Thursday, March 12, 2009

Watchmen (Film)

Warner Brothers Pictures/Paramount Pictures, 160 minutes

Director: Zack Snyder
Writers: David Hayter, Alex Tse
Producers: Lawrence Gordon, Lloyd Levin, Deborah Snyder
Cast: Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Carla Gugino, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Patrick Wilson, et al.

(Based on the comic by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.)

The first cinematic adaptation of Watchmen is not without its innovations. Thanks to Zack Snyder, Hollywood superhero films now have their first prominent penis, and it is blue. Disappointingly, though, Mr. Snyder is too chickenhearted to take his vision all the way. At the film’s big climax—no pun intended—the director fails to really go to town and show Dr. Manhattan’s big wang (affectionately christened “Lower Manhattan” by Sean T. Collins) in all its erect glory, wildly ejaculating radiant blue supergoo as he goes, to the tune and lyrics of The Flaming Lips’ “The W.A.N.D.” Now that would have been a memorable achievement.

Now, I don’t think Mr. Moore and Mr. Gibbons’ Watchmen comic, for all its merits, is a once-in-a-lifetime, can-do-no-wrong achievement of creative rocket science. But compared to Mr. Snyder’s Watchmen, which goes to work on the audience’s sensory, aesthetic and intellectual faculties with a sledgehammer for a never-ending 2 hours and 40 minutes—which is, you must know, about the time it took the Titanic to sink—, it might as well be.

The film’s major problem is, it adapts the comic’s surface elements so closely that the actors never get the chance to imbue it with a life of its own. Mr. Snyder, it seems, simply lacks the skill to adjust and vary the pacing, the volume—anything, really—according to the demands of any given moment or scene. It doesn’t matter whether the heroes are having a supposedly revelatory character moment, make love, or are beating up and shooting protestors in the street: The film races through each and every scene with the same indiscriminate, wood-chopping tunnel vision, and it’s all cranked up to eleven, all the time. The creators’ helpless response to the resulting lack of atmosphere, empathy, understory and everything else that makes the comic worthwhile is to add more blood and gore.

The soundtrack, widely noted as being stunningly obvious and unimaginative, is emblematic of the degree of subtlety that keeps lurching through every aspect of this picture like an elephant on an ice rink. Mr. Snyder’s choice of “The Times They Are A-Changing,” “The Sound of Silence” and “99 Luftballons” makes me wonder  who talked him out of using “Summer of ‘69,” “Smoke on the Water” and “Stairway to Heaven.” They would have fit in seamlessly.

There’s plenty of sex and violence in Watchmen, and they’re depicted in the same adolescent and emotionally stunted fashion we’re accustomed to from Mr. Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead and 300. Like 300, the film celebrates its unreflected, latently fascist admiration of violence and wears it like a badge. Like Dawn of the Dead, the film doesn’t mind sacrificing plausibility and immersion in the story if liberal splashes of blood and gore are to be had.

When Patrick Wilson’s Nite Owl and Malin Akerman’s Silk Spectre have sex—to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” which is as close to having a sense of humor as the film gets—the scene evinces the sensuality and distinctiveness of a 1980s soft-porn flick. When they fight, cripple and kill their way through a hapless gang of hoodlums, Mr. Snyder treats the scene with all the reflection and insight of a 13-year-old Counter-Strike enthusiast who just discovered the work of Leni Riefenstahl.

Sequences showing Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) fighting in Vietnam and the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) shooting a pregnant woman at point blank are treated with the same giddy, obnoxiously manipulative Look How Cruel, Isn’t It AWESOME sheen. This heavy-handedness stifles any genuine sense of horror or unease and, worse, lacks the awareness how disturbing a lot of these moments could be if they were part of a much better film—one whose creators have the vision and the skill to engage the issues they raise, rather than to just revel in their surface thrills.

Watchmen is very much not that film. The “more realistic” portrayal of superheroes it aspires to could have generated shivers, but the picture is bereft of any such potential by its overall failure to create a credible world. In the place of toning things down and earning that credibility through appropriate storytelling, the film restages—of course—the assassination of John F. Kennedy by—of course—the Comedian, and other such silliness. The most obvious storytelling choice is always good enough for Watchmen.

Its version of Richard Nixon reminds me more of Danny DeVito’s Penguin than of any American president. Its TV commentators resemble those from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. The depiction of these characters and others doesn’t even strive for authenticity—they’re all caricatures. The setting that results from this is over the top in a, dare I say it, very generically “comic-booky” way. But if I can’t even buy into the world as a real place, how am I supposed to take the superhero elements seriously?

The film’s many martial arts scenes seem exhausted and perfunctory, doing little more than rehash, in less exciting fashion, what The Matrix did 10 years ago. Mr. Snyder’s all-purpose weapon for making them at least a little bit distinctive: add more blood and gore. In terms of the special effects, the portrayal of Ozymandias’ pet tiger and (sometimes) Dr. Manhattan once again demonstrates that computer-generated images are not quite yet what Hollywood would like them to be.

On the plus side, it’s fun watching Mr. Morgan, Mr. Goode and whatever is left of Mr. Crudup’s face at work, and Mr. Wilson and Mr. Haley do a fantastic job as Nite Owl and Rorschach, respectively. The film has its best moments when it allows the two of them to bounce off each other; those are the few scenes where things gain traction, where I’m beginning to be invested in the story. It never lasts, though, due to the inept pacing and slapdash editing, which undercut any dramatic effect the actors, against all odds, might have been able to generate.

The cast and some of the special effects save the movie from being boring all the way through, but its thrills remain cheap and shallow, and its execution poor. Watchmen is a depressingly dumb, immature and emotionally retarded film without an identity.

Grade: D-

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