The graphic novel Watchmen percolated as a hot project for a couple of decades before a studio was finally willing to give it a green light -- after reading one script Terry Gilliam predicted that it would budget out at a million dollars a page. The cost-saving technology that attracted the Hollywood bean counters to the comparatively modest 300 suddenly boosted the viability of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' superhero saga, especially with the successful director Zack Snyder on board.
Watchmen was easily the most hotly awaited picture of the first half of 2009, and I'll readily admit that the dynamic yellow-and-red poster billboards around town generated a charge of anticipation that Savant hasn't felt in years. That the film was not considered a runaway success doesn't surprise me, as it's faithful to the original's downer spirit, a vision blacker than noir. A movie about superheroes that is neither consistently feel-good nor entertainingly funny is a hard sell. Other writers have noted that the Watchmen are relative unknowns in comparison to icons like Spiderman and Superman; there's less of a built-in audience for them. Describing the Watchmen movie also suggests expressions like "intellectual puzzle" and "non-linear". Large segments of the audience have little use for narrative complexities and historical irony.
What movie audiences do care about is action, and to compensate Watchmen ratchets up the graphic novel's considerable violence. Bloody content limited to a single comic panel or two, looks like gore porn when turned into a film sequence. Watchmen gets a Hard "R" rating, which cuts out at least some of the kiddie audience that helped turn the Batman franchise into gold.
Even with a few subplots deleted, Watchmen is so complicated that it bears comparison with David Lynch's noble 1984 attempt to film Dune. Lynch got lost in wall-to-wall exposition and characters reduced to walk-ons. Watchmen avoids the same fate by closely following the original's highly cinematic structure. Moore and Gibbons' comic book panels made heavy use of devices familiar to moviegoers -- parallel cutting, associative transitions.
For readers that chose to sit out this particular cultural spin cycle, Watchmen is a multi-generational story of costumed superhero crime fighters. They got their start in the 1940s as "The Minutemen", later formed another association called "The Watchmen" and then were outlawed in the early 1980s. Most have kept their anonymity in retirement. Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), Silk Spectre (Malin Ackerman), Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) and The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) have no super-powers. The one Watchman who does is Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), an "atomic man" who glows a soft blue color. A research scientist transformed into a near demigod by an experiment gone wrong, Dr. Manhattan wins the Vietnam War for Richard Nixon, allowing the President to run for a third term by popular demand. Most of Watchmen plays out as a science fiction alternate history tale, although the film drops a major Sci-Fi element from the final act.
In 1985 an unknown assailant murders The Comedian. Defying the ban on costumed vigilantes, Rorschach warns the other Watchmen and puts pressure on the underworld to find out who is responsible. Dr. Manhattan breaks up with Laurie Jupiter (secretly the Silk Spectre) and abandons humanity to meditate on Mars. The Cold War goes into panic mode, as the U.S. and the Soviets are already at the brink of nuclear war, and Dr. Manhattan was America's defense insurance policy. Laurie and Dan Dreiburg (secretly the Nite Owl) become an item. Frustrated by all the bad news, they ignore the ban and reassume their roles as crime fighters. Laurie and Dan spring Rorschach from prison and begin an investigation that leads to the activities of the millionaire technocrat Adrian Veidt, formerly Ozymandias.
That synopsis doesn't begin to touch the intricacies of Watchmen or its pleasing assortment of superheroes, that collectively flesh out a pantheon of comic book traditions. The Nite Owl is a kinder Batman type, a quiet millionaire who has engineered a flying vehicle and other crime-fighting gadgets. He's actually following in the footsteps of the original Nite Owl, a two-fisted hero from the 1940s. The Silk Spectre is a Wonder Woman- like beauty with identity issues. She was pushed into her role by her flamboyant mother, the Silk Spectre of the Minuteman years. The corrupt Comedian lost sight of his crimefighting ethics and became a murderer, war criminal, rapist and dirty ops agent for Dick Nixon. The highly intelligent Ozymandias is also a fabulously wealthy international businessman under the name Adrian Veidt; he's put his crime-fighting past on the public record and even sells Ozymandias toy action figures. Veidt considers himself a modern Alexander the Great.
The most interesting Watchman is Rorschach, a seedy misanthrope who wears a strange mask that forms mysterious symmetrical patterns identical to a psychologist's inkblot test. Now considered an outlaw vigilante, Rorschach keeps a bitter Travis Bickle-like diary and refuses to compromise on his mission to slay criminals. Between them the Watchmen cover numerous approaches to the concept of "masked crusaders" trying to function in a complex world.
Director Zack Snyder was criticized in 300 for merely transferring Frank Miller's obsessive images to the screen. Snyder epitomizes the modern director who prepares computerized pre-visualization sequences, directs the live action, and waits for his technician-artisans to deliver test composites to critique. Elements that the director once had to make "come together" before a real camera on a real set can now be added, subtracted or altered almost indefinitely; the director of an effects-heavy film now functions as a creative manager. Snyder openly admits that his goal is to faithfully replicate the visions of other artists, which has prompted some to question exactly what he contributes artistically to the show. To the extent that Snyder still casts and directs the actors and decides when and when not to follow the graphic novel, he is actually much more "involved" than were many old-school studio directors. Even the biggest Hollywood names sometimes worked from locked scripts and often had little contact with projects before or after the actual filming. Considering how little opportunity for personal expression the Watchmen assignment afford, Snyder's done a fine job.
In this case, closely following the original was Snyder's only choice. CGI allows the presentation of almost any visual, and the leagues of Watchmen fans wouldn't have tolerated detours from their story. Most of Snyder's adjustments are good ones. The strange sidebar tangent involving a "Black Freighter" horror comic has wisely been spun off into a separate direct-to-video production. To get out from under a mountain of plot complications, Snyder drops Adrian Veidt's elaborate hoax on humanity that involves murdering an army of technicians that mock up the corpse of a gigantic space alien. Snyder already has an "alien" in the main cast to take the monster's place, and to heal the wound for purists he salts references to an episode of The Outer Limits. A few smaller characters have been lost or minimized out of sheer necessity -- the lesbian couple that congregates at the Manhattan newsstand, for example.
Way back before comic book movies became the norm, we marveled at Mario Bava's successful translation of graphic aesthetics to Danger: Diabolik. What separates Watchmen from 1001 other new superhero adventures is its direct use of Alan Moore's graphic-cinematic narrative devices. The Comedian's Smiley Face button and Roschach's inkblots serve as excellent visual links between scenes, but the main treat is the retention of the graphic novel's free-shifting time frame. Alain Resnais would certainly approve of Moore's constant jumping between past and present, between the Watchmen and their Minutemen counterparts, and the intrusion of obsessive memories. Watchmen has an excellent motivation for its fragmented structure in the Dr. Manhattan character, who experiences reality in "time depth". Constantly "time tripping" like Vonnegut's Billy Pilgrim, Dr. Manhattan is losing his connection with mere mortals, much like Dr. Xavier in X - the Man with the X-Ray Eyes. Manhattan cannot convince Laurie that his love for her is sincere -- even when he's present, he's never totally devoted to her. A restored scene shows the original Nite Owl (Stephen McHattie) fighting off a gang of modern thugs, inter-cutting idealized images of a youthful Nite Owl happily punching out vintage bad guys in his Minuteman days. The cutting pattern expresses Nite Owl's love for crime-fighting even as he fights a losing battle -- with a cinematic construction straight from the graphic novel.
Best of all, Watchmen's structure communicates many of its relationships and themes non-verbally, making constant exposition unnecessary. We feel Dr. Manhattan's alienation and Dan Dreiberg's sense of impotence without undue explanations. Only Rorschach's voiceover narration sometimes seems redundant or false, like the hardboiled blather on the original cut of Blade Runner. It's true to the graphic novel source, but it should have been minimized.
Snyder's screenwriters pace out Watchmen into a viable screenplay that plays to the smart spectrum of the audience, a risky gambit. Some scenes seem too abbreviated, like Laurie and Dan's rooftop fire rescue. Other scenes, like the free-form alternate history title sequence, are breathtakingly good. To its credit, the film does not subscribe to the editorial fad that reduces action scenes to expressionistic bursts of incomprehensible blur-action. Snyder opts for wider angles that show the stunt fighting in a coherent manner.
Watchmen was somewhat overpowering in the movie theater, precisely because it is so close to the original. Instead of being taken in a new direction, I felt like Snyder was holding the book in front of my eyes and turning the pages for me. But movies of this kind are no longer made to be seen only once, and on a second viewing it was easier to simply watch what was happening, admire the classy designs and marvel at the excellent casting. 1The film's acting ensemble is so good that I resent the fact that certain characters have to be killed; I'd love to come back and see more of their adventures. Watching Watchmen can be exhausting, but I feel ready to see it again.
Warner Home Video's Special Edition Director's Cut Blu-ray of Watchmen replicates the theatrical experience with full fidelity. We can appreciate the improved CGI augmentation techniques, a method much more successful than the motion-capture work last seen in Beowulf. I particularly like the contrast between the leather & grommet costumes of the Minutemen and the latex & Kevlar look of of some of the new Watchmen. The audio comes in DTS and 5.1 DD with an additional track in French for Quebec. Some of the music used on the soundtrack feels inspired (Jimi Hendrix's All Along the Watchtower) and some doesn't (Simon & Garfunkle); the filmmakers' commitment to fidelity extends to using most of the exact cues called out on the pages of the original source.
The longer Director's Cut adds 34 minutes of dialogue and new scenes to the show, like the murder of the original Nite Owl. Malin Ackerman's Laurie and Carla Cugino's Silk Spectre I character benefit greatly from these additions. Musical montages appear to be longer and a lot of connective tissue has been added back in, such as Laurie's set-to with Nixon's disrespectful Feds, and the scramble at the Dr. Strangelove- like War Room to locate Dr. Manhattan when he flees to Mars. We still don't see enough of Dr. Manhattan's first girlfriend Janey Slater, however. Actress Laura Mennell does wonders with the too-brief part; like Carla Cugino's spot-on recreation of 40's glamour, Janey is the perfect dream sweetheart for 1959. The added scenes are all smoothly edited; I only wish that studios putting out three-hour extended versions would rediscover the tradition of the Intermission. Watchmen's most avid fans would appreciate an opportunity to take an officially sanctioned video break.
Warners' pioneer new ways to exploit Blu-ray's picture-in-picture capabilities with their "Maximum Movie Mode", which interrupts the movie for an elaborate "Watch It With Zack Snyder" feature. Snyder pops up with an in-person play-by-play commentary - one screen displays the feature while another serves up BTS information and visuals. Other more conventional trivia track information flows at an accelerated rate, with offers to stop for sidebar videos. Some of the "Focus Points" from the Maximum Movie mode can be independently launched from the menu: "Sets & Sensibility", "Girls Kick Ass", etc. We get to see for ourselves how much of the film's sets were practical constructions (quite a bit!) and what Dr. Manhattan's "glow suit" looked like during filming.
The second extras disc contains three worthy, lengthy featurettes. The Phenomenon gathers comic spokesmen and the film's producers to relate the creation of Moore and Gibbons' influential graphic novel. The abstaining Alan Moore of course makes no appearance, but Dave Gibbons does show up to talk about his inspirations for the original Watchmen artwork. Real Super Heroes, Real Vigilantes is a surprisingly thoughtful investigation of society's tendency to approve acts of vigilantism. Legal spokesmen examine mob psychology and real-life examples like the famous fellow who shot four muggers on the New York subway. The Guardian Angels also appear, along with a couple of self-styled (and costumed) crime fighters who come off as truly disturbed.
A Minnesota physicist is the amiable host of Mechanics: Technologies of a Fantastic World, which delves into the science, pseudo-science and just plain "miracle exemptions" in Watchmen. We learn that the film's fantasy of "subtracting intrinsic fields" is at least fairly consistent, while Nite Owl's night-vision glasses are now a complete reality. The scientist has serious doubts about the feasibility of the Night Owl's flying vehicle, however.
A music video by My Chemical Romance is included as well, and a third disc contains a bonus digital copy of the Theatrical Cut. We're told that the disc's BD-Live function will enable users to participate in a live commentary with Snyder at this year's upcoming Comic-Con in San Diego.
For rabid collectors untouched by the economic turndown, Amazon is offering an exclusive Nite Owl Edition priced at $120. It contains the Director's Cut discs packaged in a fancy desktop model of the flying Owlship, reportedly rigged with working lights and sound effects.
The standard disc package features an arresting lenticular 3-D slipcover. Talk about multiple versions to choose from -- an insert announces that yet another Watchmen release is on the way. The five-disc set will include a version of the movie with the "Black Freighter" scenes interpolated into the action, the Complete Watchmen Motion Comics DVD and Hollis Mason's tell-all Under the Hood. Previously, purchasers would have to wait at least a month or two to find out that their "definitive" releases were going to be updated -- better prepare a shelf to carry the Watchmen variants to come.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. All of the actors make very favorable impressions; in a fair world, each would enjoy a major career upturn. My favorite is still Jackie Earle Haley, a terrific, intense Rorschach. It's hard to believe that the same Haley played the gawky longhaired kid in Breaking Away, so many years ago!
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2009 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.