WARNING: If you’ve never read the Watchmen graphic novel, this review contains spoilers. However, if you’ve read the novel, nothing discussed in here will give away any story elements you didn’t already know. In terms of the movie ending, it’s discussed only in the most vague terms. But if you want to go see the movie without knowing anything about it, you’re best not to read the following. Duh.
Having said that...
Who watches the Watchmen? TheFeed does. The movie hits theaters today and now, on to the review!
Here’s the long and short of it: Watchmen is not a bad film, but it’s not a great one either. In a strange way, this is a victory for big-time fans of the graphic novel like myself. Unlike other movie adaptations of beloved works, Watchmen did not leave me wanting to burn every picture of the director’s mother in order to destroy his memories, the way he had destroyed mine. I left the theater thinking, “Well, it could have been a lot worse.”
Hollywood has been aching to make a movie out of Watchmen since, well...forever -- even before the book was even written. The project has been put on hold too many times to count (with some saying it was “unfilmable”), with just about every king of Hollywood nerdom throwing their hat in the ring, trying to take a crack at it since the late 80’s.
When the movie got the greenlight and was finally announced in 2006, fans were overjoyed at the prospect of seeing the deep and meaningful imagery of the graphic novel come to life on the big screen. However, I think there was a collective uneasiness among fans that no one wanted to talk about. The project was put in the capable hands of 300 director Zach Snyder which turned hesitant whispers into silent worry.
Obviously, Snyder was shouldered with a difficult task. Watchmen is not an easy story to understand, even when you can turn back the page and re-read something: The intricate layers of interpersonal relationships, the slow build up of action, deep characterization and back story. How do you fit all of that into a three hour film?
The answer is, you don’t. And Snyder didn’t. While it’s clear that great pains were taken to try and stay as true to the graphic novel as possible, this is almost to the film’s detriment. What the Watchmen ends up becoming is a series of enjoyables to watch, yet plot-bare vignettes featuring characters you know little about, unless you’ve read the book.
The entire first hour of the movie is a beautiful mess. Most of the early plot is driven exclusively through weird action montages set to popular songs from the time periods it's supposed to depict. Characters are introduced in short, jumbled snippets. There is little sense of time and place (which is a GIANT SHAME seeing how time and place act almost as characters unto themselves in the graphic novel). All of this -- weird montages, no sense of time and place, little character development -- leads to the pacing of the movie being horribly off. Nothing understandable as a story arc happens for the first hour and fifteen minutes of the film. As one girl put it to me after the movie ended, “It was like I almost fell asleep and then boom! I was awake! And then it got all weird and sad, and I wanted to sleep again.” Ouch.
While watching, I couldn’t help but think the people who didn't read the novel were probably completely lost. They didn’t explain the Keene Act! How could they just glaze over that! What about Hooded Justice? Or Silhouette? They’re not integral to the story, but they’re featured in the film and never introduced.
Then it dawned on me. Perhaps the people who had never read the novel didn’t know what they were missing. It was impossible for me to take the movie at face value having poured through every page of the graphic novel over and over again. Maybe I knew too much? Maybe not knowing all the details made this version easier to digest?
However, it was clear that the rest of the audience was getting something different from this film than I was. There are some humorous parts in the Watchmen graphic novel, as there were some funny moments in the film. But I knew I was in trouble because people started laughing at the wrong things. Within the structure of just the film, the audience may have thought all of Rorschach’s quips were meant to be “yippie-ka-ya-yay” moments. However, after reading the book, you know that’s just not the case. He kicks ass, yes. Yet, he's a sociopath. As the story progresses, you come to understand his frightening internal workings. Oh wait, no you don't...unless you've read the book. I believe things like this speak to the lack of emotional connection the film makes with the audience. The audience laughed because they didn’t know. Maybe it was all just a big joke after all.
At this point, I was trying desperately to put aside my own feelings about the original story and just concentrate on the film. Like I said, parts were enjoyable and boy, was it beautiful to look at. The cinematography was fantastic and it was amazing to see the images from the book come alive so vividly and with such painstaking precision. Great costumes and meticulous attention to detail gave the film an incredible visual appeal -- something we’ve come to expect from Snyder.
Oh, then there were the fight sequences. Every time someone got punched in the face, I found myself wondering how they weren’t dead on first, brutal, vicious contact. Wonderfully choreographed and beautifully executed, no one can say that this film skimps on bone crunching. There are plenty of well-placed and -- dare I say -- classy moments of blood and gore that will leave you reeling and wanting more.
Snyder also pulls amazing and genuinely heartfelt performances out of his actors. The cast is incredibly strong -- most notably, the pairing of Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach, and Patrick Wilson, as The Nite Owl. The story requires their relationship to be intense yet, brotherly. The actors walk this delicate tightrope like seasoned pros. Other highlights include Jeffrey Dean Morgan as The Comedian, who brings sincere darkness to the role, and Billy Crudup as Doctor Manhattan. Crudup seemed like an odd choice. However, after seeing him master the disassociated presence of a man-god, it’s hard to argue that a mistake was made.
If there is one weakness in the cast, it’s the performance of Malin Akerman as Silk Spectre. Akerman’s performance sums up the entire movie -- great to look at, but hollow. Granted, I don’t think she was given great material to work with as her character’s dialogue seemed flat. However, she didn’t do anything with what she was given, especially considering that her relationship with Doctor Manhattan is central to the emotional core of the film. She’s undeniably hot, however, and you get to see her naked.
Ok, so let’s talk about the end of the movie. It’s completely differs from the book. While some might think that the ending is more relevant to today’s society, I disagree. They tried through the entire movie to stay true to book, although it made the movie more confusing and convoluted than necessary, and the one thing they massively change is the end. COME ON! The more I think about it, the more angry I get.
Initially, I didn’t have a problem with its ending. Now, I’m starting to have a huge problem with it. Its ending doesn't carry the same kind of emotional weight or message as the book. It also seems forced. It’s less character-centric and more centered on creating big action.
That’s all I’m going to say about the ending, because ultimately, if you’re a fan of the book or just a fan of the idea of the book, you should see this movie. Maybe not opening night, but definitely in theaters. So, just brace yourself. It’s not that the ending is completely broken arrow, but they compromise just enough to slap the brilliant sadness of the original square in the jaw.
With all the gorgeous visuals, severe and impressive fight sequences and some good performances, what you get from Watchmen is just interesting moments. Unfortunately, it doesn’t make for a cohesive movie when the plot is convoluted and mostly absent for two-thirds of the movie. Clearly, compromises were made in order to cut the movie down time-wise and make it more palatable to the masses. Because they tried so hard to stay faithful to the book, the entire thing just ends up sort of muddled and chaotic.
After the film was over, I spoke to a woman about the film. She had read the graphic novel and was a “big fan.” She started going on and on about how much she loved the movie. I began to think maybe I had the whole thing wrong. Maybe I was over-analyzing this. Maybe I was being too cynical, too tough. Then she started telling her friend that in the book, “All the superheroes traveled through time and existed in different parts of history.” She turned to me and said “I really think that’s the neatest part of this whole thing. Don’t you?”
My eyes got wide and my lips parted to say something, but no sound came out. I probably should have explained it to her. Explained that her description never happened in the book or in the movie. Instead, I just walked away because a very wise man once said “Not even in the face of Armageddon. Never compromise.”
Perhaps Zach Snyder should have listened to the same wise, masked man.