Thursday, March 05, 2009

REVIEW: 'Watchmen' unwatchable.


NOTE: This review is not for general audiences. It was written specifically towards people who have read "Watchmen," the classic graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. That means there are a few spoilers for those unfamiliar with the book.

In the film, Amelie, there's a scene wherein a young boy wins a gigantic collection of marbles at the very end of recess. The boy excitedly starts jamming the marbles into his pockets, scrambling to get as many as he can until his pockets burst and... no more marbles.

Well, director Zack Snyder is that young boy, the chance to direct a movie based on the graphic novel "Watchmen" is the cache of marbles, and in trying to take everything from the Alan Moore's book sans "The Black Freighter" and the giant squid monster and put it into the film, Snyder essentially keeps nothing.

Snyder's adaptation of "Watchmen" kills itself through a series of winks and nods. The book is too expansive to include every plot point or character, so instead of trying to do so - or better yet, dropping many of these things altogether in the service of making a good movie adaptation - Snyder includes a series of references. Tons of them. The only problem with these references is that within the scope of the film, they don't mean anything. It doesn't mean anything to conclude the film within the offices of The New Frontiersman - Rorschach's favorite right-wing newsrag in the comics - if you didn't bother telling the viewers what The New Frontiersman is in the first place. It doesn't mean anything to show the kid and the newsstand owner embrace in the face of doom if you never introduced who they are as characters. And it seriously doesn't mean anything to take the best line of dialogue from the book, which was recently referenced in the brilliant Pulitzer-winning novel "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," and have it recited by a another character in a wholly different context that strips the line of its impact.

To be fair, not all of the movie was a complete and total train-wreck. The opening scene and credits sequence were very good. We see Blake get murdered in all its cruelty, followed up by an inventive slow-motion montage of recreated comic panels that summarizes all of the events leading up to the point where the movie begins. Great idea, because to explore these events in a traditional narrative would have added another hour to a 161-minute movie. And while his soundtrack choices leading up to this point are indicative of a man who has never listened to a song that wasn't in another movie, I liked the way Snyder handled Dr. Manhattan's origin. Of course, by handled, what I mean is that Snyder took the brilliant way Moore along with artist Dave Gibbons did it in the book and made sure it got filmed as such.

Then the movie jumps the shark. No wait, scratch that. Because this is a comic book movie, it can't jump the shark - it sprays the shark.

Oddly enough, the shark-spraying happens in a location very similar to the one from the scene I am referencing above. Silk Spectre and the sexually impotent Night Owl are aboard the Owlship after having rescued a group of people from a burning apartment building, and just as they do in the book, they start to get it on. This sex scene is probably the worst one in recent film history. It's so bad, it makes me wonder if any of the people involved in the shooting of it - be it the director, the cinematographer, the lighting techs, the key grips, or even actors Patrick Wilson and Malin Akerman - have ever had sex before in real life. The scene couldn't have been any worse in its execution if Night Owl whipped out a Batman Express card a la Batman and Robin. Then to add insult to injury, this visual train-wreck is synched to Leonard Cohen's wonderful song "Hallelujah" (as if we never heard that one in a movie before). Did Snyder bother looking at the dailies when he shot this thing? Did editor William Hoy show him a rough cut of this moment while cobbling the film together? Believe me when I say I would have more respect for the guy if the answer was 'no.'

Everything from this point on is downhill. The movie adds buckets of grisly violence where it wasn't needed. It wholly botches the wonderful moment in the book when Rorschach escapes from prison -- a senseless tragedy since it was so wonderfully storyboarded in the book. Then as a final act of cruelty in this hapless adaptation, Snyder's film takes the brilliant last act from the graphic novel and ruins it entirely. To be clear, I am not one of those people who needed the giant squid to appear in the film. Changing the method Ozymandias uses to manufacture a global catastrophe was not the problem. The problem was changing the characters' reactions to this moment, especially Night Owl's.

I can almost hear the studio money men's reaction when they read the conclusion from the book: "So let's get this straight, this Ozymandias character ended millions of human lives and the only person who tried to do anything about it was the crazy guy who got evaporated?"

What's so great about the book is that while it was a horrible thing for Ozymandias to murder millions of people, the reason no one but Rorschach gets too upset about it is because Ozymandias' actions probably saved billions of lives from an impending nuclear holocaust. In being the world's greatest villain, he was also probably its greatest hero. But instead of realizing this thematic brilliance on the big screen, which is also one of the reasons people care so much about Moore's "Watchmen" in the first place, the movie crudely shifts Night Owl into a vessel to grab Ozymandias by the scruff as if he were a dog so they could stick the character's nose into his own poop. That way the filmmakers can say "Bad Ozymandias! No! Bad! Bad!"

As I drove the 80 miles it took to get to the Charlotte screening of Watchmen, it was not my intention to see a film that took every moment, character, or detail from the book and convert it shot-for-shot into film like Sin City or 300. Nor was it really my intention to see a great film. What I was really looking for was a movie someone could show to Moore - who famously called his book unfilmable and refused to have anything to do with this movie - and say, "See, that wasn't so bad, was it? Guess that means your beloved book wasn't so 'unfilmable' after all, right?"

That's what I was looking for, but now that I have seen the film, all I can say is that Moore was right all along.


Blogger Josue said...

Right then Scott,

I decided NOT to read your entire post, mainly because I plan to see the movie myself.

I will comment again once I see the film tomorrow, but let me say this.

How can you possibly think that Snyder could fit EVERYTHING from the novel, that is truly impossible.

I just think that we should give him a hand because he was man enough to admit that.


8:35 PM  
Blogger Joe Scott said...


It's obvious you didn't read my whole post, because I never faulted Snyder for not fitting everything from the novel into one film. That's not what I wanted in any fashion. My beef with the film was that he tried to cram as many bits and pieces from the novel as he could, and as a result, few things felt whole or meaningful.

Matter of fact, Snyder wasn't 'man enough' as you say, because he tried to put as much as he could into the film and failed.

9:37 PM  
Anonymous Mike in DC said...

THANK you for your comments about Roger Ebert's awful, awful review! I just e-mailed my friend Kyle (a Rog fanboy) telling him why I thought so. See below:

Subject: "The First and Last Paragraphs of Ebert's Watchmen review-they say it all, really"

Let's start with the first paragraph of Ebert's review:

"After the revelation of “The Dark Knight,” here is “Watchmen,” another bold exercise in the liberation of the superhero movie. It’s a compelling visceral film — sound, images and characters combined into a decidedly odd visual experience that evokes the feel of a graphic novel."

I wonder WHY it "evokes the feel of a graphic novel," Roger. Why IS THAT, I wonder? Sadly, that second sentence is as close as he gets to mentioning the book. At all. No weighing in on the book's importance on all respected comics that came after, Rog? Maybe how it has inspired countless movie and television minds since? Nothing at all? This really takes away from the respectability of this review if you're a person who HAS taken time to read the comic, and knows how critically important it was to take this incredibly deep, complicated storyline and attempt to translate that from book to screen. Ebert absolutely owed it to his many readers to mention the brilliance of the book and give it its due props--especially if he considers this a FOUR-star movie. Why not tell us in what ways you think Zack Snyder completely hit this one out of the ballpark in terms of keeping the powerful message of the book within a 3-hour movie, Roger? I mean f***, has Ebert even read the book? Is he too embarrassed to admit he has not?

I will admit the meat of the review gives us SOME idea of what Ebert actually likes about Watchmen at its heart, including the focus on the "contradiction shared by superheroes," and the flawed characteristics that each of the Watchmen embody, etc. However, the review just gets a nice primordial flush down the toilet by the end:

The final paragraph:

"The film is rich enough to be seen more than once. I plan to see it again, this time on IMAX, and will have more to say about it. I’m not sure I understood all the nuances and implications, but I am sure I had a powerful experience. It’s not as entertaining as “The Dark Knight,” but like the “Matrix” films, LOTR and “The Dark Knight,” it’s going to inspire fevered analysis. I don’t want to see it twice for that reason, however, but mostly just to have the experience again."

"I am sure I had a powerful experience." "I plan to see it again...and will have more to say about it." WTF? If your final words on the film (and while he says he will surely have "more to say" about the movie, obviously we'll never know as he's not gonna write a second review) are no more eloquent then it was a "powerful experience," you (usually) are not a respected film reviewer like Ebert. Usually, you're an uninspired high school movie reviewer writing 100-word reviews for your sh***y high school paper thinking about your next sweet-ass bong rip.

My absolute biggest issue here--the review just does NOT back up a four-star rating. In many, if not most, of his other four-star reviews, he has gone above and beyond summarizing a spectacular film as simply some kind of semi-confusing, visually masturbatory "experience" he thinks he wants to have again.

If you truly think I'm full of s***, re-read Ebert's Dark Knight review--which I thought was brilliant--the passion is there, his opinion is very evident, and above all it makes me feel like there's no question he believes DK is a masterpiece worthy of a 100 percent review:

Even his four-star Sin City review had more feeling:

This is not a personal attack on the movie fanboy's personal lord and savior, Mr. Ebert, just an opinion that he absolutely could have taken more time with this particular review to write it more convincingly. Additionally, he could have also owned up to the fact that he obviously doesn't consider this a four-star flick in his eyes, given the incredibly glassy-eyed review he stands behind here.

11:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I dugg the review. Literally. [digg link]

4:38 PM  
Blogger Spencer! said...

Hey Joe,
Just stumbled across your post from your comment about Ebert's review on AICN, which I totally agreed with, it was hardly a review at all!

Great review about Watchmen too, I'm a huge fan of the novel and seeing the way it was presented on screen was so disheartening. I felt like Synder read the book only once and only because it is so celebrated. And then with out truly understanding the source material created a very shallow adaptation. The look of the film was incredible, it looked like Watchmen! That is certainly an incredible feat alone. I just wish as much effort was put into adapting the tone, mood, pace, style, themes, character development, all the elements of great fiction that REALLY matter. (I won't go into specific examples in the film, you already named a few of many However, the most obvious was the music, it treated Watchmen like such a joke. Ugh.) The graphic novel is unfilmable if you don't understand the depth of the novel, I think if Zack Synder understood what Moore was going for he could have taken this incredible story and incredible characters, settings, scenes etc and made a great movie involving/inspired by that. It's an adaptation for christ's sake! My buddy made a good comparison last night in saying that The Dark Knight took a lot of elements in The Long Halloween and other of the Miller novels but didn't adapt one directly because that idea is absurd. They are totally different mediums, it has to be looked at differently. That said, I think if Synder made a shot for shot adaptation of the novel, which he tried to do, but did it correctly I would still have loved the movie just for that. It wouldn't have offered anything new and by no means would it be a truly great film, but at least it would be awesome because Watchmen is awesome. The movie he made was handled basically like a joke, and the only parts I thought were enjoyable were only because visually it was stunning and because the novel is so well done, it piggy backed on that.

Anyway, thanks for thinking critically about this film and for writing a great review, I'll definitely be checking your blog for updates. :)

5:27 PM  
Anonymous coffee said...

I kept thinking that the guy who played the Comedian was Javier Bardem (I found out later that it's actually Jeffrey Dean Morgan), but the two actors definitely look alike

7:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I saw Watchmen last night and not knowing anything about the comic book it was based on, i have to say that the movies didnt seem to connect the scenes very well (Excuse me if i didnt remember the characters names the movie was very dissarrayed in that sense). The Love Story between the Guy and the Girl in the spaceship was poor. The Comedy Man who dies at the start and the theme as to who killed him is actually well written but gets lost during the film.. The Villain(which we later find out) who is the smartest Man in the world is a good character. the a complete waste was the Blue Radiation Man is has God like and can kill anyone or any army. and is radiated blue and naked throughout the whole film while is Penis is exposed in probably a dozen scenes is pointless. Also the General Theme of a Nuclear Holocaust and the clock being at 5 to 12 tries to make some sort or sense of urgency which just isnt followed throughout the rest of the film.

One of the last scenes of the film is the confrontation of the group with the blue Radiation Man and the Smartest Man in the world. and this is disasterous, the Radiation Man agrees with the Villain that its ok to kill 15Million People in order to save the earths 2 Billion People and then he transports himself to Mars. (this was hilarious) i dont know if the book is any better but the movie was a complete shambles try to be arthouse comic book movie which just didnt work at all

1:39 AM  
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