Director: Zack Snyder
Starring: Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Haley, Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Carla Gugino
Running Time: 162 min.
★★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)
For months I've been kidding people that I planned on reading Alan Moore's seminal 1986 graphic novel, "Watchmen" before viewing the film. I say kidding because anyone who knows me knew I had no plans to do such a thing. I never read the book BEFORE seeing the film on which its based, wanting to always go in completely fresh. It's a policy I'd implement even if I weren't reviewing movies and one that's always seemed to work well, so there's little reason to change it. The last thing I want to to do is turn into one of those whiners who complain that "the book was better." And when you consider just how many movies I see and how many of them are based on novels, it's safe to assume that my perception and possible enjoyment of these films would be substantially altered (if not ruined) by reading the books they're adapted from.
I've never been more pleased with this policy than after seeing Zack Snyder's take on Watchmen, especially given all the controversy its adaptation has caused. This supposedly sacred text, long considered "the Citizen Kane of comics," has always been labeled more or less unfilmable and when the shocking news broke that it would be attempted, irate fanboys were up in arms. So isn't it ironic that Snyder went out and made a movie that would only appeal to those who thought it shouldn't have been made? Then it's released and he's publicly dragged through the mud for being too slavishly true to the source material. Poor guy can't win. Having not read it I can't comment on how true it is to the novel (though I've heard it's VERY) but it does play like an insane amount of effort was put into capturing the look and visuals, even if deep ideas don't always come along for the ride.
In its over two and a half hour theatrical version it's a sprawling, sometimes brilliant mess as frustrating as it is unforgettable, without making the slightest effort to be accessible to casual viewers unfamiliar with the novel. And that's the double-edged sword of a "faithful" adaptation. Damned if you do, damned if you don't. Yet in spite of all its attempts to alienate me I strangely became absorbed in it all anyway. For what its worth, the film drips in stylistic cool, is unmatched in visuals and production design and earns its R rating. None of this is a surprise considering it comes from the director of 300, who isn't exactly known for his subtlety.
There are definitely glimpses of a masterpiece in here and for the first 10 minutes it sure seems destined to be one. But there's still this nagging feeling (made much more evident in the director's cut than the theatrical one) that something more emotionally resonant could have been unearthed with tighter, more focused direction. Even someone completely unaware of the source could tell this was a very tough work to translate to the screen and Snyder deserves credit for at least having the guts to try, as divisive as the results may have been.
The film opens in an alternate 1985 where Richard Nixon is serving his fifth term as President and the threat of war with the Soviet Union is a very likely possibility as the "Doomsday Clock" counts down toward Armageddon. We're introduced to a group of superhero vigilantes known as the Watchmen who have been outlawed by Nixon since 1977, their costumes retired and identities kept under wraps. Only two still remain under government employ: Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), formerly scientist Tom Osterman, created as a result of a nuclear accident and possessing the power to control the universe. And the brash Edward Blake/the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) whose gruesome murder in the film's opening scene sets the plot's wheels in motion.
The exiled, ink blot masked Rorschach (a brilliant Jackie Earle Haley) suspects foul play and recruits the very reluctant Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) back into action. Joining them is Dr. Manhattan's assistant and girlfriend, Laurie Jupiter/Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman), who faces the thankless challenge of living up to the legacy of her superhero mother, the original Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino in retro pinup mode). The final member to again suit up is Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias, the "smartest man in the world," who revealed his identity to the public, using his name to make billions funding scientific research. Rorschach is determined to uncover what he believes is not only a massive conspiracy to wipe out the group, but something with more disastrous results for the entire human race.
It was inevitable that with the success of The Dark Knight we'd be seeing darker superhero films and it's a credit to Snyder's direction that as messy as this is it doesn't suffer as badly as you'd expect in direct comparison to Nolan's film. A lot of that could probably be chalked up to the fact that Moore's story (or however much of it survived in David Hayter's script) is just so bizarre and original that it's forced to be judged on its own terms. Like The Dark Knight it asks the intriguing question of what would happen if superheroes really existed. What would they look like? What would they do? How would they affect society? But unlike Nolan's film, the tone sometimes comes across as campy, while still finding a way to entrench itself in a kind of pseudo self-seriousness. What really needs to be said about a film that features a ship ejaculating? Snyder really struggles to effectively balance this tone from time to time because the material is just so challenging and he isn't quite there as a filmmaker yet. But he's close.
The big ideas that are present are front and center in the opening minutes of the film with one of the best title sequences I've ever seen. Unforgettably set to Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A Changin," the sequence somehow manages to be both movingly poignant and hilarious as the Watchmen and their superhero forebearers, the Minutemen, are shown via fake newsreel footage shaping the events of this alternate history. Give the studio credit for biting the bullet to pay for the use of the entire song. A fortune for sure, but worth every penny. It marks the first of many classic rock songs on Snyder's playlist (which also includes Hendrix, Simon & Garfunkel and Leonard Cohen) that will sometimes distractingly invade upon the picture at the strangest of times. At least he has good taste. Unfortunately, this groundbreaking opening sequence also sets up unrealistic expectations for what follows.
The film's structure is muddled and sometimes confusing, jumping back and forth between Rorschach's murder mystery investigation and attempts to draw the Watchmen out of retirement as we're given flashbacks and all their backstories. The device feels like something that could have been directly lifted from the novel and if it isn't I'll stand corrected. Through these flashbacks, some substantially more involving than others, we learn that they're less superheroes than deeply flawed, psychologically damaged people who wear costumes and are working through some major issues.
None except maybe two could even be considered the slightest bit likable with the worst of all being the film's victim, the cynical Comedian, a depraved rapist and murderer whose bleak outlook on the world isn't completely unlike Ledger's Joker. In his view, society created him and will have to live with the consequences. What little sympathy we initially felt upon his demise is quickly wiped away after we actually get to know the guy. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is terrifying and funny in a role that's larger in importance than screen time. While the characters are unsympathetic and difficult to like I did care what happened to them, and much of that can be chalked up to the other strong performances, one of which is possibly award worthy.
Jackie Earle Haley should give his agent a raise for having this be the big role to follow his Oscar nominated comeback in Little Children from a couple of years ago. Under the mask he's effectively scary as Rorschach but it's toward the middle section of the film when he's locked up and it's taken off, exposing Walter Kovacs, that we're given insight into the sociopath who wore it. And that's when the brilliant ferocity of Haley's performance as really takes over in string of memorable scenes. Billy Crudup, best known for playing a "Golden God" in another film is a blue one here and aided by some great CGI brings a unique calmness and low-key tranquility to Dr. Manhattan, who's essentially a prisoner of his own powers and we maybe see more of than we'd like. The most intriguing flashbacks of the film are to his life before the accident.
A nearly unrecognizable Malin Akerman has been cited by many as the weak link as Silk Spectre II and while she's unproven as an actress and this part was probably more than she was ready for, I thought she fared as well as could be expected. Those claiming she's so dreadful probably all read the novel and carry delusions of grandeur in terms of what they think the character should have been. Although it is kind of funny to think that the actress whose most notable work until now was in the awful Farrelly Brothers comedy The Heartbreak Kid beat out all others to land such an iconic role. But it fits, possibly because I haven't read the novel I have problems picturing another actress bringing more to the part (or the costume for that matter).
The relationship between her character and Patrick Wilson's Nite Owl is handled well with the always reliable, underrated Wilson proving once again that he's pretty much capable of anything, this time playing a paunchy, out shape dork afraid to come out of superhero retirement. It kind of reminded me how Clark Kent should be played, if he was to be played again. He's both literally and figuratively impotent with Dan being nothing until he puts on that costume. Wilson portrays that reluctant transformation perfectly.
On the flip side, Matthew Goode projects very little in the way of charisma or intelligence as Ozmandias in the film's flattest performance. He just has no presence at all in a role that seems to have been written especially to convey that. It's the one part that feels like it was miscast and should have been filled with a bigger star capable of coming across as a larger than life personality. It starts to become an even bigger issue for obvious reasons toward the third act of the picture, resulting in an ending that comes across messier than it should. This, and an embarrassing caricature of Richard Nixon (realizing our worst fears of how stupidly he could be portrayed onscreen) are the two biggest faults of the film.
Snyder would have just been better off not showing the Nixon character or shooting the actor from behind since his physical presence is inconsequential to the story anyway. Actor Robert Wisden is less to blame than all the latex he's buried under which makes you wonder why they just didn't put a Nixon Halloween mask over his head and call it a day. Where's Frank Langella when you need him? But the funniest thing about this unintentionally hilarious depiction of Nixon is that it does somehow strangely fit the bizarre tone of the film.
When Watchmen ended I had no idea what I thought of it, which isn't rare for me. Usually when something like that occurs a second viewing is required. Except that second look came in the form of the over 3 hour director's cut which makes for a great point of comparison or a terrible one, depending on your perspective. I'm leaning toward the latter. Unaware of its gargantuan running time beforehand I was hoping this version would not only clear up questions I had about the narrative, but also enhance the overall experience as many director's cuts have done in the past. Instead it accomplished the exact opposite, diminishing much of the film's power.
Usually, I have nothing against director's cuts (my all-time favorite film is one) but there's just no restraint shown at all here. The seemingly minor flaws in the theatrical version are magnified and a story that didn't have the tightest focus to begin with became much more muddled with useless, excess breathing room. The additional 24 minutes ADD NOTHING. But beyond that, they actually take away from what was already there by piling on scenes that would only interest someone deeply familiar with the source material. In other words, drooling fanboys and no one else. Did I really need to see Hollis Mason's death? Of course not. It's a total waste of time. Those who read the novel are probably gasping at that statement but that's exactly the point: You read the novel. Many others didn't and a movie has to be made for them also.
While the theatrical cut finds a good balance in appealing to fans and newbies alike the extended version flies off the rails with self-indulgence, feeling like it was storyboarded to death to cram every little detail in. We get more of bizarro Nixon and a bigger dose of Rorschach than is necessary, especially in regards to his sometimes over-explanatory voice-over narration. The decision to use that in any version is a questionable call, but it seems worse in the director's cut, recalling that infamous Blade Runner voice-over debacle. Scenes that were wisely cut short initially extend well past their saturation point, which sometimes makes for a trying viewing experience.
NO MOTION PICTURE SHOULD BE 186 MINUTES LONG. It's cruel and unusual punishment, regardless of how dense the material it was adapted from is. It reeks of bloated egotism on the part of the director. And I'll think twice now before siding with a filmmaker who complains he wasn't allowed to "fully realize" his vision...IN OVER TWO AND A HALF HOURS! It's great to want to please fans of the novel and do the story justice but sometimes less should be more. Instead of locking Snyder and his over 3 hour cut in a cell and throwing away the key, Warner Bros. stupidly gave in to his con job by actually giving this unnecessary version a limited theatrical release earlier in the year. I've yet to revisit the original version since but after viewing the director's cut but it'll be interesting to see how it plays now.
Watchmen's release was accompanied with the tagline: "FROM THE VISIONARY DIRECTOR OF 300." That effort was disposable war porn but here Snyder comes one step closer to earning that "visionary" label. Nothing about this is forgettable or lacks vision, despite carrying that similar "style over substance" vibe. Luckily for Snyder I'm reviewing the FAR SUPERIOR theatrical cut which is only fair considering that's how it was released. And if you think I've talked about both just to avoid forming a solid conclusive opinion on the film, you're completely right. But I do know I'd see it again in a heartbeat and can't stop pondering the story or the characters, making me believe this could be one of those times where those telling me "the book is better" may be right.
Alan Moore took his name off the film just as he did V For Vendetta before it and you can't blame him. It's his baby and he has every reason to be protective. But after that, there's nothing he can do to control our reactions to it. I didn't even read the novel and can tell this makes for a fascinating study on adaptation and how hard it is to please everyone, even if you've stayed as true as possible to the source as possible. That Watchmen leads to conversations and analysis like that is the highest compliment it can get and proves why every work, regardless of stature, should be fair game for cinematic interpretation. Just don't expect me to read the book first.