In the theater (first time in 2009)
I saw Zack Snyder's competent Watchmen adaptation on Friday night and I've been trying to think of the proper angle from which to approach writing about it ever since. Like the director's 300, it's not a particularly cerebral film. He lines up the characters, he goes through the story, and he's not particularly interested in ambiguities or loose ends. Perhaps Snyder's economical approach is the only one possible: more ambitious directors like Terry Gilliam and Paul Greengrass have been attached to Watchmen projects but this is the one that actually got filmed.
Snyder has a nice fallback position because the rich psychological lives of the characters was the principal selling point of Alan Moore's graphic novel; he doesn't have to get into Nite Owl's impotence or The Comedian's sadism because readers of the book know all about that already. The director is careful about not having anyone act out of character, and he uses casting cleverly to nudge viewers' minds in the right direction. Patrick Wilson (from Hard Candy) is a perfect Nite Owl and Matthew Goode (The Lookout) seems appropriately impressed by himself in his limited screen time as Ozymandias. Brit Goode starts out affecting an American accent but by the end of the movie is doing a broad Charlton Heston "classical" delivery, which is something the comic book obviously never got the chance to consider and is something given the character's obsession with antiquity that makes perfect sense.
There's not much else added to the movie that wasn't done first and more authoritatively in the book. Rorshach is still crazy, Dr. Manhattan is still naked and blue, and the Silk Spectres still have boobs. Snyder does change the visualization of the ending (if not the effect), which serves only to make the whole thing wrap up neatly, rather than crawling with lingering questions and possible contradictions the way the comics did. By playing it safe clinging to the major beats of the story, I think Snyder has made a movie that's completely impossible to appreciate for people who haven't read the comic. Although his dedication to recreating entire compositions from the book will make the film fun on DVD for Moore fanboys, none of the mysteries and easter eggs in the Watchmen movie are its own -- they're all just borrowed from the source material.
I'm glad they made it, just as I was kind of detached in my enjoyment when they made the Lord of the Rings films -- maybe the movies didn't come close to the book, but they certainly drummed up a lot of interest in that world. The Peter Jackon trilogy did a lot better than Watchmen does at getting some of the non-narrative flavor of the original, but then again, he had seven hours of running time to work with and even more on DVD. At under three hours, it's extraordinary that Watchmen can be followed at all. Part of me wishes that I could see it again without such intimate knowledge of the graphic novel, to see whether I could tell what was going on. (My girlfriend was completely befuddled, but she's one of those Facebook generation people who has trouble following the plots of "Big Bang Theory" episodes.)
It is nice though that Comic-Con type culture has pervaded the mainstream to the extent that a $200 million adaptation of a cult series is not an uncommon risk for a mainstream studio these days. Apparently the contracts of all the Watchmen actors (and Malin Akerman) have sequel clauses. I don't know if the lawyers who drafted those contracts have read the book, but the slavish devotion to the original demonstrated by the filmmakers in this instance makes me curious about how they would possibly try and invent an entire original sequel given the wholesale lack of original ideas in the first film.
It is very cool that we have comic book movies for grown-ups nowadays, a few misbegotten sequels to the side. Watchmen the movie doesn't pull punches. When The Comedian is attempting to force his attentions on the first Silk Spectre, we see a closeup of his crotch and the unmistakable sound of stretching rubber. Dr. Manhattan's penis swings around in full view most of the time just as it did in the comic, and it's not gratuitous -- an important aspect of the character is that he still holds on to these certain vestiges of humanity even though they have no further purpose or meaning for him. What we're still waiting to see is a director who combines the technical skills of Snyder with the independent creative vision of an Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman or Frank Miller. Until then, movies like Sin City and Watchmen are like watching a really good cover band -- it's a good time, but the people who deserve most of the credit are the original songwriters.