Thursday, July 30, 2009

Movie Log: Watchmen

It would be very instructional for some film-school class -- or just a group of interested fannish types -- to carefully compare and contrast the directorial choices made by Peter Jackson with the three Lord of the Rings movies and by Zack Snyder with Watchmen. Both are quite faithful translations of a difficult work from another medium to film, both had fanatical fans who had to be wooed (and, as with everything, some of both were utterly convinced and some were utterly horrified), and both were at least moderately successful (artistically and commercially).

The difference is that when Jackson made some clunky moves -- which is inevitable; much like the old definition of a novel, a film is a long series of flickering images with at least one major thing wrong with it -- he made them by departing from the source material, but Snyder's mistakes are entirely those of being too faithful to the source material. Actually, I should qualify that: Snyder was intensely faithful to one strand of the Moore-Gibbons graphic novel Watchmen, the most obvious and noisy part of that book, and his slavishness in replicating moments, and particularly images, from that plot, turn his movie into something like a "greatest-hits" version of the comic, sparking lots of recognition but not nearly enough engagement.

His one major change to that strand -- the precise nature of the "villain's" plan at the end -- actually makes the plot work slightly better; it ties up something that was a loose end in the Moore-Gibbons graphic novel. But the reason that change was necessary is that the graphic novel's giant maguffin was tied into the other subplots -- to the pirates and the secondary characters, the missing scientists and artists and everything else that Alan Moore used to define his fictional world. Without all of that, Snyder's Watchmen is basically just our world with underwear perverts in it. (And the whole stop-motion credits montage just underlines that -- yes, it's visually exciting, but it doesn't add up to a world that's all that different from how Moore saw the real 1985.)

I can't say how Watchmen looks to someone who doesn't know the source material; it must be an utterly different movie depending on whether one knows the story already or not. But it is amazingly -- ridiculously, even -- faithful to Moore's words and Gibbon's images, with dozens of shots that look like comics panels even to a reader who hasn't looked at Watchmen in years. (Perhaps Snyder really did use the Gibbons art, or large portions of it, as his storyboards.)

There's no dramatic tension for a reader of the original graphic novel; this Watchmen hits its marks and punches its lines, but it's like watching yet another production of Hamlet, without the benefit of actually having the catharsis of a real tragedy or the power of Shakespeare's words. (Moore is good, but he's no Shakespeare.)

And the movie of Watchmen forces the viewer to remember that the plot of the graphic novel didn't entirely make sense, that the ending was stronger in theme than in story, and that even the ultimate superhero story, on screen, turns into unpleasant scenes of grown men in skin-tight leather hitting each other with overly-choreographed moves that never quite convince.

This is quite possibly as good as any single-movie version of Watchmen ever could have been, but that's still just mediocre.
Listening to: The Arrogants - Future Classic
via FoxyTunes


Chris said...

"This is quite possibly as good as any single-movie version of Watchmen ever could have been, but that's still just mediocre."

That sums up my review perfectly. I'm eager to see the extended edition to see what hit the editing room floor - or the digital trash bin, I suppose - but I don't expect it will much change the overall effect of the film.

Anonymous said...

It's been a while since I read them, but weren't the heroes supposed to be ordinary people who had donned masked and costumes? The only REAL superhero was Dr Manhattan, who effectively rendered everyone else moot.

I just watched the film today and those ordinary humans sure looked pretty super-powered.

Meh. I FFed bits. For a movie it was too long, or at least that's how it felt. I did actually prefer the new ending. Far more elegant than the original.

Truly missed the comic in a comic sub-plot.

James Crowley said...

Not only did Snyder use the graphic novel as the basis for his storyboards (as he did on 300), but he had Dave Gibbons and John Higgins produce storyboards for the revised ending sequence. (Since what I kept thinking of while watching the film -- at an opening-night IMAX screening -- was the Gus Van Sant version of Psycho, I think I can safely say it didn't exactly work for me.)

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