Monday, March 16, 2009


Movie Review: Watchmen


In an alternate reality, the America of 1985 is radically different from what we remember. Super-heroes are real, and they've been ostracized. Richard Nixon is still President. And the world stands on the brink of nuclear war unless the super-heroes it has rejected can (or will) save the day.




3 on a scale of one to five. Neither terrible nor great.

Extended Review:

The massive hype surrounding the Watchmen movie has been, for many of us, the biggest thing since last year’s Presidential election. So many questions, considerations and fears. How faithful will Zack Snyder’s adaptation be? Is it even possible to make a movie of such a ponderous comic series? What about all the nudity and cursing? What about the SQUID? Oh, for the love of God, what about the SQUID!!

Alan Moore, writer and co-creator of the Watchmen comic book series, never misses a chance to take himself oh so seriously. Moore has disavowed the movie adaptation of Watchmen, and there’s certainly a contingent of Moore loyalists who’ll either skip the movie, or else they'll see it and trash it simply because of Moore’s strongly stated belief that the movie shouldn't exist. So sayeth Alan, so sayeth all of us... that will be a popular sentiment among many.

Not that I’m unsympathetic to the idea that Watchmen simply doesn’t make sense as a movie adaptation. I said I didn’t think it was a good idea back in October of '06. Part of what makes Watchmen special is that it’s a comic book about comic books and about comic book readers. Remove these characters and this story from it’s original medium and you lose a lot of the subtext.

Now that I’ve seen the film, I think I was pretty much correct. Watchmen the movie offers stunning visuals, one very good performance (more on that later) and a tight, complete story. It even has a better climax than the original story (sorry, squid-lovers). What it lacks is the sense of immersion and immediacy that made the book so special. The movie showed me a world with real-life super heroes. The book took me into that world. If Watchmen the book was quality escapism... the kind that really takes you somewhere ... then Watchmen the movie is just a postcard from Zack Snyder: "Having an AWESOME time! Wish you were here!"

And don’t get me wrong, I’m no Mooreophile. I've read and heard a lot of what Alan Moore has had to say and I think the guy is an asshole. And an overrated asshole at that. Watchmen is the only thing he’s turned out that I think is actually any good. Some people are still upset that League of Extrordinary Gentlemen, based on a Moore title, was a crap movie. Well, guess what? It was a crap comic, too. Garbage in, garbage out.

Zack Snyder’s movie is not crap. It isn’t a bad film. But there are issues. It isn't Snyder's fault that, at this point, it's nearly impossible for anyone to see the film without preconceived notions. And Snyder really has tried to turn out something worthwhile. But the fact remains that this story just doesn't work outside of it's original medium. It's not an action-filled story, but Snyder has really upped the action for the screen. Other bells and whistles (the CGI, the new and improved climax) are nice, but they don't make up for what the story loses in translation. I almost feel disqualified to review the film simply because I've read the book. And I'd also be inclined to disregard any review from a movie-goer who hadn't read the book. This is a real greased-pig of a film. It's hard to get hold of it.

If you do go see it, you'll probably leave the theater with mixed emotions. You’re certainly going to enjoy some really artful visuals. And you’ll enjoy a wonderful performance by Jackie Earle Haley as Rorchach, the most interesting character in the book and in the movie. Haley's performance is the one and only thing that I think completely brings an element of the book to the screen. He leaves the other actors in the dust with the work he does here. But, then again, he did get the plumb part.

What you won’t get if you go see this film is any sense of what makes the comic book series so special to fans.

So, should you go see it? Sure, I guess. It’s at least as good as 51 percent of the other stuff in the multiplexes right now. Just don’t go in expecting The Dark Knight, because this ain't that kind of comic book movie.

And don’t go in expecting to see the film and then understand why so many people love the book. If you want to get a sense of that, the only way to do it is to read Watchmen. The book itself is something I can recommend without any reservations at all. It really is very, very good.

Frank Zappa once said that talking about music is like dancing about architecture. He was right. You just can’t convey any sense of what music is in a conversation. With Watchmen, Zach Snyder is dancing about architecture. The final product is interesting, mostly enjoyable, odd, occasionally frustrating, sometimes nonsensical, too long and nowhere near long enough. It’s a mess, but to be fair, it’s an often glorious mess.


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And I'd also be inclined to disregard any review from a movie-goer who hadn't read the book.

That's a ridiculous statement. Regardless of your thoughts for this particular movie, all movies must be able to stand on their own. A movie critic should not be required to do all sorts of research before watching a movie. In fact, the opposite is true. Film criticism is better when the critic is exposed to less things that affect his or her expectations. A review that says "It wasn't as good as the book" is not worth much. Or "not worth the hype." A movie should be judged on what is on the screen from opening credits to closing credits.

If someone tells you right before you watch a movie that it is the best movie that they've ever seen, your expectations will be raised and it's likely that you'll be disappointed. What you expect to see plays a major role in what you think and feel about what you see. Because that's true, it's best to go in with the least amount of expectations possible and allow the movie, on its own, to help you form your thoughts and feelings.
It's amazing that you seem to have felt BOTH reactions of people who saw it. And I understand what you mean about being "disqualified" for reading the book and yet, a review from someone who didn't read the book would also be problematic. It was very hard to separate what I already knew, and from the beginning montage in the credits with the golden age heroes, my mind was filling in blanks often subconsciously. So a lot of the deeper themes went over people's heads if they didn't know the source material, yet a film should be able to stand on its own. I imagine the extended director's cut will fill in a lot of those blanks, but other than diehard comic fans, no one will sit through four hours of movie. I didn't have an issue with the running time; it didn't feel as long as it was and I did feel immersed in that world.

Eh, I've written a ton about this movie already. In the end, "Rorschach is awesome" is probably the only thing we'll all agree on. I think this chart sums up best how well the public perceived the movie, or how successful it was in conveying the themes of the source material:
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