March 8, 2009 by Zack
This film has been in the works for over two decades. As early as 1988 there was a draft penned by Sam Hamm (who co-wrote the first “Batman” film in 1989) for a film adaptation of “Watchmen”. For years it was passed around studios, laid around on people’s desks, rewritten by different people, and different directors taking passes on it. The one filmmaker that passed on it that struck me the most was Terry Gilliam, who said, “I’ll make it if I can make it 10 hours long”. Funny line, but I think he meant it.
After seeing this film, I know exactly what he means. He was kidding in a serious way. And here’s the long and short of it: “Watchmen” is unfilmable. Now, does that mean this was a bad film? Does it mean it wasn’t as “stunning” as some critics have called it? Not visually adaptable? Well, no. That’s not what I mean. Visually, the movie is extraordinary. The costumes are spot on; Dr. Manhattan is a true vision. The fight scenes are well choreographed.
But a movie isn’t just a bunch of visual shots. I would love to convince Zack Snyder of this, because he seems to think it’s more important to make a music video than a movie. And it made me wonder…so did they pick the wrong director? What went wrong?
Well, let me take a step back. When you think about what Terry Gilliam said–”You’d need 10 hours to tell this story”–he’s right. But wrong. You can’t do that. People would literally get bored. Why? Because they’re watching this, not reading it. A book, even a graphic one, can be enjoyed on a completely different level than a film. A film must have a spine, a theme, a plot, a point. “Watchmen” the book wanders through many plots, many themes, many points. “Watchmen” the film simply meanders and becomes muddled halfway through, because in trying to find itself, it gets lost in so many ideas that the book is allowed to breathe life into.
And that is what I mean by it being unfilmable. I think this was probably the best representation of the book there can possibly be, and yet I feel somewhat unfulfilled saying that the movie was, at best, a disappointment. Was it that I expected too much? No. I don’t even care that they changed parts of the ending to make it easier to understand. That’s natural. That happens with adaptations. And maybe not only Terry Gilliam was right, but the author himself, Alan Moore, said it perfectly: this was meant to be a comic book. Not a movie.
So, as an adaptation, this movie is actually as successful as it could be. But it’s still a failure as a film. Have I confused you yet? Well, try watching the movie without having already reading the book and see how far you get before you start wondering what you’re watching at all. And unless you’re David Lynch, movies aren’t supposed to be that confusing.
We have characters set up from the get go, with the murder of a famed superhero known previously as “The Minute Men” and now “The Watchmen”. He’s known as The Comedian, and his character is probably the heart of the film’s (and a lot of the book’s) theme. The Comedian is sadistic, sarcastic, cynical, hateful, and cold hearted. He, though, is a conundrum. His name is light hearted, and fun. It’s playful. He is a facade. He’s a joke. Behind the mask of a hero, he’s a villain. The film plays with this a lot, and sometimes beats you over the head with that, too.
Then you have Rorschach, who sees through it, and not only sees through The Comedian, but all of humanity. “The whores and the politicians will look up and shout, ‘Save us!’ And I’ll whisper, ‘No’.” He embodies humanity’s paranoia, while The Comedian embodies humanity’s hypocrisy and self loathing. Night Owl represents humanity’s simplicity and a root of normalcy (and blandness); while Dr. Manhattan takes on a whole other perspective: humanity’s struggle with itself and needing a deity to feel second to. Yet Dr. Manhattan questions everything in life as well, and also prefers solitude. But he judges, as well, even if he doesn’t want to.
And so you have all of this at play, and this is where the film gets into trouble. The book takes many paths, and that’s great for a book; but a film doesn’t get that luxury. You have to choose a plot and stick to it. There’s the murder plot of The Comedian; there’s the Doomsday Clock plot; and then there’s the subplots of the old “Minute Men” and the parallels of what was old and what’s new, and older generations fading and newer generations throwing away the past. The film, instead of trying to tie down a plot line, goes in every single direction the book does. And that’s admirable–but it’s a failure. It was set up as a failure. There was no way that approach was ever going to work.
It’s a shame because there are some wonderful moments in the film. The opening credit sequence with Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” was spectacular. Every scene with Dr. Manhattan was a treat for the mind. Rorschach’s journal entries are thoughtful and well narrated. But while the film tries to throw too much on one plate, it ultimately shatters, leaving audiences baffled more than enlightened.
I think it’s obvious I don’t give this a passing grade–but for some reason, I’m also not going to say I don’t recommend seeing it. I do recommend reading the book first and foremost. If you’re confused by the film, reading the book I think will make you appreciate what you saw more. There are some great things that Snyder does. But while he has wonderful source material to work with, he can only do so much with a 163 minute time limit. I won’t let him off completely, though; there were some things he could have done differently. And there is a sex scene that didn’t need to be in there at all.
So yes, this could have been done at 10 hours. But it would have been just as much a failure because this was never about strength of plot, but about ideas and themes and characters. “Watchmen” will never work as a film, because it’s not meant to. But this was probably the best representation you could get.
Maybe it just should have been left in production hell. But, it’s not a total waste of time. And the soundtrack’s pretty good, too.