Saturday, March 7, 2009
With 2007’s 300, Zack Snyder proved himself to be the fanboy’s dream: a director who would take a source and transpose it almost literally to the screen. He didn’t particularly care if the result was a good movie, but then neither do the hardcore fans. If you ask the average superfan whether he’d like to see a director take creative liberties with source material to make a unique product or just copy and paste the panels from a comic or the prose from a novel and he respond the latter 9 times out of 10.
Snyder heard the lament of the fanboy, and went about making what must surely be the closest adaptation of a comic book ever made. There are Shakespeare films that don’t come this close to the source material. Entire pages of the comic come to life as Snyder’s effects team and designers perfectly recreate settings, costumes, and even characters (nearly all of the actors look eerily like Dave Gibbons’ sketched heroes). The opening credits alone will fill the average fan with indescribable glee (or maybe that’s just me). Visually, this is one of the most beautiful, eye-popping movies ever made.
It is also one of the most poorly-paced, poorly-acted and poorly-directed films of recent years. Alan Moore’s dystopic, alternate universe 1985 gave us a world full of vigilantes, a king Nixon, and a superhero who sent that version of Earth off course from our own. Yet it was all scarily plausible, and remains so long after the end of the Soviet Union and the fear of nuclear holocaust, all because Moore filled the world with so many understated themes -- ranging from social commentary to an indictment of comics themselves – that it continues to fascinate readers decades later.
Snyder, to his credit, understands these themes, certainly more than the Wachowski brothers, who turned V For Vendetta from a slice of anarchist rebellion into a “Vote Democrat” PSA. But these themes are promptly glossed over as if they were part of the special effects. For all the political fears Moore conjured, the message at the heart of Watchmen is quite simple: anyone who would put on a gaudy spandex costume and dole out their notion of ‘justice’ is at the very least unbalanced. But this theme doesn’t hold much weight when married to Snyder’s love of ultra-violence. The biggest changes from the book – apart from the ending which still leads to the same result as the original one – are scenes of added gore that add nothing but shock value.
Snyder focuses so much on this gore and on the visuals as a whole that the lines (haphazardly lifted from the novel without care) come off as laughable and the pacing will put 75% of the audience to sleep. The actors look the part, but only Jeffery Dean Morgan and Jackie Earle Haley pull off their roles. Haley in particular proves that if Clint Eastwood really did retire from acting he should hire the man as his proxy, as he commands the role of Rorshach with a gravel voice and a steely exterior that belies the character’s madness.
But not even Haley can breathe life into this bloated, self-absorbed affair. Snyder crafted what basically amounts to 2-1/2 hours of exposition punctuated by action sequences that revel in the violence the comic condemned. He turned a complex character study and political statement into facile psychoanalysis of characters in whom he never bothers to invest. And he put together what may just be the worst soundtrack of all time; I’ve watched anywhere between 1600-2000 movies, and I’ve never heard a soundtrack more intrusive and ill-chosen as this.
When you review a movie, you have to know who the audience for the film will be. You don’t necessarily have to care, but you should know what that group will make of the film. I have no clue who the audience for Watchmen is. Those who haven’t read the book are going to feel mightily letdown by an ad campaign that suggested an action romp and not a political thriller, while despite Snyder’s direct translations a great many of the diehards will find some omissions outrageous. That kind of reverence deifies what it seeks to make entertaining, crafting a shrine, a museum reconstruction, instead of a film. When all the dust settles, Watchmen’s legacy will be the proof that “looking like the book” ultimately means little when it comes to entertainment value.