Alan Moore was right. His masterful and influential Watchmen may be forever un-filmable. It certainly wasn't filmable by Zack Snyder. The director of 300 has made a loud, violent, poorly paced, disjointed, and misguided film that's both too loyal to its source material and uncertain of what that source material was trying to say. Snyder and writers David Hayter and Alex Tse have taken one of the most influential books of the last quarter-century and compressed into a confusing and confused pop epic that only registers at all because of the ambitiousness of the book on which it is based. If you're completely unfamiliar with the original and refuse to sit down and read it, there are ideas and concepts in Zack Snyder's Watchmen that will definitely intrigue you but none of them come from its director. Some ambitious storytelling and a few good performances are derailed by both the inherent differences between the forms and a director unwilling (or unable) to work to iron them out.
Watchmen opens with arguably the best sequence in the entire film, as the credits unfold to "The Times They Are A-Changin'" and we see pictures of the alternate universe in which the movie is set. The action takes place in an alternate 1985 with tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union at an all-time high under the reign of President Nixon. The Doomsday Clock is about to hit midnight and the only thing keeping the world from total devastation is the existence of the God-like Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup). The world's once-prominent superheroes - mostly just masked vigilantes when compared to Manhattan's Superman - have been forced to put away their masks and the world seems headed for disaster.
One of the more prominent former heroes, The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), is thrown out of his skyscraper window, and it looks like someone may be killing off former masked crusaders. Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) smells something fishy with the death of The Comedian and goes to his former colleagues, including Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson), Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman), and Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), warning them of what may be coming their way.
This is really the most succinct plot recap possible for Watchmen. The story goes deep into what it means to be a hero in a world where the line between good guy and bad guy has been blurred. When our greatest fear is nuclear destruction at our own hands, how can a man in tights possibly do any good? When a hero has to look into the heart of darkness, how can he not be turned dark himself? Breaking it down to its essentials, Watchmen is about the fate of mankind and whether or not it's worth saving.
Even if you sat down and read Watchmen front to back in its compiled graphic novel form, it wouldn't feel like the movie. It comes down to a simple difference between fiction and film - chapters. There's something about being able to read part of a story or, in the case of a compiled graphic novel, one of the originally published single issues, and letting it sink in as you go about your day. When the individual issues were put in one form, the breaks weren't taken out. In fact, Moore and Gibbons clearly want readers to step back, ending issues with non-illustrated passages from the fictitious "Under the Hood" autobiography of one of the retired heroes. You should take time to digest the chapter, book, episode, whatever you want to call it that just ended. With those breaks removed, Watchmen is a different creature. It's rushed, hurried, with no time for reflection. Dr. Manhattan's origin story, one of my favorite passages from the book and still the strongest part of the film, shouldn't be part of a larger episode, it should be an episode in itself. With all pauses and breaks taken out, Watchmen feels like a season of Lost with no credits or commercials. It's a run-on sentence of film.
By barreling forward through Moore's amazing story, Snyder loses the forest for the trees. Stories like this are not the sum of their parts as Snyder clearly thinks they are. He thinks all he needs to do is be faithful to the source material, which he is, but it makes for a film with bizarre pacing problems, strange transitions, and scenes that simply do not work. Snyder can't decide what to take seriously. Rorschach's material, thanks to a movie-best performance by Haley, feels genuinely pained and relatable. But, conversely, Goode plays Ozymandias like he's in a Saturday morning cartoon. They feel like they’re in different movies. At the same time, Crudup adds genuine sadness to his vocal work as the big blue guy, but Akerman is typically horrible. And Snyder never makes the Nite Owl and Silk Spectre affair believable. There's a sex scene set to Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" that is literally one of the worst ever filmed.
People will point to Watchmen as they did 300 and Sin City and praise its faithfulness to the source material, but to what end? It's not ALL there. So, essentially what Snyder and his writers have done is sing two-thirds of a song, note for note, and missed most of the meaning of the lyrics. You can technically reproduce panels all day long on film, but there are elements of pacing, storytelling, and tone that won't be there unless you reproduce every single one. Once they realized they couldn't do that - the film would be four hours long - the project should have either fallen apart or a filmmaker (both Terry Gilliam and Darren Aronofsky circled this one) should have been allowed to interpret the material instead of just slavishly recreating it. The disjointed pacing of Snyder's brutal film allows for none of it to register. And that's the true tragedy of Watchmen - you take nothing away from it. As the lights came up, I was stunned by how little I had gotten out of the entire experience. One of the most powerful books in the history of the graphic novel has been rendered impotent, a loud, two-dimensional film with none of the impact of the source material. Even the Comedian wouldn't find that funny.
Rating: ONE AND A HALF BONES
Reviewed by Brian Tallerico (MovieRetriever.com Film Critic)
Release Date: March 6th, 2009
Starring: Jackie Earle Haley, Patrick Wilson, Billy Crudup, Malin Akerman, Matthew Goode, Carla Gugino, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan
Director: Zack Snyder
Writers: David Hayter & Alex Tse