To begin at what will have to pass for a beginning, I first read Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' ground-breaking comic book Watchmen somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty years ago. Since then, I have not once re-read it from beginning to end, though I have flipped through it countless times, and read sections -- in fact, just in the last couple of nights, I re-read the first three issues. Parts of the comic -- the big stuff -- have never left me in those twenty years, but I wanted to refresh my memory regarding some of the details, the texture and the smaller moments, before seeing Zack Snyder's new film adaptation, which I have now done. And I am perplexed.
The first thing I should mention is that the comic book is adaptable. It is not some sacred text that, apparently unlike the works of Dostoyevsky or Kafka or Dickens or James Joyce, all of whom have had their fiction adapted to film without complaint, is somehow so much more of its particular medium that to try and transplant the themes and narrative and visuals to another artform would cause the whole fragile construct to break down into incoherence and meaninglessness. Some people, like Alan Moore and a certain contingent of the original comic's fans, have claimed that something very like that would happen to a film adaptation of Watchmen (though I admit they don't say it in so many words), but to them I would just say "Oh please. Shut the hell up. What are we talking about here? No one's trying to take the collected poems of Dylan Thomas and adapt them as a piece of carpentry. So like I said before, shut up."
Which brings me to the Watchmen film adaptation that we actually do now have, after twenty-some years of one false start after another. And who finally took the reins of this particular horse and rode him to the finish line? Zack Snyder, the man behind another comic book adaptation -- the dopey-but-fun 300 -- and the surprisingly effective remake of Dawn of the Dead. Snyder was no one's first choice -- hell, he probably wasn't even Snyder's first choice -- but you have to hand it to him: he's the guy who got it done. And what he got done is what I would have to call a bit of a big fat mess, which happens to be extremely faithful to the source material while still making me think, as I watched it, things like "Huh? What? Why did that just happen like that? Who cast this movie? What, was Heather Graham not available?"
There are two sections of this film that I think work pretty damn well, almost without reservation, and one of those sections is the opening credits, which sets up the back-story with as much grace, efficiency, style and wit as you could reasonably ask for. The main action of the film takes place in an alternate America, in an alternate 1985, but the history of the characters, and of this paranoid alternate world, stretches back to at least the 1940s, and Snyder lays that all out in a wonderful series of not-quite-still photos depicting costumed heroes facing triumph and tragedy against a historical backdrop familiar to, but of course completely different from, the one we know to have actually occurred. These moments are, as I say, not quite still, and each tableau looks like it was set up for a particularly strange and successful wax museum, albeit one in which the statues have learned to move really slowly. Playing over all this is Bob Dylan's The Times They are A-Changin', a choice I've heard some people complain about due to the song supposedly being too obvious. And maybe it is, but I actually thought it worked quite well, at least in part because it's been a really long time since I listened to it (this is the first of three Dylan tunes used in the film, by the way, though it's the only one actually performed by Dylan. The second one is the really over-familiar, but still great, Hendrix cover of All Along the Watchtower, a choice which also works, due to the kind of nutty imagery it accompanies, and the utterly bonkers majority of the film that has preceded it; and the third one is a cover by My Chemical Romance of Desolation Row, to which I say -- and maybe this is just me being a purist -- "No. No no no no no. Goddamn it, no! NO NO NO! You jack-asses! NO!!")
After that very promising bit of stage-setting, what do we get? Well, we get, as retired costumed hero Laurie Jupiter, aka Silk Spectre II, Malin Akerman. And I don't mean to single her out, because we also get Patrick Wilson. And it's not even just them, because we also get Carla Gugino. And while my reaction to Akerman's line deliveries was something along the lines of squinting up my face and muttering "....the fuck??", I'm actually not convinced that the fault lies only, or even primarily, with her. For one thing, I've only seen Akerman in one other film in which she was asked to do anything particular, and that was the recent remake of The Heartbreak Kid. And she was fine. I'm not going to try and oversell my point, but she was fine, and yet here she's an absolute, no-fooling, almost literal catastrophe. And I mean, in every scene she's that bad. Even the small, nothing stuff completely tanks. What happened? How could Snyder or the studio allow this actress, who is not any kind of box office draw, to so badly hamstring this hugely expensive and breathlessly-awaited film? I submit that Akerman gives the performance she gives because Snyder directed her to do so. Because Gugino (as Akerman's mother, and the first, World War II-era Silk Spectre), a very fine actress, isn't any damn good either. Wilson (as Dan Dreiberg, who once fought crime alongside Laurie as the Nite Owl) fares better than either of these women, and I can't quite explain that, but he does have his shocking moments. Akerman has a lunch scene with Wilson, and an antagonistic visit with Gugino, in the first half of the film that seemed alternately like badly staged amateur theater and amped-up soap opera. Why would Snyder do this? When he reads the comic book, is that how the words sound in his head? If not, why tweak them like that for his film?
Faring better -- much better -- is Jackie Earle Haley as Rorshach, a mentally unbalanced, Travis Bickle-esque costumed detective who is the only crimefighter who has ignored the government sanction against his kind, which was passed about seven years prior to the film's main action. Rorshach, when we first see him, is investigating the murder of yet another ex-crimefighter known as The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who we quickly learn was a black-hearted, misanthropic sociopath who killed and raped as it suited him, because, he justified, such was human nature. Rorshach thinks this murder indicates that somebody is targeting former costumed heroes, and so he goes to Dreiberg and Jupiter for help. And to Dr. Manhattan (an interesting Billy Crudup), formerly Jon Osterman, a physicist who decades earlier had been transformed, through a nuclear lab accident, into a kind of walking blue computer, for whom the laws of space, time and physics mean nothing. Dr. Manhattan was used by President Nixon (now serving his third term) to end the Vietnam War in favor of the US (it took him a week), and now Manhattan is working to help yet another former hero, billionaire super-genius Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), to put an end to mankind's reliance on fossil fuels. None of these people seem especially willing to help Rorshach in his investigation, and the US is on the brink of nuclear war with Russia (which everyone is hoping Manhattan will be able to prevent).
So. The comic book, by the way, is very dense. In case you've never had that pointed out. It's extremely complicated, with its side stories and incredible detail and shadings (also textures). I'm being a little flippant, but that doesn't make it untrue. The comic does have a lot going on, much of it vital to the comic's longevity and reputation as a respected work of art. But it's the things that are inessential to the plot that are often shed when a story is adapted from one medium to another, and in the case of Watchmen this ostensibly necessary step has highlighted a very glaring flaw in the story, which is that the mystery that serves as the narrative's engine -- who killed The Comedian? -- is frickin' lame! Specifically, the solution to that mystery. Steps toward figuring out who aren't even really taken until the film's final third, after Rorshach has convinced Dan and Laurie to help him (up until that point, Rorshach had dug up some enigmatic clues regarding why), and when those steps are taken, what do they involve? Roughing up a two-bit criminal in a bar, and hacking into someone's computer and opening a file. I mean, fucking Scooby and Shaggy could have done that! Among the many things I realized about the comic while watching this film is that the way in which the story is told (which is what Moore has always claimed was the really important thing) provides a great deal of cushion to a very thin main plotline, so that narratively-speaking it's really the interstitial, supposedly (but actually not) throwaway stuff, and the Big Payoff, that matter. The texture and details don't just provide a cushion -- they also act as camouflage and dividers to a quite lame mystery. Remove all that, or even most of it, and that lame mystery's gonna bite you.
Since I'm talking about the comic, here's another thing: remember when I said that some people are claiming that Watchmen is "unadaptable?" I told those people to shut up earlier, and I stand by that, but one of the aspects of comic book storytelling that many of them bring up to make their case is the question of "what goes on between the panels". In other words, you read, and examine, one comic panel, and as your eyes move to the next one your brain sort of spontaneously fills in what the characters were doing between those two panels. Well, yes, that's part of what makes a comic book a comic book -- doesn't mean a film can't tell the same story in its own way. But sometimes Snyder doesn't seem to think anything goes on between the panels. Already, the film has been criticized by some as being too "slavish" to the original comic, and while Snyder isn't always the comic's lapdog (he does tweak that famous ending, after all, and to be honest it works just fine), but sometimes he is to the point of having tunnel vision. One scene, a flashback, involves The Comedian being confronted by a woman he has badly wronged. It's a famous scene from the comic, and I happened to have re-read the scene the night before. And whatever is said and done in the comic is said and done by the actors on the screen, without a single addition of any kind of business -- nothing from between the panels, in other words -- to keep things from being hopelessly stiff. In the comic, this is a scene of high drama, it's a big character moment, and it's pretty shocking. In the film, it seems as though everyone was so conscious that this was one of the Big Moments that they all wanted to keep their inferior and unworthy paws off it, a move that results in the scene having the unique quality of feeling both motionless and rushed. If you can imagine a dead fish moving really fast, then you're starting to get the idea.
And speaking of fast! Last night, you see, I decided to hearken back to Zack Snyder's golden days, so I watched his remake of Dawn of the Dead. And the sucker holds up quite nicely, I have to say, although you know that thing that people think Snyder has for slow motion, starting, we all thought, with 300? Well, the honeyed-glow of memory is a devious fiend, or whatever, because Snyder has always nurtured that particular fetish. In Dawn of the Dead, anytime anyone racks an empty shotgun shell out of the chamber, the camera shows us that thing fall like it was sinking to the bottom of a fucking pond. And the slow-mo as presented in the trailers for Watchmen did fill me with a bit of dread -- "This is not right!" I cried, joined by a chorus of others -- but I was willing to take a wait-and-see attitude. My cautious optimism was further boosted by an on-line review (or maybe it was just a comment on someone's blog) in which the writer claimed that the slow motion everyone was worrying about was in no way a big deal, and in fact we'd probably seen everything there was to see of it in the aforementioned trailers. Having now seen the film, I'm obliged to point out that this is not quite true, but that Snyder switches to slow-motion only when anything is happening on screen. Outside of that, he backs away. Except that sometimes he does also speed things up so that fast things are faster, but otherwise, see above.
So Watchmen is a complete wash? Is that what I'm telling you? No. No, in fact, remember when I said there were two parts of the film that I thought were more-or-less complete triumphs, the opening credits and something else? That something else is the ingeniously constructed origin of Dr. Manhattan sequence. The fact that the construction is pretty much all the work of Moore and Gibbons doesn't mean Snyder shouldn't get credit for pulling it off. I don't know that I can really say that Billy Crudup gives a "great" performance as Dr. Manhattan -- he's set at one pitch throughout -- but Crudup plays the character in the only way I can imagine it working, and it's extremely effective. Sounding at times like 2001's HAL, his origin sequence sees him scrambling the chronology of his past as a regular man, and the tragedy of his transformation, one aspect of which is the complete absence of any kind of emotion, at least any kind we mere humans can recognize. How is Crudup able to make us feel the sadness of this creature even in his completely flat narration? I think it has to do with the sequence's overall beautiful and otherworldly strangeness. As I watched this part of the film, I thought: "Here, right here, you've nailed it! Keep going like this, and I'll forget everything else I just saw."
Alas, Snyder doesn't do that. And so I watched the rest of this bizarre, galumphing, nutjob of a film play-out in such a way that even the good scenes never felt quite right. It's here that I'll admit to a kind of lop-sided admiration for Snyder and his Hail Mary of a film, because if nothing else, this crazy bunch of son of a bitches stayed firm and frickin' went for it. And there's no denying the fact that I am one of those people who can sit in a theater, watching a film version of Watchmen, and think with gleeful disbelief, even as I take note of all the many ways I think it's coming up short, "I am watching a film version of Watchmen." And so I did today. And when this movie, in some doorstop of an expanded boxset, comes out on DVD some months down the line, I freely admit right now that I will buy it. But that fact says a whole lot more about me and my apparent lack of respect for this thing which you call "money" than it does about the film itself. Because like I said before: alas.