Saturday, March 28, 2009

What's more absurd than a giant blue shlong?

A review of Watchmen nearly a month after its release, that's what! Okay, so I know I am way late to the party on this one (as usual) but here it is, THE definitive review of Zack Snyder's film adaptation of the seminal comic book created by Alan Moore (who had his name removed from the film) and Dave Gibbons. Welll not really. What can I say that hasn't been said already by much smarter people than I? I'll give it a go, but before the jump check out two of my favorite reviews of the film. Here's a wonderfully articulate review by a mysterious blogger that champions the films successes....and here is one by Alexander Coleman that is just as articulate in explaining why the film is a failure. I think I fall more in line with Andrew's review here, which I'll explain after the jump...

Zack Snyder's film is an orgy of beautiful imagery -- some of it comes at you in that annoying, Snyder-esque slo-mo, and other times it sits there beautifully framed for you to be in awe of -- it's a film that is an experience to be had; however, whether that experience is good or bad is something I had to think about.

My initial reaction to the film was that it was great. It fulfilled its duty in entertaining me, making me think about the comic while I was watching it, but not longing for the film to be more faithful to its material. There are changes, yes, and although I am by no means a fanboy (I just came to the comic recently) I was immediately able to recognize those changes, and you know what, most of 'em aren't half bad.

The real question with the film (I'm skipping any remnants of plot description here, as I assume since this is a month overdue everyone knows by know what the story is about) is whether or not Snyder succeeds in raising the film above a mere postmodern exercise. I personally feel that film succeeds in being more than just a pastiche full of flashy slo-mo action and music video moments (although the first part of the film is filled with music) and gives the viewer something that has not been experienced in the genre of comic book films: quiet moments. These quiet moments are just as jaw dropping as the action scenes from something like Iron Man or The Dark Knight, there is an silence and an attention that is focused on the screen in Watchmen that is not attributed to its awesome effects or action sequence (which there are very little of), but to the films quieter moments where Dr Manhattan pontificates about the past as he constructs his future, or where Rorschach philosophizes about the dirt and scum of the world in moments of narration that remind the viewer of Travis Bickle. The film works in the sense that I was all ears, more than willing to sit through the three hours of philosophy and dialogue driven scenes. It's an experience that I think is not only easier on the senses than The Dark Knight, but more fulfilling.

The opening of the film has two beautiful home-run sequences as Snyder shows the death of The Comedian in slo-mo to the tune of Nat King Cole's "Unforgettable". The scene is filmed like a dance, a violent ballet of bloody pirouettes that is edited perfectly to the croons of Cole's song. Snyder gives the viewer context in the opening credits (and some nods to fanboys who love the comic) with a virtuoso credit sequence that features the aptly chosen song "The Times They Are A-Changin'" by Bob Dylan. I won't even mention how great the use of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" is, because my hope is that you will click the link to the review on The House Next Door and read that critics thoughts on the song -- which I think are some of the most brilliant that have been said about the film.

I can see where viewers have thought the film to be boring, overly long, and all surface with no depth; but I found the film to be a fascinating experience. Will I want to see it again? Absolutely. Do I think the film is a masterpiece? Not by a long shot. But it is one of the great experiences I've had the movies in a long, long while. The acting is universally strong across the board, especially Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach and Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan who just finds the right notes as the brooding superhero. What makes the film so fascinating is all attributed to Moore's original story and the very idea that there is nothing super about super heroes; especially the Watchmen who happen to only have one member of their group with any kind of super powers. They are all flawed, and that's the interesting thing about the film version of this story (really there was no way to get all of the postmodern, meta-elements of Moore's story into the film).

The visuals are wonderful and the playfulness of Snyder's use of music and slo-motion to open the film is wonderful. The acting is strong across the board and I'll always remember those scenes on Mars with Silk Specter II and Dr. Manhattan debating, philosophizing, and re-constructing as secrets are revealed and epiphanies are made. It's a beautiful and poignant (when was the last time you heard that word described with a comic book movie) moment in the film and really, these moments outweigh the moments where Snyder's direction get in the way.

About Snyder: I have never been a fan as I despised 300 and the remake of Dawn of the Dead. But here Snyder tones down his go-to elements after he uses a lot of them in the opening (which as I mentioned before, in this film worked wonderfully) and wisely avoids the over-the-top effects he's employed in his other films. It's always going to be a catch-22 with Snyder -- I was thinking about this during the prison break scene in Watchmen as the slo-mo came back with a vengeance (and really if it weren't for the nicely done, Matrix like panning of the camera, then the scene would have really stood out as an annoyance) and this where Snyder, and the film, started to annoy me, but really which is worse, the slo-mo, heavily stylized editing of Snyder or the hyper-kinetic, whooshing cameras of a Michael Bay film. I think prefer Snyder's style (even though I don't always like it) because at least you can slow down and understand where you and where the action is happening, which is a problem with Bay's films or the Bourne movies for example.

Watchmen works so well because it slows things down, and the film is faithful to the source material in a sense that the story isn't about action or extravagance, it's about ideas and listening, and that's where Snyder is so successful. He accomplishes the feat of getting the audience to listen to the film, working for the ideas and themes, rather than the film doing all the heavy lifting with loud noises, frantically paced action sequences, and paper-thin philosophies.

There are flaws with the film, no doubt, and if you were to argue against certain aspects of the film, I may be able to be swayed one way or the other. The best word to describe the film is "experience". It was an experience I was glad to have and one I wouldn't mind having again. The best parts of the film I mentioned throughout the review, those are where I think the film is a masterpiece, but there too many aspects that don't always work, and many failed attempts at nuance; however, for me the good of the ultimately outweighs the bad.

I can't believe it, but I like a Zack Snyder movie, even if he didn't keep in the giant squid thing at the end of the movie.


  1. Thanks for the shout-out, Kevin!

    I'm glad you singled out the film's quieter moments for praise. After seeing Watchmen for a second time, one scene that really stands out in my mind is, oddly enough, one of the most "stationary" and cerebral: Manhattan's explanation of his revelation to Silk Spectre that her existence is a miracle, and that is enough reason for him to save the Earth. Narratively, it's a pivotal point in the comic, but almost anti-climactic, and not particularly memorable. Yet I think the potency of the scene hits upon everything that Snyder does well in his adaptation, particularly with respect to Dr. Manhattan's portrayal and the story's more existential elements.

    The scene is very static: It's just a shot-reverse shot sequence of Manhattan talking and Silk Spectre listening. However, the combination of Snyder's surprisingly deft treatment of the character and the philosophical themes he evokes, Cudrup's performance, and a very effective score make it one of the film's most dramatic and dazzling moments. Underneath all that CGI, Cudrup really sells the tearful awe of those lines: "Like turning air into gold."

  2. My pleasure Andrew.

    You're right about that moment between Manhattan and Spectre and how cheesy that line it, but somehow, through all of the CGI, Cudrup's voice makes it work. It really was a tremendous piece of voice acting.

    I look forward to seeing this film again.

  3. Good review, but I'm still not sure anything is going to lead me to really, really want to watch this film.

    No doubt I'll see it at some point and I really should give Snyder a chance here, but I'm still awfully skeptical.

  4. Excellent review, Kevin. And like Andrew I thank you for the shout out.

    We're coming from very different perspectives with regards to the source material (which I promise to finally take a look at sooner than later), as I was unsure of what to expect. As such, I was left scratching my head, wondering exactly what Snyder's film was trying to say, and just how much of a reiteration of the comic it actually was.

    In any case, you've given a terrific counterpoint here, and I enjoyed reading it!

  5. Troy:

    It's worth a look once you get your Blu-Ray and Theater Room! :)


    Your review reminded me of some of the reviews last year on "The Dark Knight" in the sense that someone I respected didn't like something I initially thought was amazing. I remember last summer having to think about what I really thought about "The Dark Knight" because its detractors really did make some good points about why they didn't like it. It caused me to be a better critic of film; looking closely at the material I claimed was a masterpiece. I've since cooled on my initial thoughts towards "The Dark Knight" (after four viewings of really looking at it), but I'll never re-edit my original review for it. I think it's interesting how we can come to films and slowly change the way we feel about them. I hope you give "Watchmen" another shot, because I know I will, based solely on your thoughts about the film -- it'll help me better shape why I think the film is so great or maybe I'll come to find a year later that the film doesn't hold up.

    I love taking a look at well articulated arguments that disagree with my thoughts about a film, because that is one of the key elements in making sure what we think about a film is really what we think about it.

    Once the euphoria of the moment is gone (or the bad taste in your case) are we able to go back and look at the film and give it another shot? Reviews like yours help do that. Which is why I still claim "Watchmen" is great, but not as great as I thought it was when I left the theater...

    Does that make sense? Do you think that's normal? Haha.