Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Watchmen: A Review (Review #1)


The Movie Will Always Be Different From the Book. This is one of the Golden Rules of Filmmaking, and the success or failure of a film version depends not on what was left in or cut out but on whether both a reader of the story AND someone who's never read the source material can enjoy and appreciate the film itself.

For example, I've read 20,000 Leagues Under the Seas, Gone With the Wind, and The Lord of the Rings. I enjoyed the film versions of all these films. Yes, as a reader, I noticed the changes and the missing characters, but they all stayed so close to the story that I didn't mind. I haven't read Oliver Twist. However, with both David Lean's film and Oliver!, its musical incarnation, I could follow the plot without difficulty. Each of these films, however, works because they were all done well.

I can't say the same about Watchmen. I had never heard of this Citizen Kane of graphic novels until talk of the movie came around. I decided to not read the original, to see if someone with no background to the story could enjoy it. Ultimately, I couldn't. Only the readers who are fanatical about the book could, and therein lies one of the problems. If one is going to make a film (original or adapted), it should appeal to the broadest group possible. Anything short of that, and it fails.

Let's go on to the movie itself. One of the Watchmen, The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), is murdered. Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), another Watchmen who is on the lam, suspects its a plot to kill off the remaining members of the group. With that, Rorschach contacts either directly or via another Watchman the remaining members to warn them.

You have the nebbish Nite Owl II (he being the second person to take that identity, played by Patrick Wilson), the self-proclaimed super-genius Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), the beautiful Silk Specter II (Malin Akerman), taking over her mother, who is now a drunk, and Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), a man who via an accident has turned into a blue semi-god who can transport himself anywhere, can see past, present, and future, and has a very noticeable member.

Of course, the murder is really a diversion from the real plot, which involves nuclear annihilation between the Soviet Union (which some in the audience don't remember because it did not exist when they were born) and the United States under Richard Nixon (who somehow got re-elected more times than FDR).

Let's go over some of the problems with Watchmen.

Problem 1: Voice-Over Narration. I'm not a big fan of voice-overs, preferring to let the visuals tell the story themselves. It can work (American Beauty and the original cut of Blade Runner being good examples), but by and large it's a distraction and an irritant--I hate when a character is telling me what I am watching. A part of that problem involves the voices themselves. Jeffrey Dean Morgan looks and sounds so much like Javier Bardem from No Country for Old Men that I actually thought it was the Oscar-winner playing The Comedian. Jackie Earle Halie's Rorschach sounds like he's channeling Christian Bale's Batman, and Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan has a soft, gentle, monotone that gives HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey a run for his money.

Problem 2: The Structure. By staying so true to the original you had backstories being told almost two hours INTO the movie itself. What would have been wrong with telling us all this information IN THE BEGINNING? It worked for Superman, it worked for Spider-Man, and most definitely in X-Men. My feeling is that it would have upset the fans, and this movie was made for them, not me. Which leads to...

Problem 3: The Target Audience. A movie that appeals only to those "on the inside" won't be any fun for those who are being introduced to these characters. I've read and heard other critics who say if you haven't read the book, you won't be lost. I followed the story but felt there were things I was missing because I didn't read it.

Problem 4: The Visuals & Music. You have the Nixon War Room, which looks like the one from Dr. Strangelove. When Dr. Manhattan and The Comedian invade Vietnam, you have Ride of the Valkyries playing a la Apocalypse Now. For those who have seen those movies but haven't read the graphic novel (like me) it becomes distracting. For those who haven't seen the movies OR read the novel (like my best friend Gabe) it becomes confusing and they don't get the references. Also, when you have songs like The Times They Are A-Changin', The Sound Of Silence, All Along the Watchtower, even a selection from Mozart's Requiem, you are taken out of the story and start to focus on the music, which is very good.

This movie needed to be shorter and rewritten to have the non-Watchmen readers follow and enjoy it while keeping the spirit of the graphic novel the fans became devoted to. Something got lost in translation, and in the end that is what makes this film a failure. It didn't motivate me to want to read it and it didn't entertain me. Watchmen is like a mixture of The Incredibles, X-Men, Cannibal Holocaust and Gore Vidal's Caligula, but in the end, the film won't inspire the devotion the book did...except among those for whom the book is virtually sacred scripture.



  1. I agree with your comments, Rick.
    I don't feel as strongly as you do on the use of voice over narration in films since some of my favorite movies have at least some narration in them.
    Ultimately, as you point out, it is because of the filmmakers' desire to follow the comic book so closely that the movie does not (structurally) flow well.

  2. Some favorites that have voice over narration:
    The Big Lebowski, Raising Arizona (both by the Cohens), Fight Club, Snatch, Goodfellas, Sin City, and Double Indemnity.

  3. I haven't seen Snatch or the Coen Brothers' films and HATED Sin City, but the others are good. I don't object to voice overs, only when they are used to describe what is being seen on the screen.


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Thank you.