Sunday, March 8, 2009

Watchmen (A Film Review)

Directed by Zach Snyder
Starring Malin Åkerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Carla Gugino, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Patrick Wilson
Rated R

Way back in December, I wrote a review of the graphic novel Watchmen, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons. (The following post may make more sense if you read that review first.) I loved it and was thrilled to learn that a film version was coming out in March. Today, two days after it debuted, I went and saw it. And. . .


Moore has often expressed his opposition to Watchmen ever being made into a movie. I don't think it's filmable, he has said, because "I didn't design it to show off the similarities between cinema and comics, which are there, but in my opinion are fairly unremarkable. It was designed to show off the things that comics could do that cinema and literature couldn't." In essence, a comic book may be thought of as occupying a sort of happy medium between a film and a traditional book. It has the visual impact of the former and the leisurely, personalized experience of the latter. The reader/viewer can set their own pace, pause, reflect, and skip back a few pages to notice new details in the illustrations they had previously missed. "But in a film, by the nature of the medium," Moore asserts, "you're being dragged through it at 24 frames per second." I think part of what he objected to was that, in order to translate a dense, richly envisioned comic like Watchmen to the big screen, you need to simplify it and cut it down until it's a pale imitation of its former self - a sort of dumbed-down version for a more passive audience. Which is pretty much what happened. As David Edelstein of New York Magazine put it: "They’ve made the most reverent adaptation of a graphic novel ever. But this kind of reverence kills what it seeks to preserve. The movie is embalmed." I wouldn't go quite that far but, yeah, I get what he's saying.

Basically, it was nothing I hadn't seen/read before on paper. Because they are by their nature visual, comic books already have a similar feel to movies. I took a course on art history in college and ended up showing the professor Masamune Shirow's brilliant manga Ghost in the Shell, which I was currently doing a paper on for my Modern Japan class. She recognized an obvious cinematic influence, particularly in the action sequences as the panels cut swiftly from one angle of the scene to another.

(Note: Motoko is a cyborg with a fully artificial "prosthetic body." Just so you don't get too alarmed at the sight of her arm being blown off.)

Now look: if you want to make something new out of something old, then you had better add to the new version instead of simply replicating the original version. Unfortunately, that is precisely what Snyder et al. did, and the result is turgid and plodding. Comics are supposed to be made of self-contained panels; movies aren't. Watchmen 2009 is ultimately choppy and utterly lacking in the fluidity of a well-made film. In other words: it is an on-screen comic book.

Even worse is when they tried to take advantage of the auditory experience that movies actually can provide and comics cannot. Dear God, that music was horrible, especially during the closing credits. The "best" part was the scene where Laurie Juspeczyk (a.k.a the Silk Spectre II) and Dan Dreiberg (a.k.a the Night Owl) have sex in a hovercraft after rescuing the residents of a burning building. The accompanying song was one of those sentimental mid-century crooners of the type horror movies like to employ for maximum irony (like "Jeepers Creepers" in the 2001 film of the same name). The whole thing was cheese with a helping of cheese, ESPECIALLY since Åkerman (Laurie) did such a lousy job overall. (No, the cringe-worthiness had nothing to do with the fact that I was with my parents! Nothing at all!) I was actually really disappointed that they never used the Smashing Pumpkins song "The Beginning is the End is the Beginning," which appeared in the original trailer. (I embedded it in my review for the graphic novel.) Not only is the tone perfect but the lyrics are great too.

All that being said, I didn't totally hate the Watchmen movie. The fight scenes were well-done and I loved all the '80s fashion! I just wonder if all the work and expense that doubtlessly went into this was worth it. Again, it was nothing new to those of us who had read the book, although I cannot speak for those who haven't. But luckily there will be other great movies coming out in the near future! Such as:


Alexander Field said...

Thanks for the review...but as someone who did not read the graphic novel, I actually felt your review still summed up my feelings for the film. my experience wasn't much different. The film, while visually stunning and at times fun to watch, was also plodding and "choppy and utterly lacking in the fluidity of a well made film" as you say. Obviously it was a difficult adaptation and while there were some seriously impressive things happening on screen, it didn't come together as a whole for me.

I've gotta go read the graphic novel now...thanks for the post...

E. L. Fay said...

Hey thanks!

Strangely enough, both my father and my brother, neither of whom have read the book, enjoyed the film. But I was kind of bored with it. Hopefully the new Star Trek movie will be a huge improvement. If not I will be very upset.

The Watchmen graphic novel really is absolutely amazing and I don't think you will be disappointed. You can read my review here.

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