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Posted on 3/27/09 10:10 PM
Based on the classic graphic novel of the same name by Alan Moore, Watchmen is an interesting film but it's appeal is largely dependent on whether or not you've read the book. It's appeal diminishes significantly if you have. I have.
Considered by many as the greatest graphic novel ever written Watchmen is a brilliant work of fiction to say the least. Masterfully composed both in terms of it's writing and the striking arrangement of it's images and parallel storytelling, the book is a work of extraordinary beauty and intellect. Brimming with astute social commentary and overarching philosophical statements, it's spectrum of thought encompasses no less than the nature of humanity and conversely that of the universe. It is a modern human study, disguised as a super hero comic. The film is faithful to the comic in terms of it's story but fails to achieve the heights of it's lofty meditations. A stylishly synthetic paraphrase of a much deeper work the film assumes the visual appeal of the book but only as a superficial repetition.
It's hard to know what to say about the Watchmen film. The only thing that really comes to mind is the question I asked before. Why? What I expect from the film is an answer to that question, and while the film is by no means a bad one it is only a simplified reconstruction of the novel. I will say this about it. When it comes down to it I was not bored and did enjoy it for the most part. I think most of what I liked about the film though was residual from the book. Rorschach for instance, cast and played brilliantly by Jackie Earle Haley.
Unlike my thorough examination of The Dark Knight and it's themes I'm not going to delve deeply into the film since it would only revert to an analysis on the far superior work of fiction on which it is based. There's little point in musing over the film's themes instead of the book from which they are drawn, when exploring the latter would be far more rewarding. Instead I just want to make a few comments about the film as a translation a work of it's own.
It's hard for me to review it without making direct comparisons to the novel that only diminish a careful, literal, yet vapid adaptation. Zach Snyder does an admirable job maintaining the continuity of the book but fails to make the film lucid as an individual work. I'm not sure how someone who hasn't read the novel will perceive it but even at 2hrs and 40 min Snyder fails to imbue his film with the intellectual substance contained in Moore's work, retain in it's parallel, it's gravity, meaning or significance. As a result the film is a visually impressive but fundamentally shallow effort that entertains on the merits of a glamorous presentation but accomplishes little else. This is maybe an unfair assessment but again, as someone who's read the book that informed it, I cannot help but make comparisons. The problem is that in doing so Snyder does not provide sufficient justification for the film or answer to my query: why?
I'm not sure what someone unfamiliar with the original will make of the film as a stand alone superhero movie because it's such an original storyline. Snyder does his best to make it work but I think there is just too much information to convey in one film, which may be the problem. Even at an extended duration the film still only manages the most expedient retelling. A proper foundation is never laid for such a bold and immense story. Brief conversational fragments and an early montage cannot fully depict the breadth of Moore's accomplishment nor does the compressed reiteration properly express the audacity of his vision. It may be difficult for those unfamiliar with the back story to adequately grasp the nature of the world they are experiencing or properly digest it's meaning.
It's ironic that the film adheres so faithfully to the novel as though it had been a screenplay yet retains little of it's power. The adaptation works quite literally as Snyder seems to have lifted the story almost page for page and I while I applaud this attentive respect to the original I can't help but be disappointed as well. Egregious deviations from the source material would have been condemned as sacrilege by devoted fans yet a plastic replica doesn't serve any purpose either. To spite the dutiful imitation of the novel the film's superficial appraisal of it's characters betrays it's fundamental attribute. The Watchmen novel is an exploration of human beings and social and moral archetypes. The depth and psychology of it's characters comprise an elaborate ideological tapestry woven with astounding visual and literary prowess. When I consider the story arc or read a few pages at random I am always amazed at the remarkable craftsmanship and artistic symmetry Moore displayed in his modern parable, little of which translates in the screen version.
What surprises me most was Snyder's unwillingness to harmonize his cinematography with the same sense of comparative progression Moore was so fond of. The design of the novel, the paced, rhythmic choreography of words and frames flow as a kind of poetry, like the measured stanzas of a song, patiently, steadily, building to crescendo; always accumulating, drawing ever closer to the end. The whole novel is slanted towards it's destination in this way. The clock motif itself enforces this notion of imminence. The pseudo kinetic use of inter-cutting and transitions reinforced the books sense of self analysis and share such an affinity with the nature of film it seems directly informed by it. It's as though the novel had been adapted from the screen rather than the other way around. Snyder has lifted the story directly from the novel's pages yet it's brilliant style of progression is, for the most part, inexplicably absent, almost deliberately so.
Consider the scene between the psychologist and Rorschach, when he, in a passage exemplifying the books extraordinary sense of ironic symmetry, examines the eponymous ink blots. In the novel Moore visually links the shapes on the card with the memories they invoke in Rorschach, using associated images as a bridge into another scenario. By so doing the transition is aided. This is not a new trick. It is not unique to Watchmen and Moore did not invent it. He simply uses it appropriately to great effect. The correlation of images and ideas, the orchestration of visual and figurative, is common in the novel but almost completely avoided in the film. I say avoided because they are impossible to miss in the novel and supremely suited to film. The scene with Rorschach is an obvious example of many and I can't understand why Snyder discarded the technique.
Perhaps he thought it would appear too trite and cheapen the intelligence of the film. I don't really believe that though considering Snyder's previous film 300, was an ingloriously belligerent spectacle, saturated in CGI and drunk on hyperbolic bravado. Deliberate aesthetic restraint didn't define that film and I don't think it had much to do with this one. Snyder is not one to hold back. He respects the sources from which his bold cinematic extravaganzas are derived and this is one of the few demonstrated qualities I respect about the director and his work but he has yet to prove he is capable of truly great things beyond the emotional resplendance of his computer generated worlds. Also great art can be obvious as long as it's honest. There is nothing wrong with aesthetic indulgence as long as it's without pretentiousness.
For what it is though, the film is fun, mostly intriguing and very pretty to look at. The style and design of this film is impeccable and like 300, is marketable on this level alone. It works on a simpler plane than that of the book but there is still a lot you can get out of it. Snyder is dedicated to the original plot and adheres to it rigidly with minimal departures. He does however make a significant choice concerning the ending that doesn't actually alter the course of anything but is a smart way to streamline the narrative, eliminating superfluous plot lines, too unwieldy for the film to manage. At the same time the implications of the plot remain the same. It was an interesting alternative to the original.
For it's insufficiency, the film is still an intriguing and entertaining experience. Worth renting, more so than seeing in a theater, however. It's not bad, just not great and for it's length there are more gratifying ways to spend your time; reading a good book for instance.