It’s hard to know where to begin with Zach Snyder’s Watchmen. This film has nuclear mushroom clouds, Martian landscapes, a shimmering blue Ubermensch in full frontal CGI, and probably the only sex scene you’ll see this year that takes place on board an Owlship. Snyder has a cinematic style that seems fatally dispossessed towards the reptilian brain functions of an adolescent boy, and Watchmen is the R-rated Citizen Kane of his peculiar sensibility. As an adaptation of an acclaimed comic book, it carries a lot of baggage to the screen, and many reviewers have expressed diametrically opposed perspectives on its relationship to the source material. For some, the movie is a slo-mo drenched dumb-down; to others, a victim of its own slavish fidelity to the
First and foremost, I think it needs to be pointed out that Watchmen is a pretty close translation, and many of its biggest problems actually stem from Alan Moore’s writing. I read Watchmen when I was about 15, and yes, I thought it was absolutely amazing. It’s a wonderful book for precocious kids. However, revisiting it as an adult was a bitter disappointment, and I could barely get past the third issue. Watchmen displays a knowledge of American history that seems to have been gleaned from looking at a documentary about the sixties and a few Time/Life magazine covers. Its politics, while in no way objectionable, are extremely platitudinous and simplistic. Republicans, the Vietnam War, and nuclear genocide, it tells us, are all Very Bad Things. I’m not arguing against any of this, but I think I acquired about as penetrating a grasp of American history and politics via Oliver Stone’s The Doors movie.
Worst of all,
Anyway, I guess that rant serves to begin this review with a note of sympathy for Snyder. Yes, some of his stylistic excesses mar the tone and intent of
Ok, having given Zack a break, lets move on to the Watchmen movie proper. Is Snyder really a hack director? Well, he pretty much is, but in a kind of semi-inspired, Ed Wood kind of way. Only a superhuman hack would score a
Zack’s biggest Achilles heel, however, is his treatment of action. At the slightest suggestion of physical activity, the adolescent/reptilian brain takes over. Many people were wondering if eighties Cold War paranoia would have any relevance to this generation; ironically, it’s probably less of an anachronism than Matrix style bullet-time trickery. Snyder is so fatally addicted to this kind of thing that he actually shots an attempted rape sequence with slo-mo and “awesome” whoosh sound effects. The fight scenes in Watchmen feel like Adam West’s Batman choreographed by the Wachowski brothers, and are like nothing else on earth. They are so divorced from actual physical combat that the final smackdown between our heroes has the ambience of a 21st century reboot of the Three Stooges. (Nolan should direct that; he could really make it gritty and “grounded in reality”, by filming it in
So what does Snyder do right? Watchmen’s set designs and digital effects are often quite stunning to look at. I think he actually has a genuine talent for creating eye-popping comic book tableaux. The justly celebrated credit sequence, the first shot of Dr. Manhattan against the Martian landscape, Nite Owl’s dream of embracing Silk Spectre in the shadow of an atomic explosion – these compositions have a surreal, Pop Art majesty that really lifts the movie out of its fog of expository chatter and slo-mo marathons. I thought Tyler Bates’ersatz-period score was a great idea, and I couldn’t get enough of it. (As a Michael Mann fan, I’m probably incapable of disliking ambient, synthesizer-based soundtracks.) Despite the harsh comments earlier, I didn’t really hate Watchmen. I don’t think Snyder’s ineptitude is on a par with someone like Bret Ratner or MacG; it’s quirky enough to be endearing and almost interesting. A good case in point is the instantly notorious Hallelujah-scored sex scene, easily the most weirdly camp sequence committed to celluloid in god knows how long. I’m almost certain that it’s deliberately played for comedy, but that just makes it all the more incongruous. Amid all the scowling earnestness, it’s like the film suddenly morphs into Team America for a scene. Little oddities like that, combined with a sincere and quixotic ambition, accumulate to give Watchmen a certain kitsch appeal, and a hell of lot more character than the interminable conveyer of "awesome" Iron Man-type movies Hollywood keeps feeding us. And Billy Crudup does some of the best voice acting since HAL in 2001.