Erik McClanahan: I didn’t think Watchmen was bad, but it wasn’t very good either. Alan Moore’s right, his books are not meant to be films, and though this is the best adaptation of one of his works (though that’s not saying much at all after League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, From Hell, and V for Vendetta) I got the sense even more that Watchmen is not really meant to be on the screen with moving images. The film features some very odd choices, some great performances and some bad, and a rather lackluster job of directing by Zack Snyder.
|watchmen, a movie written by zack snyder, david hayter, and alex tse and directed by zack snyder. now playing at theaters across the twin cities. for tickets and information, see moviefone.com.|
Jim Brunzell III: After reading the graphic novel this past summer and subsequently being bombarded by countless trailers and advertisements for the film adaptation of Watchmen, things were starting to look worse and worse—but nothing was going to keep me from seeing this movie regardless of its current 57 rating at metacritic.com. From the moment the bright yellow hits the screen you should be taken in by the movie magic…but something didn’t feel right.
EM: I agree. Something didn’t feel right. I think the film gets off to a rocky start right away with the Richard Nixon speech. Actor Robert Wisden played Nixon; his accent is pretty silly, and I felt the makeup was laughable. It looked very cheesy, and way too obvious. The credit sequence was cool, I thought, so after the off-putting Nixon speech the movie picked up and got me excited. Snyder and his co-screenwriters (David Hayter and Alex Tse) cram a ton of back-story snippets and info from the comic book into the titles—I would venture a guess that the opening title sequence was more than five minutes long. But as much as I liked the credits, they illustrated the problem I had with most of the movie. Too much information is neglected and truncated. Snyder wants desperately to cram in so much from the book that a lot of great stuff is lost, and character motivations, history, and personalities are either unexplained or breezed over.
JBIII: I’ll have to disagree on the opening credits; they are somewhat off-putting, especially with the classic Bob Dylan song “The Times They Are A-Changin” playing through the entire sequence. This really took me out of the picture. I wanted an edgier soundtrack—for instance, I think Trent Reznor would have really amped up the musical score rather than going for an Americana vibe that felt forced and disruptive. “All Along the Watchtower” was annoying in its context and I couldn’t wait for the song to end. I enjoy the song, but it should not have been included in the movie.
EM: “All Along the Watchtower” was used in the graphic novel, and another segment of a Dylan song was in there as well, so the use of those songs in the movie fit to me in terms of faithful adaptation, but they did feel weird set to the images of the film, I agree. Good call on the Nine Inch Nails thing. The score was all over the place for me. The most annoying piece of music had to be the use of Wagner’s “The Ride of the Valkyries” during the Vietnam section of the movie. Real original, Snyder…play the same piece of music Coppola used in Apocalypse Now? That was just lame. I would say the soundtrack was one of the biggest problems with the movie.
JBIII: The music used really took me out of the film experience, whether the songs were mentioned in the graphic novel or not. “The Sound of Silence” sequence was very hard to sit through, and same goes with all the other popular songs used. I agree with you about “Ride of the Valkyries.” My expectations for Watchmen were low, only because now this past summer, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight set a new standard not only for comic-book movies specifically but the action genre generally—and TDK may stand alone on that mountain for many years. Also, consider that Watchmen is the pinnacle of graphic novels for many readers; recently, Time included the novel on a list of the top 100 English language novels from 1923 to today, so expectations for a film adaptation were bound to be astronomical—and not only among “fanboys.”
EM: Expectations are a funny thing. I read the book over a month ago for the first time. To say I loved it is an understatement. It is easily one of my favorite stories, books, comics—whatever you want to call it—of all time. So much information and wonderful characters in this fully realized world, which is an alternate history set in a 1985 where America has won the Vietnam war and Richard Nixon is still president after being re-elected for a fifth term. So I wanted to love this movie, but constantly felt when I was watching it that it really is perfect in its comic book form. Alan Moore has said he wrote Watchmen to be only for the comic book medium, and it’s hard to argue with that crazy, bearded Brit. I hate to be one of those guys who complains that the movie isn’t as good as the book, but it’s the case here. My friend who joined me at the screening (and had not read the book or knew much about Watchmen at all) wondered if this story would’ve worked better as multiple films, a la Kill Bill or Lord of the Rings. That’s an interesting idea, but would that have worked? I can’t imagine this story will be all that exciting to people who know nothing or little about the comic, and it may even confuse or bore them. As you note, after The Dark Knight the bar is very high in this genre, and though I’ve read Snyder in interviews say this movie will “kill the comic book movie,” I feel he was being just a tad hyperbolic. Of course he has to sell his movie, but TDK has already changed the way audiences see a comic book movie. The genre can now be taken seriously and stories can be presented in a realistic way. Watchmen, the movie, feels like child’s play next to Christopher Nolan’s brilliant film (my favorite of 2008).
JBIII: The story is fascinating, but Snyder did cram too much into the film. Your friend’s idea of presenting the story in multiple parts could have worked, but everyone on board probably felt they had one shot at this and didn’t want to leave too much out. They threw the kitchen sink at the screen and bit off more than they could chew, let alone swallow, and I felt lost about halfway through the film’s 161 overwhelming minutes. While it pops up briefly, the memoir book Under the Hood was a brilliant part of the graphic novel which only shows up in the first reel of the movie, except for being seen on a someone’s desk toward the end of the film. But the “giant squid” didn’t make it either, so how did Snyder decide to leave certain things out? I will give Snyder credit for giving each character ample time onscreen for their back stories, which included what I felt was the strongest segment of the film: the back story of Dr. Manhattan, played by Billy Crudup with his soothing voice. This could have been 10-15 minutes longer in my opinion, because in the end, his story was more relevant than anyone else’s. I must admit though, I was waiting for him to finish many of his sentences with his signature catchphase from the Visa commercials: “priceless.”
EM: Yes, the best section is Dr. Manhattan’s exile to Mars. I loved this part, even though a big reveal for Silk Spectre II (she discovers who her father is) was mishandled and rushed, not giving the audience the full weight of the revelation. The best chapter in the book, to me, was the Rorshach origin story. The movie rushed through this as well. He’s such a fascinating and messed-up character.
JBIII: Jackie Earle Haley was a great choice to play Rorschach—the problem is that his dialogue spews out so much, it’s hard to concentrate on the action/story at hand. He also has a white mask on for most of the movie that changes different inkblots on the mask—for what reason, I don’t know and don’t care. Rorschach, like many of the superheroes/villains in Watchmen, is a very unlikeable character. They are vigilantes, to say the least, and throughout the film it was hard to connect with any of them, especially the nasty Rorschach. I did feel a little for Patrick Wilson’s Nite Owl, in that he knows the difference between right and wrong and when the Comedian is killed at the beginning of the film, Nite Owl seems to be the only one content in his life—until Rorschach shows up to tell him about the murdered Comedian. Malin Akerman plays Silk Spectre II, and while she might look pretty and sexy in her vinyl costume, she is hard to watch at times due to her wooden acting. She speaks her lines with no conviction, and even during a burning fire scene looks like she isn’t concerned about the lives at stake. I don’t know who could’ve replaced her, but she was one of a few actors in the film who felt like duds in acting and speaking some of the basic dialogue in a very faithful script that could have perhaps have used a little improv.
EM: I agree with your thoughts on the performances of Patrick Wilson and Jackie Earl Haley. They were both great. I agree, as well, about the failure of Ackerman’s performance as Silk Spectre II—she was pretty flat all around. The movie did fail to explain the origin of Rorschach’s mask, which was a shame, but a lot of things were left out of the movie, as is par for the course in nearly all adaptations. While this is a faithful adaptation, a lot of important stuff was left out. Are you a fan of these direct panel-to-film recreations of comics that are becoming popular (like Robert Rodriguez’s excellent Sin City and Snyder’s previous movie, the laughable but kind of entertaining 300)? After seeing Watchmen, I’m not sure they work all that well. The dialogue does come off flat and doesn’t stick with the viewer like when you read it and see the panel art. I do want to mention some things I liked. I thought that visually the movie was great. Snyder captured the look of the panels well; I loved his use of zoom outs early on, i.e. the overhead shot when the camera started on the yellow smiley face on the street awash in blood and travelled up to the window of the Comedian’s apartment. That was exactly how I imagined it should look on film when I read the book and saw the images. However, this was very reminiscent of David Fincher’s style, especially in Fight Club. What I’m getting at is that Snyder is kind of a hack. He’s not at all original. Just look at his three movies: a remake (Dawn of the Dead) and two direct adaptations of popular comic books. I’m already sick of hearing the heaps of fanboy praise laid on this guy. He’s a solid director, but not a “visionary” as the marketing department would have us believe.
JBIII: Adaptations—books to movies, theater plays to films—are a slippery slope, so let’s not go down that road. But the “excellent” Sin City? Yikes, what a bore that film was! Other than Mickey Rourke’s criminally underrated performance as Marv, that film was nothing more than wondrous eye candy and amounted to nothing important other than a pretentious piece of celluloid. Oh, and Carla Gugino looks great in both Sin City and Watchmen.
EM: I knew that would irk you, Jim! You’re so wrong; Sin City was awesome, especially Rourke’s performance. I love that film because it’s a visual feast and doesn’t really purport to be anything else. It’s almost transcribed word for word, panel for panel from the three novels used, and done with much more zest and liveliness then Watchmen. But I digress.
JBIII: Snyder does deserve credit for delivery some brutal scenes of explicit violence that I don’t think many in the audience were expecting. His technique works well within the film and he does take you to an alternate Earth circa 1985.
EM: Snyder did recreate the alternate 80s universe well; I’ll give him that. The set design and art direction were great all around. And the effects were top notch. Dr. Manhattan is a fully realized CGI character, the most impressive visual achievement in the film. The action scenes did show the brutal violence that Moore and Gibbons portrayed in the novel, but they were extended and amped up to a considerable degree. I understand that Snyder felt a need to update and modernize the fight sequences (in the novel they’re pretty low-key and standard—fighting after all, is not what the Watchmen story is about) for a modern audience, but it was a mistake. He set out to faithfully adapt Watchmen to the screen, keeping the 1980s plot, setting, and characters. The updated fight scenes—all the characters punch through walls a la The Matrix and they all know freaking kung fu—feel out of place, as if they’re from a totally different movie, because that’s not how the characters from the source material fought in that era. Rorshach comes off more as a brawler in the book, not a damn ninja, as in the movie. I enjoyed some of the eye-candy aspect of the fight scenes, but I typically found the movie coming to a screeching halt during those sections. Not to mention, if Snyder took his focus away from the fights and directed it more towards character nuance, the story would have made more sense.
JBIII: I will say that for all the excessive violence in the film, the first encounter that Nite Owl and Silk Spectre II have in the dark alley, cliché and all, with the different street gangs approaching them (which felt very similar to Walter Hill’s excellent The Warriors) was very alive and proved that these past superheroes were legit. The reason why I bring this up is there was so much film and dialogue leading up to this point that I began getting a bit restless wondering, when is all the action supposed to come? I enjoyed the scene but many may turn their heads to avoid seeing body parts being broken and coming unhinged.
EM: I feel like a lot of characters were left by the wayside in this adaptation. Motivations weren’t clear. How about the ending? There was a significant change from the book. The same outcome essentially, but the means have been changed. I didn’t think it was blasphemous, but it did grate at me a little since this was one of the things I was really looking forward to seeing on film. I think a lot of fans will be pissed, to say the least. So many great subplots were lost. And interesting characters became merely window dressing. I do suspect a very long director’s cut in the works, sure to come out on DVD. That’s the film I want to see.
JBIII: This is going to be a stretch but I give Snyder some credit for putting himself up to the chopping block and taking a chance on directing Watchmen, similar to how Chris Columbus was the guinea pig in directing the first Harry Potter film. It was putting himself in a hard position to take on something so big and so loved and turn it into screen entertainment, which I think he did just fine. It is the weakest in the Harry Potter series, but someone had to get the wheels rolling, which brings me to Snyder—who I think made a thrilling debut in the 2003 remake of Dawn of the Dead and brought a strange glow to the otherwise atrocious 300. Watchmen may be overlong, misguided, and lacking in emotion, but I think it will deliver to its core audience, the fanboys and the hard-core comic book readers, if not to the critics. As for the ending, Erik, I have forgotten how it ended in the graphic novel but I know the original ending is not as free-spirited and optimistic as the current film ending. With that said, 161 minutes is a long time to sit and take this film in all at once. Now, does that mean I’m going to see it again or even recommend that Daily Planet readers see it? Perhaps on Blu-Ray I’ll dive back in for another viewing, but for now, if you’re curious about the buzz on the film or are tired of the Oscar movies that are out, then yes, by all means go see it—just leave the children at home and don’t expect to be wowed like we were when we saw The Dark Knight. I had low expectations going into Watchmen and I can’t say the movie even lived up to those low expectations—so take that however you’d like.
EM: Yeah, ultimately the movie was simply okay. I think some people will love it, but most will either be confused or not understand what all the hype is about. I’m curious how the movie will do at the box office. The telling sign will be how it does after its opening weekend. Word of mouth will play a big part in its success after the fans see it. I think people should see it on the big screen if they’re interested. The best recommendation I can make is to read the graphic novel, which is available now in its full form. It’s a great read with amazing artwork. Snyder does deserve credit. It’s risky to adapt something so beloved, especially by such a rabid fan base, but he clearly loves the source material and it shows. I just think he was too focused on being ultra-faithful and forgot to make a good movie.