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Who Watches Zack Snyder?

Content: Adults only (seriously, I thought the 35 year old woman next to me was going to puke at one point)

I suppose I have to first say I’ve read the comic (yes, I’m aware they like to be called Graphic Novels, but I think Allan Moore on some level would feel happier with Watchmen being called a comic book; I’ll get to that later), and I appreciate it, though don’t hold it in reverence like many in the generation before mine who have waited through aborted productions and 20 years of development hell ( my review of the Comic Book click here) to see the work on screen.

For those who haven’t read the comic, Watchmen is about second generation masked vigilantes who have been forced into retirement in an alternate 1985 New York. History essentially alters when Dr. Jon Osterman, as a result of a freak accident, is given God-like powers (this played a much larger role in the first screenplay made nearly 20 years ago which for all its faults tried some cool things). Aside from Osterman, none of the other vigilantes have super powers, though for some reason they punch like Mack Trucks, and have serious neurosis. The USA and USSR are on a collision course to blow themselves to bits, when the misogynistic Comedian is killed in his apartment, and the right-wing sociopath Rosarch thinks someone’s trying to get rid of the Watchmen to allow for WWIII.

That’s the skeletal structure of the story. And that’s what the film gives us rather impressively. It manages to gives its audience essentially the entire plot of the book in obsessively detailed scenes which include dozens of Easter eggs for those quick eyed viewers familiar with the book. I for one, was happy to see the Gunga Diner elephant blimp included.

Snyder definitely had the eye to make this film: it’s visually stunning theme and variation on tableau. In fact visually he gets nearly everything right; or rather as good as it could be adapted to the screen. The one visual issue I had was the updating of the costumes. They're too sleek, too cool. The costumes were silly and lame in the 1985, and they should be still today. It adds to the absurdity that people would dress up in these things.
Exhibit A:

Most reviews have used 300 as the point of entry into Zach Snyder’s labor of love adaptation of Watchmen. But the difficulty I had with the film starts with his first feature, his exciting, but misguided remake of Dawn of the Dead. The strengths of that film appear stronger here. But the weaknesses remain.

In many ways, the films are quite similar. Both start out with promising prologues, followed by the historical set up to the story set to music. Both fall apart in the final third, and while both are visually and viscerally arresting they both miss the nuances of their source material and lack characters we care about. Dawn of the Dead, Romero’s classic, is one of the few perfect American absurdist satires, a Modest Proposal for the Me Generation. A cousin sense of humor is also a very important part of Watchmen, but missing in Snyder’s version. It’s not that Snyder takes himself too seriously, in fact he does a nice job of adding in humor and self-effacing meta-jabs. But he can’t quite capture the savage, nihilistic wit which Moore surrounds his characters. Kubrick is probably the closest sense of humor film has had who might have pulled it off (Dr. Manhattan’s apartment is modeled after the last room in 2001 and the war room from Strangelove is essentially revisited).

Some of the context has been lost over time. For the Thatcher/Reagan years Watchmen was an objective corollary of right-wing ideology taken into fantastical practice: the realization of the American Dream ad nauseam. The film seems to limit this to the scenes featuring the glob of makeup that is Richard Nixon, who is far more prominent here than in the novel. He’s an easy straw man, but distracts us from the fact that in the book we get a lot more Jingoism, debauchery, and 80’s excess; capitalism gone awry where humanity is hardly valued aside from its participation in sex and/or violence. Snyder makes Rosarch more of an individual case of alienation, not so much a symptom of his world where one has to be part sociopath to survive; the entire New Frontiersman subplot exists only in a quick afterword.

What is missing the most in this film is really any emotional, human connection. In a great irony the characters we care the most about in Snyder’s watchmen, Crudup’s Dr. Manhattan and Haley’s Rosarch, are the ones we should feel the least about, or at least feel he most distanced from, and that is in large part due to the performances of those actors. Crudup is excellent in a near impossible role, both practically and story wise. His reticence in his flashback scenes are quite compelling and some of the most human parts of the film.

Jackie Earle Haley gives the best performance of his career, and one on par with Heath Ledger’s joker as the best in a comic book film. Could we have two supporting acting Oscar winners from comic book films? I didn’t really care much for Rosarch in the comic, but I sure did care for Haley’s Rosarch. He gives a stirring and emotionally powerful performance in a role where we don’t even see his face most of the time. And when we do, especially in his final scene, it’s mesmerizing. Jefferey Morgan turns in a pretty good supporting performance as The Comedian, though he isn’t given enough to add too much depth to it, then again he doesn’t overact either. Patrick Wilson is pretty great as Dan, though he plays the Clark Kent glasses a bit too cutely, and at times it does seem like he’s too young for the role.

One of the major problems is the casting of perhaps the two most pivotal characters in the story. Matthew Goode as Veidt, and Malin Ackerman as Laurie. For Goode, it’s not all his fault. Viedt is the supposedly the smartest man in the world, as well as one of the most charismatic (I didn’t recognize this as the same actor who played the very interesting con man in The Lookout), but the flaw in his character goes back to the comic itself which doesn’t establish his backstory (for obvious reasons) nearly as well as the other characters. The film doesn’t help by taking out scenes which may have helped us buy his character more. Ackerman is the weakest link in the film. Though the blame probably lies mostly with Snyder (don't get me started on women characters in his films). She seems to be portrayed far too bland and passive than Laurie could have been. That said, she labors to get her lines out, and when they do they come out flat, if not painful. Her performance isn't entirely Sofia Coppolla-esque; she actually seems interested to be on screen, but she seems way out of her league amongst the rest of the cast, pulling figurative acting muscles at time trying to keep up.

The film’s lack of humanity, or human feeling outside of Haley and Crudup, can be explained because the film excises the two most human subplots of the film: those of Rosarch’s psychiatrist, and the corner newsstand. Both appear only as homages, but in the novel they serve as our only connection to the rest of the human race. The film is quite insular, as far as humanity goes, to the point that when disaster occurs, we don’t even see any bodies; just massive destruction of buildings.

I missed these guys...

Spoilers follow:

Which is why I missed the squid. The new ending seems a bit more practical. But then again, the squid was to be, and is, absurd. It was then and is now, but it was absurd to a point; to show how much it would take to get humans to stop killing each other and completely change their worldview. Completely gone from the film is the carnage which is the haunting and silent (it feels as silent as pictures can in the novel) “punchline” of the comic, which covers a large portion of the last issue, including the deaths of the people in those excised subplots, which adds a personal face to the tragedy (to see the comic's take on it, go here). Heavily truncated is the lone and tormented figure that Veidt is shown to us at the end of the novel. That his character is not fully flushed out earlier doesn’t allow the level of personal tragedy it could have afforded us. The ending also makes Dr. Manhattan’s decision to perpetuate Veidt’s lie less compelling as he has less at stake. In the new ending, he has become the villain, not some alien or inner dimensional creature, and would benefit from getting out of the galaxy, rather than being forced to make his last difficult human decision.

Snyder surprisingly struggles when he’s given liberties; when he has the opportunity to bring to life parts of the book which were obviously motion heavy, but confined to the 2-d medium. The Veidt assassination attempt is far gorier and less exciting than the comic (I don’t recall Lee Iococa’s brain being blown away).The sex scene is ridiculous but not in the creepy way it was in the book; more in a sophomoric way (the shooting flame? Come on!). He didn’t even choose the right version of Hallelujah. The right song, perhaps, but while Cohen’s version is the historically accurate one his is the version about being an unrepentant sinner who is ultimately devoted to God. It’s Cale’s version, later Buckley’s version, which is about orgasm. The other scene which seemed poorly composed to me was the prison riot. Slow-mo action works at times, but when you have some characters moving, while other characters are static for long periods of time beyond what the slowing effect should do, it looks far too staged. During one part of that fight, Ackerman ducks after knocking a rioting prisoner over. Wilson then takes on two goons, all the while Ackerman is still ducking and no one else advancing…it feels like she and the goons had enough time to go get coffee then come back and finish the fight the way it was staged.

Why do I think Moore would prefer it to be called a Comic Book? Well, Graphic Novel was the term people gave to Watchmen to try and explain it. But Watchmen is very much in the comic book tradition, and Moore relies so heavily on it, in order to subvert it, that to take it away from that tradition and make it a new one, takes a bit of the bite and subversive nature out of it; sort of how in the last quarter century Jazz has become safe music thanks to its institutionalization, where it once was wild and dangerous. And what really is evident after seeing such a faithful visual interpretation is that a large part of the success of Watchmen was how it was a formal shock. It pushes the comic book to, and at times, past its possible limits. Something Snyder couldn’t formally do if he wanted to with this film adaptation or if he wanted to ever work again; which sort of says something sad about the film medium.

In final analysis this is a fantastic mess. It’s not as amazing or as awful a mess as Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales, and maybe that explains something else. Kelly’s apocalyptic comic tale went all out. It hit some of the most incredible highs and most incredible lows of any film I've seen this decade. Watchmen isn’t necessarily safe, and anything would seem safe in comparison to Kelly’s flawed opus, but Snyder really could have tried more; taken more chances. Then again he took so many already to get the film completed in the first place, I suppose we should be content we got what we did.

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