When I saw WATCHMEN the other night I went with my old friend the Great and Powerful Oz — a fellow alumnus of the mildly-infamous Camp Mahackeno counselor staff during the mid-1980's — and since he's one of the more cerebral geeks I'm proud to know, I asked him to contribute his two cents-worth on the film. Here are his thoughts:
I thought it best not to reread any of the graphic novel before seeing the film of WATCHMEN. It's hard to know whether an adaptation has succeeded if you're too close to the original, and movies have to stand or fall on their own (the opinion of the unprepared mass audience). So it's been about twenty years since I looked at the book. Given that films usually can't afford to spend much time on backstory or exposition, this one paces well, despite shifting between explanatory flashbacks and advancing the plot in the present. Reject the reviewer who tells you the plot is confusing — this person was either tripping balls, talking on the phone, or dead-set against the movie in the first place. The action is simplified if only by having to strip away the bulk of the character detail that filled the space between the covers of the book(s). I tried to imagine an audience with no pre-existing devotion to superheroes (half the theater probably was that audience); I think the scant but detailed images of the 1940s create the right framework to draw people in and sell the notion. WATCHMEN the Book questioned the implications of the comic-book setup simply by existing in that medium; WATCHMEN the Film has an uphill climb here, but does okay.
At the same time, I didn't really care for it until about fifteen minutes in. That is a shame, because the opening attack on the Comedian is pretty good — or should be. But every shift to super-slo-mo in the middle of a fight (in case you missed the fact that someone's being, like, punched), every time we pull back pointlessly through a metal gate, a little voice in my head says, "Terry Gilliam would have spared us this." Alan Moore's principal complaint against Hollywood films is that they spoon-feed the audience, and WATCHMEN does exactly that (in the form of every "flourish" from director Zack Snyder). But there's a silver lining on the spoon — some more subtle resonances make it through, be they accidental or whatever.
The blatantly bad: all celebrity impersonators stink up the place as soon as they open their mouths. It's a shame that the refreshingly slow pace of the film's opening lingers on an obviously Canadian Richard Nixon, a random Pat Buchanan, etc. Second, and deserving of its own Razzie award, is the overbearing pop song score. Clearances for this must have been half the movie's hundred-million-dollar budget, and they don't get it right once. These things — "because-we-can" CGI, pop songs, historical figures — are intrusions, distractions. Just about everything in WATCHMEN that makes some outside reference weakens the film.
But it's not as if they could save running time by replacing these missteps with more source material, since most of it's overlaid ON the source, dropped like turds in the relevant punchbowl. The worst regurgitates Leonard Cohen all over what should have been one of the high points of the film (taken three ways). The crowd laughed more at this than the glowing blue nudity. It doesn't have to be this way — Dr. Manhattan's reflections are set to period-accurate Philip Glass (obvious and a ripoff, but it works... technically this isn't pop scoring, but another movie soundtrack just slapped onto this one!).
Okay, the cast. Everyone except Rorschach is ten years too young and too fit, but most get away with it. Unfortunately I get to stand by my original suspicion that Ozymandias is horribly miscast. The other characters lose their paunches (Dan Dreiberg, but what he lacks in book-accurate physique he makes up for in hairstyle), or lack convincing age makeup (Sally Jupiter, Edward Blake)... I even found Rorschach a little emotionally high-pitched for a man so dulled by brutality that he drops his articles and pronouns, but you don't have to be carbon-copy accurate for the thing to work. Adrian Veidt, OTOH, needs to be the forty-something stocky blond trust fund apostate who recreated the world in his own image. Here he's skinny teen Eurotrash.
Elsewhere, close is good enough. I thought Morgan's Comedian had the swagger right and got a good cross-section of the nastiness in; Crudup was moving despite his detachment as Dr. M (bonus points for never once resembling a MasterCard commerical, something he hasn't always been able to escape [cf. BIG FISH]).
Malin Ackerman's Laurie musters through somehow under the twin burdens of being pretty and skinny. Way skinny. When I say I wanted more from her I mean more in the occasional line delivery (though I wonder how it is she fits into the slinky costume but doesn't look anorexic naked; maybe they used CGI there too). By no means actively bad, though.
The best surprise in the cast is Patrick Wilson as Dan, who somehow comes across as the Gary Shandling of crimefighters while being the emotional center of the film. (Sounds incompatible, I know.) The film's first breath of atmosphere occurs when the action turns to him — there are some good, evocative images of the imaginary New York that feel like the real thing. He puts across the needed facets, and without the help of voiceover.
Taking a quarter-century to adapt a groundbreaking publication risks irrelevance. WATCHMEN was the comic-book WILD BUNCH of its day, first to investigate the uglier implications of violence and vigilante justice... but cinema had already had its WILD BUNCH seventeen years before that, and now we're supposedly used to much worse. Visual effects don't get audiences running to the multiplex like they used to. "Who watches the Watchmen?" is a gag question in the 21st century — who's this movie for?
But the fact that reviewers have already bothered to rail against the sex and violence tells us there's still some punch left. WATCHMEN, by going too far, hits the same dynamic David Cronenberg did in A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, presenting the fist-pumping vengeance film audiences crave... but following up with its disgusting after-effects. Rorschach claims the film's center through violence and daring, but every time he pulls his badass routine and the audience cheers, this is followed by another sound, a long, low moan: "Ohhhhhhhhhhh...," as in, "oh no you didn't," or "oh, I can't believe they're gonna show that."
Maybe (en masse, anyway) kids shouldn't thoughtlessly be playing Rorschach. (Watchmen action figures have already appeared in retail outlets, at about eighteen and a half bucks apiece; I didn't see Rorschach at Toys 'R Us, though.) The movie has taken a complex stance just by sticking to the original images. Word has it the director bought the cast copies of the real thing and they changed lines backon set.
So precise mimicry is bound to lose a little soul, but it's what everyone wanted, too... the movie ain't bad and is the best version we were gonna get — better than an update to the present day or futzing with time warps. What has dated unavoidably is the historically accurate fear that nuclear war between superpowers was the biggest threat on Earth. This seems somewhat quaint now... the generation that'll see this movie is more concerned about viruses and lead-laced Chinese toys.
My remaining wish list is fairly short: in a 2.5-hr. movie you can take two minutes to do the Veidt ads right, and a little more Rorschach backstory and tactics. Show Bubastis sooner if you don't want to piss off the English. Them's fairly high marks by omission.