Saturday, March 7, 2009

I Watches the Watchmen

While watching Zach Snyder's adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons comic masterpiece Watchmen, I couldn't help but feel like one of its characters, the god-like Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) who sees his personal timeline (past, present, and future) as a simultaneous whole. During the film, I could remember reading the graphic novel for the first time, many years ago, lost in its intricacies and in love with the seemingly endless respect its creators showed to the reader. I could remember picking the book up again later, reading this time not to see what happened, but rather how it was made to happen, looking at the book the way Dr. Manhattan looks at the pieces of a watch. And, while viewing the film, I too looked at my watch, albeit as a solid whole, and I realized what it was that bugged me about this otherwise solid film.

It's the time element.

Watchmen is, for those who don't know, a sort of alternate history of the 20th century, a world where Richard Nixon is in his 5th term thanks to a Dr. Manhattan-enforced victory in Vietnam. But it's also a dark world, where the tensions of the Cold War have never moved too far from their Cuban Missile Crisis height. The heroes of this world are real people, "masked avengers" who dress up to fight crime without the benefit of special powers or, apparently, a good therapist. Some do it out of a perverted sense of right and wrong, like the sadistic Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley). Others do it to chase fame and adoration, or to get rich, or simply because it's fun to play around with gadgets and weapons.

But they've all been forced into retirement thanks to a law banning their kind, and only the uncompromising Rorschach stays in action. Manhattan and the savage Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) work as government operatives. And Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) goes public, parlaying his fame into entrepreneurism and philanthropy. But when the Comedian is brutally murdered, the heroes begin to suspect a conspiracy to kill them all. Eventually, they come to realize that its a far larger and more dangerous plot than they ever could have suspected.

The graphic novel Watchmen is commonly seen as the first, and best, attempt to deconstruct the nature of the super hero. Its attempts to psychoanalyze and understand exactly what kind of person would put on a mask and fight crime were fresh when the book came out over 20 years ago. However, so much media in the intervening years has covered that same turf that it can be hard, at times, to see the same daring and novelty in this adaptation. That's the first way in which time has undermined Snyder's film.

Another is the film's length. At just over two and a half hours, Watchmen is a long film, and it certainly feels that way. However, the book's plot is expansive, and the film fits in as much of the story as possible, so there is very little time to stop and catch one's breath or, I daresay, to contemplate the thematic and subtextual elements that make the book so compelling. Watchmen started its life as a 12 issue comic, and each issue has supplementary material relating to the world of the comic. This means that the overall story has a very episodic nature, and in print this gives you natural places to stop and consider what's just happened.

The necessary compression of time endemic to cinema eliminates these pauses, and some of the book's deeper essence is lost as a result. Plus, certain episodes lend themselves to forwarding the plot far more than others. On the page, this does not detract from the overall experience, but segments such as Dr. Manhattan's origin story seem to stop the film in its tracks. This probably has the effect of making the film harder to watch for viewers unfamiliar with the comic than for those who see omissions and reworkings as the gravest of sins.

On the whole, however, Snyder manages to make an entertaining film. Fans familiar with his previous film 300 will recognize his slow motion-heavy style, which is again employed frequently here. There are times when scenes that have no apparent need for slo-mo appear to have been shot at the wrong speed, but they aren't hard to overlook. The production design is great and creates a very interesting and consistent world. David Hayter and Alex Tse's screenplay makes modifcations and cuts, and most of them make sense and work better on screen than the original scenes would have. The dialog, often lifted straight from the source material, occasionally feels stilted and detached, but that may just as well be an issue of acting or directing. Malin Akerman as Silk Spectre II is the weakest of an otherwise solid bunch, and Matthew Goode appears far too young and petulant to play the "smartest man on the planet."

The film also seems to fetishize and focus on violence far more than the book, but this too might be a victim of having Snyder in control of the time element. The book is plenty violent, to be sure, but on the page you decide how much time to spend on a violent panel. Snyder forces us to look, slowing down the violence and lingering on the blood and gore in a way that seems intended not as a commentary on the source, but rather as a way of highlighting a "cool" part for you to talk about with your friends the next day.

In the end, Watchmen is an entertainment, and a decent enough ride to be on. Although some of it borders on camp (the Dick Tracy-esque makeup on Richard Nixon or Carla Gugino's Silk Spectre I, for instance), it hits most of its marks and makes for a fun night at the cinema. Snyder's film is faithful to a fault, even though it's often the moments where the film diverges from its source which seem to be the most engaging and exciting. In the end, it's this over-faithfulness which renders me unable to recommend the film unequivocally. In a way, it feels a bit like having an excitable younger brother read Watchmen to you, focusing on the moments of T&A and violence when you're really more interested in what the whole thing means. Unfortunately, this little brother has little time for meaning, but plenty of time for "cool" stuff. If you're more interested in depth than titillation, you may want to read the book for yourself, controlling the time element and letting your attention fall where it may.

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