Saturday, March 7, 2009

65) Watchmen (2009)

65) Watchmen (2009) Dir: Zack Snyder Date Released: March 2009 Date Seen: March 6th, 2009 Rating: 2.75/5

The long and short of the good/bad news about Zack Snyder’s much-anticipated and even more dreaded adaptation of Alan Moore and David Gibbons’ Watchmen is that there’s more good than bad in it, but not by much. Attempting to adapt the modernist monolith was sheer heedless ambition on Snyder’s part and while the film’s altered ending still packs a punch, the task of keeping all of the original story’s balls in the air was clearly too much for him. Trying to satisfy both fans and new-comers alike, his tendency to err on the side of strict adaptation has once again backfired (see Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City for another slavishly dull adaptation), leaving much of the film a passionless tracing of the original material and the rest a pointless but not infrequently satisfying revival.

To give credit where credit is due, Snyder’s adaptation does everything it can to fit everything it can into its 2 hour 43 minute runtime. While Watchmen would almost certainly have made a better TV show or mini-series event, the film is as competent an adaptation as it could’ve been for a film with little ambition other than sticking like rubber cement to the comic.

Therein lies the film’s biggest self-imposed hurdle. In trying to be a faithful representation, it bogs itself down with techniques that only really work in comics. Hearing Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley, looking like Johnny Rotten in his Walter Kovacs make-up) strain out his journal entries doesn't sound right, which is partly Haley’s fault but mostly the fact that the character’s warped logic was never meant to be read objectively aloud. The preposterousness of the excessive gravel in Haley’s voice, which normally works in his favor during dialogue, buries his words’ urgency. It sounds like something you’d hear at a bad poetry slam instead of a Hammett-esque paranoid screed.

What’s more problematic however is how the flashbacks in the story really wear on the viewers’ nerves after a while thanks to both their bulk and how, unlike the comic, they're forced to be shown in a fixed linear sequence. While the comic broke up its action into fluid asides and interludes, Snyder’s film attempts to tie the film’s events together into a narrative whose flashbacks are not only readily discernible from the present but also have a direct, rather than strongly implied, correlative link with events in the past. This is the peril of a film that has to tell a coherent story out of a jigsaw plot that was never meant to be digested all in one sitting.

Snyder’s film also woefully insists on an aesthetic kinship with its pulpy predecessor. Sometimes he succeeds, like in the stylistic references to the EC Comics that left an indelible impression on Gibbons’ style. Still, the undergirding idea of making a film look like a comic is particularly lame when it comes to the way Snyder constantly presents traumatic encounters and action scenes as slow-motion snapshots. That technique feels especially out of place in Watchmen considering how the comic defies the romanticism that comes with nostalgia, specifically the fetishization of the characters' fond memories. It's also rather trying considering how often the technique is used. 

Again, within the constraints of that kind of mentality, the film is engaging enough—the Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup, working wonders with the Master Card voice) backstory is especially affecting because of how effectively Crudup’s passionless voiceover undermines the scene’s slick and effectively portentous look. In the long run however that’s not saying much.

Additional notes:

-Disappointed by how Haley delivered my favorite line in the comic—“You people don’t seem to understand. I’m not trapped in here with you. You’re trapped in here with me.” It wasn’t a desperate howl but rather a Bale-as-Batman type grumble. If I were a prisoner he were taunting, I’d yell back, “WHAT?! WE CAN’T HEAR YOU!”

-The sex scene suggests an awesomely inappropriate sense of humor at work and while I get that’s just because Snyder loves The Comedian's “It’s all a joke” mentality a little too much, that’s not a valid excuse for adding a superfluous, jokey, Heavy Metal-esque scene of copulation.

-Patrick Wilson was mostly good but he disappointed me with some of his lines; I still think he’s only a so-so performer but he has his moments here and he was pretty decent in Little Children, too. I most strongly object to his lack of a gut in the film considering how integral that is to understanding that the character has let himself go. As it is, he looks like he could have leapt back into action at a whim, which really doesn’t make much sense.

-Carla Gugino was terrific as was Billy Crudup and Matthew Goode. Jeffrey Dean Morgan joins Haley and Wilson in the so-so pile.

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