the book, so why bother here?

By the time we get to the finale, there’s no steam left in the story. We’ve stopped caring about whodunit, and worse, the reveal leaves us with one of cinema’s dullest villains, a no-note baddie who doesn’t even have the decency to be interesting as he plans to slaughter millions.

(There’s also a strange element - perhaps insisted upon by the studio, perhaps by Snyder himself - in which many of the story’s themes on aging and obsolescence get erased for fear of losing the attention of young viewers. Nite Owl’s middle age pudginess is downplayed, Silk Spectre is sexed up considerably, and even the grimy Rorschach finds his age reduced from 45 to 35. Because, hey, who cares about a 45-year-old superhero, never mind that this is the point of the story? Heck, the film’s aims at Hollywood-approved perfection even works its way into the oft-naked Dr. Manhattan’s CGI-enhanced man bits, with the character’s distracting dangler presented as considerably larger than in the comics. Of course, the effects crew, perhaps intimidated by having to deal with frequent male nudity, forgot to give the organ any actual movement. How does the good doctor keep his little sidekick from swaying with his steps?)

Even the action fails to engage on a pure comic book movie level. The comic was never intended to be an action showcase, but Snyder overlooks this, making the most not just out of the prepackaged set pieces (an alley fight, a fire rescue, a prison break, and so on) but on individual shots in which he indulges in his sweaty love for bone-crunching slo-mo close-ups. Like “300,” the repetition grows tiresome all too quickly - you've seen one fist-on-face freeze frame, you’ve seen ‘em all. (Don’t even ask about the sex scene, one of the script’s few expansions on the book’s material. This brings the movie to a full stop so Snyder’s camera can drool over Akerman’s breasts.) Such devoted attention to fleshy detail leaves the film feeling like a daring, complicated work translated by a junior high kid who thinks blood n’ boobs are, like, awesome.

A few days ago, Warner Bros. released a DVD called “Watchmen: The Complete Motion Comic,” in which a narrator reads the text of the book over animated reworkings of the pages. With that on the shelves, Snyder’s “Watchmen” almost seems redundant by comparison. His is a film that visually walks us through the story, but leaves the magic behind. “Watchmen” has a few moments of brief wonder, but the rest is a soulless, unimaginative work, a flat adaptation with a Bob Dylan soundtrack.

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