A few years ago, a friend of mine loaned me a graphic novel that I instantaneously fell in love with and read several times over. Since reading WATCHMEN for the first time, I have been intrigued by a film adaptation but concerned about the sisyphean task of cramming the incredible scope and depth of Alan Moore’s novel into a 2-3 hour film. It would take a very skilled filmmaker to pull it off successfully, and throughout the years Watchmen bounced around Hollywood like a hot potato. At first, Terry Gilliam was attached to direct but concluded that the dense character histories and complex themes couldn’t be squeezed into a film. Years later, the project resurrected again with Paul Greengrass at the helm. The film had a start date, preproduction artwork and even an official website before it fell apart. Greengrass had an all-star cast attached that included Ron Perlman as The Comedian, Joaquin Phoenix as Dan, Hillary Swank as Laurie, and Brad Pitt as Ozymandias. Warner Brothers tried to once again bring WATCHMEN to life with Darren Aronofsky in the director’s chair. However, Aronofsky’s dream project, THE FOUNTAIN, got the green light and Aronofsky bailed. The game of musical chairs continued until 300 director Zach Snyder was tapped. Last year, I got my hands on the script for the film written by Alex Tse. I was nervous approaching it, knowing the difficulties of adapting the tome into a film. As I turned the last page I had the feeling that I had read as good of a WATCHMEN script as I was going to read, but that it would still ultimately fail.
Much like a toddler running in the early stages of bipedalism, Snyder’s WATCHMEN begins with promising momentum before falling over itself in a tumbling heap. The film begins at a feverish pace, and does a very good job of assimilating us into the alternate history of the WATCHMEN universe. Retired masked hero, The Comedian, is assaulted by an unseen foe and thrown out the window of his high-rise apartment. This catches the attention of fellow mask Rorshach, who seeks to solve the crime and ward off a potential masked hero serial killer by warning his old buddies Night Owl, Silk Spectre, Ozymandias and Dr. Manhattan. All of this is set against the background of Cold War hysteria, and the mutual assured destruction of nuclear war between the United States and Russia.
I have never masked my contempt for Zach Snyder, and his stylistic shortcomings hamper WATCHMEN throughout. Snyder has a sadistic fascination with violence and he can’t exercise any restraint when it comes to the film’s more complex moments. If Snyder can create an opportunity to watch a bullet go through a limb in slow motion, or a meat cleaver enter a skull in slow motion, or to close up on a fresh compound fracture he will take it 10 times out of 10. The problem with WATCHMEN is not that the film contains violence, it’s that when any perceived “action” occurs, Snyder’s style is so distracting and unnecessary that it takes the audience out of the film. The Original Silk Spectre rape scene in particular displays Snyder’s penchant for sensationalistic violence. It’s a scene of cruel brutality, yet Snyder shoots it with the same glossy stylization he lends to the scenes in which bad guys get greased. One could argue that Snyder gets the same bloodthirsty glee out of the rape scene as he does from the more traditional action sequences, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and just assume he doesn’t know how to shoot in any other style.
Yes, the slow motion is distracting. It’s overused and unnecessary. Snyder’s inability to resist the use of slow motion causes him to abandon any context or meaning that any of the action scenes may have. Whenever the character’s aren’t speaking, Snyder slows down every movement and demands that you pay attention to the special effect instead of the film. At one point in the film, Rorshach describes the unbelievable speed of Ozymandias. Ironically, we have no idea what he’s talking about since every scene involving Ozymandias moving has been in slow motion. Snyder also makes silly choices with his sound effects that contribute nothing to the film other than making it look silly. Every character movement that is perceived as fast, such as a punch or a grab, is accompanied with a “whoosh!” sound effect. Also, I’ve had short hair all my life so maybe I’m wrong about this, but I don’t think when a woman flips her hair it makes the same sound as when knives are sharpened.
WATCHMEN features a soundtrack that can only be described as laughably ridiculous. Every song in this film is a pop song from the 60s and regardless of whether or not it works or fits, these pop songs are shoehorned in. Disco song “Boogeyman” accompanies a riot sequence. “The Sound of Silence” plays during a funeral. Snyder concludes the film’s emotional apex with the inappropriate jolt of Jimi Hendrix’ “All Along the Watchtower.” While walking out of the theater, I noticed that the credits roll over a power punk pop cover of “Desolation Row” by Bob Dylan. Taking a rich, nuanced, poetic Dylan song and making it a loud and fast punk pop mess ends up serving as a metaphor for Zach Snyder’s WATCHMEN adaptation. I suppose it’s what we could have expected from someone with music video sensibilities.
As WATCHMEN was chugging along at a brisk pace and impressing me with what it was getting right, Snyder took a hard turn into the absurd with a scene that will go down in the annals of film history as one of the worst. This is a scene so horrendous, so offensively terrible, that its use of Leonard Cohen’s brilliant “Hallelujah” may ruin the song for the rest of time. The sex scene aboard Night Owl’s ship between Dan and Laurie made me cringe, laugh out loud, and drop my jaw in shock all at the same time. Snyder not only found a way to give himself the excuse of lingering on Laurie’s tits, but he even found a way to show Malin Ackerman cum in slow motion. Yes, in Zach Snyder’s world, people even achieve orgasm in slow motion.
I’m being very hard on Zach. What did Snyder get right? The opening montage set to “The Times They Are A Changin'” works very well in introducing us to the world of WATCHMEN. The crowning achievement for this film is Snyder’s telling of the tragedy of Jon Ostermann/Dr. Manhattan which is brilliantly executed. He really nailed the Manhattan story, and it gave us a glimpse of what a great WATCHMEN film could have been like. Other than that, it’s a mess. Carla Cugino’s turn as Laurie’s mother is excruciating. She seems like she is stepping out of a midwest community college production of A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE with Cugino starring as Blanche. A lot of the sets are amateurish, with the Vietnam War set reminiscent of Max Fisher’s production of “Heaven and Hell” in RUSHMORE. Ozymandias, played by Ellen DeGeneres Matthew Goode, seems more like an androgynous weirdo than the alpha male he was in the novel. Certain line readings (like Night Owl asking “What happened to the American dream?”) are cringe worthy.
As far as the other performances go, Billy Crudup brings the right existential crises and human detachment required for Dr. Manhattan. The much ballyhooed glowing blue dong didn’t really distract or bother me, however Snyder included a couple medium shots that could very well have been from the waist up. I suppose it was just no surprise to me that the director of 300, the most homoerotic film since TOP GUN, would pass up an opportunity to give us an eyeful of Manhattan’s meat flute. Jackie Earl Haley is excellent with or without the mask and really came to life as Rorsach. Patrick WIlson has the right look doughy-geek look for Dan but he’s a really horrific actor. Ackerman plods along as Laurie but can’t deliver on the story’s emotional high points. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is also strong as The Comedian, despite the makeup that makes him look like a fat Javier Bardem. Matthew Goode is a train-wreck as Adrian Veidt. He’s too scrawny, too foppish and too bland to play the role. Goode seems like he’s on Ambien throughout the whole proceedings.
In the end, WATCHMEN collapses under the weight of a novel that simply can’t be made into a film. There is simply too much ground to cover. The film is tragically miscast, over stylized and without the vision that the great Alan Moore lent to the novel. The broad strokes are here, but what made WATCHMEN the novel great was the little ones. There is a lot of talk about how “faithful” this film is to the source. Being faithful is not about replicating the events of the story from page to screen or recreating panels from the comic. It’s about capturing the soul of the project. For the most part, the film is laughable and soulless, two things nobody ever said about the graphic novel. It was simply too ambitous of an adaptation and found its way into the hands of a filmmaker too shallow to give it a puncher’s chance. As enjoyable as the source material is, and Snyder gets a handful of things right, WATCHMEN is ultimately a failure.