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Zack Snyder Turns ‘Watchmen’ Into Loud, Disjointed, Brutal Mess

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HollywoodChicago.com Oscarman rating: 2.0/5.0
Rating: 2.0/5.0

CHICAGO – For years, fans of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s masterful and influential “Watchmen” have been waiting for a filmmaker willing to faithfully and slavishly adapt their favorite graphic novel. Well, we got what we wanted in Zack Snyder’s frame-copying vision of this legendary book, but as someone once said - You should be careful what you ask for because you just might get it.

Snyder’s take on “Watchmen” is like a karaoke singer who hits most of the notes but doesn’t understand the lyrics to the song. The filmmaker has recreated a majority of the panels from his source material, but he’s compiled them in such a way that makes for a brutal, disjointed, misguided experience.

There are enough good ideas in the original that people unfamiliar with it and still refusing to read it may have something to talk about after seeing “Watchmen” but those elements that work are in spite of the people who made this film, not because of them. Except for a few strong performances (balanced out by a few awful ones) and the strength of the ideas at the core of “Watchmen,” the film is a complete disaster, one of the biggest disappointments of the last several years.

CPatrick Wilson as Nite Owl II, Malin Akerman as Silk Spectre II and Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach.
Patrick Wilson as Nite Owl II, Malin Akerman as Silk Spectre II and Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach.
Photo credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

The opening credits to “Watchmen” arguably make up the most effective sequence in the film. Set to “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” Snyder introduces us to his alternate universe, one in which masked crusaders have come and gone and Richard Nixon is still President in 1985. The world is on the edge of nuclear armageddon as the U.S. and U.S.S.R. have their nuclear weapons pointed at each other, held back from launching them by the existence of a God-like figure named Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup).

During these tumultuous times, a former hero, The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) gets tossed from his skyscraper window. Someone is killing off former heroes. And all the people who were near Dr. Manhattan during his time on Earth appear to be dying of cancer.

The misanthrophic Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) suspects that The Comedian was not killed by a burglar and that someone may be targeting former heroes. He goes to warn the people otherwise known as Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson), Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman), and Ozymandias (Matthew Goode).

The story for “Watchmen” goes deep into what it means to be a hero and a villain, especially in a world where the two are often interchangeable. When good guys develop weapons that can bring about the end of the world and when our greatest fear is the use of those weapons, what can a masked hero possibly accomplish? And when people on the side of good look deep into the heart of evil, is it unreasonable to think that some of it won’t rub off on them? “Watchmen” is not only about the fate of mankind but whether or not there is really anything that can be done to save it.

Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson) fights off a rioting prisoner as Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman) lends a hand.
Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson) fights off a rioting prisoner as Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman) lends a hand.
Photo credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

It’s deep material for a graphic novel and even deeper material for a 162-minute pop epic. Apparently, too deep.

The big problem with “Watchmen” is that Snyder and writers David Hayter and Alex Tse have to rush through the multi-chapter book, creating a disjointed film in which none of the action is given any time to sink in. “Watchmen” was originally published in single book episodes for a reason. You’re not supposed to read it all at once. You’re supposed to let parts of it sink in before moving on to the next.

Part of the failure of “Watchmen” comes down to one of the essential differences between the forms - chapters. Moore and Gibbons clearly wanted readers to step back and digest what had just happened, even going as far as to end each book with a non-illustrated chapter of a fictional work from the “Watchmen” universe.

With the breaks of the original removed, “Watchmen” feels completely different. It’s rushed, like a season of a TV series crammed into a nearly three-hour running time. If someone took all the highlights of a season of “Lost” and put them on the big screen for a 160 minutes, it wouldn’t be the same experience. It wouldn’t work. Nothing is given time to breathe in Snyder’s “Watchmen,” as each revelation, each origin story, each character introduction is hurried through to get to the next.

Stories like “Watchmen” are not the sum of their parts. They need a filmmaker who can recognize the difference between the forms and turn a great novel into a great film. By being so loyal to the source, Snyder has made a film with bizarre pacing problems, sudden transitions, and some scenes that simply don’t work on the screen like they do on the page.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan as The Comedian.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan as The Comedian.
Photo credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

The biggest problem Snyder has is with tone. There are brutally violent passages in “Watchmen” and a genuine quality to Jackie Earle Haley’s movie-stealing performance as Rorschach that feel like they’re from a different movie than Matthew Goode and Malin Akerman’s Saturday morning cartoon characters. On the good side, Crudup adds a touching sadness to his vocal work as Dr. Manhattan that does truly work and his biggest passage - the origin story of Dr. Manhattan - is easily the best part of the film.

RELATED READING
Star26-Image Slideshow from Watchmen, Part One


Star26-Image Slideshow from Watchmen, Part Two

So, ultimately, “Watchmen” the movie is faithful to “Watchmen” the book. But to what end? It would be a four-hour film if Snyder and his writers included every element of the book, so once that was deemed impossible, why stay so loyal? If I told you that you could only sing two out of three notes of a song, would you think your cover version would be the same?

There are elements of film - storytelling, pacing, tone - that are different than the graphic novel and it’s almost as if those elements were never considered because everyone was so concerned with being loyal to the book. “Watchmen” is widely regarded as one of the most important and influential graphic novels ever written but none of that registers in the film version.

And that’s what’s truly tragic about “Watchmen”. It will be a footnote. Yes, it will make a killing opening weekend at the box office, but this is a movie that will be forgotten by the summer, much less the end of the year. It’s a tragic ending to the story of one of the most anticipated adaptations in years and a joke that even The Comedian wouldn’t find funny.

‘Watchmen’ stars Malin Akerman, Carla Gugino, Billy Crudup, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Matthew Goode, and Patrick Wilson. ‘Watchmen,’ which was written by David Hayter & Alex Tse and directed by Zack Snyder, opens on March 6th, 2009. It is rated R.

HollywoodChicago.com content director Brian Tallerico

By BRIAN TALLERICO
Content Director
HollywoodChicago.com
brian@hollywoodchicago.com

Joe's picture

my 2 cents

Maybe I just didn’t “get it” when I read it, but I question the level of esoteric philosophy that the comic is touted for. It’s a comic book that tells kind of an interesting story, but fails as a sociological/political manifesto IMO.

I was kind of disappointed to see what I felt was two major departures - Rorshach’s execution of justice on the molester/murderer (comic book version touched on his “calculated dementia” better) and the climax to the main plot, but on the latter I can kind of understand the logic behind the change - doesn’t quite fit with the current times, from a storytelling POV.

Personally, I think this movie is better than “V for Vendetta” in representing Alan Moore’s storytelling capabilities. Certainly not the disaster the critic would have you believe.

Perhaps Mr. Tallerico needs to work on his storytelling capabilities.

Mo's picture

V for Vendetta

I just read V for Vendetta… Don’t even get me STARTED on the Wachowski Brothers’ disaster. The end of the movie happens in the first 10 pages of the damn book!! Hahaha, we didn’t see too many people complain about that slop.

Everyone wanted a Watchmen movie, I’m going to say this included this bogus reviewer. And it was done VERY well. It was translated as well as it possibly could be without it being like 4 or 5 hours long (which, I suspect, is probably another reason why they didn’t keep the REAL ending). But I think the reviewer’s argument of “why hold true if proved impossible” is utter crap. If the task of relating the depth and complex plot was too great, why make a movie at all? This brought the graphic novel to life and it was great fun, so enjoy it.

Anonymous's picture

“I question the level of

I question the level of esoteric philosophy that the comic is touted for. ”

Tell me about it. Watchmen has some good themes, and certainly has influenced the comic genre for the better by looking in upon itself, but to be honest, it’s not all that deep, and it’s grandest insights involve the deconstruction and refutation of the comic book format, not any greater view of people or society. It’s really for people who are interested in media studies, and for pop-culture obsessed 16-18 year olds to use as a launching pad toward getting interested in more serious work… no, not because it a comic book, but because it’s not, in fact, the Citizen Kane of anything.

Unfortunately, just like movies like The Matrix, and books like 1984, too many psudo-nerds think that these kinds of entry-level literature are the be-all end-all of philosophy and thought. Just because they have sex and violence but aren’t American Idol, doesn’t make them great.

Anonymous's picture

ADDEDUM: I was really

ADDEDUM: I was really talking about the comic. The movie is worse because it has too much of the baser elements, and not nearly enough of the unique elements that that made the comic more than just a gloomy noir.

Not to mention bad acting and those constantly stupid slow-mo/fast-mo shots that substituted speed changes for dramatic substance.

And while I liked the use of “Times they are-a changing” because it was *supposed* to be literal, the rest of the soundtrack was distractingly stupid.

AnonymousjustthewayIliveit's picture

After seeing the film, the

After seeing the film, the critic is pretty much dead on. The first hour and half of the film looks like it was edited in 20 minutes. They spend a long time focusing on something, then proceed to completely ignore it. They constantly jump from the present to flashbacks of the past, which have flashbacks of their own. The two best characters of the film get such little screentime, it’s a disgrace, while they beat this dull love triangle to death. By the time you get to the fine final hour, you have been mentally beaten into submission.

BTW, anyone who says, “duh! it’s a popcorn flick, it’s not supposed to be good, what did you expect??” is someone who is too afraid to think for themselves.

k.t.'s picture

agreement, addendum, a quibble

i agree with this review as well, although i found the film to be an incredibly enjoyable movie-going experience in spite of the problems. in fact, in many ways, it’s all i wanted it to be. it broke the hollywood superhero movie mold enough to inspire a repeat view or two, and it was faithful enough to the source that my memories of the comics could fill in the blanks, allowing me to effectively ignore the problems with pacing. would i have enjoyed it without having read moore’s work? who knows. the map is not the territory, gentlemen. it was fun. i ate popcorn.

also, brian, minor complaint: “‘Watchmen’ was originally published in single book episodes for a reason. You’re not supposed to read it all at once.”

“single book episodes”? it was published as a run of comics because it’s a comic. that’s how they come out. you’re not doing anybody any favors by inventing this nomenclature. and besides, you can only buy it as a trade nowadays anyway, a single bound volume. “not supposed to read it all at once.” huh? other than that, nice review, imo.

HollywoodChicago.com's picture

Malin Akerman nude in 'Watchmen,' topless in Maxim

Malin Akerman nude in “Watchmen” and topless in Maxim: see the new Malin Akerman shots in Maxim here.

Michelle's picture

hmmm

I’ve never heard someone complain about a film being TOO faithful to its source material. If it hadn’t been faithful then everybody would be complaining about how it should have been. I think Snyder did an incredible job with a comic book that is inherently unfilmable and it’s pretty doubtful that anybody else could do a better job.

GW's picture

Good Review

I haven’t seen the movie yet, just trolling reviews from Rottentomatoes.com and came across yours. Well written, well-thought out review.

You’re the only critic I’ve seen to point out the “chapter” problem, which I thought would hurt the movie too. The ideal format for an adaptation of Watchmen would have been a 12-episode HBO treatment (like Rome, True Blood, etc.).

That said, I’ll see the thing anyway. And no doubt there’s a four-hour DVD planned…

Yahzi's picture

The real murder...

The real on-screen murder was the brutal killing of Plot. And his best friend, Dialogue.

Won’t somebody find out who killed these two wonderful characters, and stop them from making any more movies?

Also, did anyone else notice that the only children in the movie are a) abused, b) cannibalistic, or c) eaten by dogs? There’s so much relentless, visually artistic, emotionally empty violence that it ceases to shock and just becomes boring.

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