Editor’s Note: In this column animation critic Joe Strike gives us our first review of the Watchmen film.
They got it right – they didn’t fuck it up too bad.
That only begins to describe my reaction to Zack Snyder’s Watchmen. On the ‘faithful-to-the-source-material-in-terms-of-capturing-its spirit’ scale I give the film 4.95 stars out of five. I credit the film to Snyder because it’s definitely his version of A____ M____ and Dave Gibbons’ ‘unfilmable’ graphic novel. It’s also a paraphrase of what Snyder said back in 2007 when he was starting work on the project: “I hope some rainy afternoon in England A___ M____ will watch the movie and say ‘they didn’t fuck it up too bad.'”
Since you’re reading this on a site called fanboy.com, you know A___ M____ removed his name from the film (and turned down the zillions of $ of booty it will generate, handing it over to Gibbons) because of his distaste for what Hollywood’s done to his books; you also know the book inside-out, the way its themes echo through its huge cast and various subplots, or the counterpoint between the main story and the pirate comic ‘within the comic.’ (I don’t intend to review the movie here, plenty of people are already covering that end of it, but even so, plenty of spoilers ahead – you’ve been warned…)
Snyder and his scripters David Hayter and Alex Tse wisely jettisoned a lot of those plot threads to focus on the Watchmen themselves. You’ll see glimpses, just glimpses of Bernard the newsdealer, Dr. Long the prison shrink or Hollis Mason, the ‘golden age’ (so to speak) Nite Owl, along with tons of screen-filling background detail lifted from the comics – enough to let you know the filmmakers know you know they know the source material. (Whew!) So we don’t get to see or hear the pirate comic parallel the Watchmen’s story – an amazing use of the comics medium that could never have been successfully replicated onscreen anyway. Their major change, and I do mean major: instead of creating an extra-dimensional beastie to scare the world into peace, in the film Ozymandias sets up Dr. Manhattan (the guy) as the supposed Manhattan (the city)-destroying bad guy.
Unlike Alice in Wonderland’s White Queen there are only so many impossible things you can believe before breakfast: a once-human being transformed into a nearly omnipotent entity, sure; but when you add a tentacled one-eyed monster… you’re pushing it. Keeping the focus on Dr. Manhattan is a brilliant, entirely logical-within-the story stroke that a) gets rid of a time-consuming sub-plot; b) condenses the story and c) keeps the focus on the core characters who now have a more intertwined relationship.
As someone who was there during the 80’s (it wasn’t a long time ago back then, back then it was right now), they got the period look and feel dead on, from the orange NY license plates to how TV studio cameras looked at the time. Also: no product placement to make the film seem more ‘real’ (ok, the NY Post got in, but I’ll give them that); instead, actors playing alternate world versions of everyone from Pat Buchanan and Ted Koppel to Dick Nixon and David Bowie – now that makes a fantasy film seem real.
Speaking about lookalikes, some of the casting for the supporting cast is almost scary, like they 3D’d the characters right off the page and into the movie, especially Dr. Long, Doug Roth (the Geraldo Rivera-type reporter) and the two police detectives investigating the Comedian’s murder. And boy, does Jackie Early Haley ever nail Rorschach; hey, if Heath can grab a posthumous Oscar for the Joker, Haley should at least get a nom for how he brings his own creepazoid character to life.
And a few random Watch-thoughts, Watch-thunk while Watch-watching the film: The police ‘do not cross’ crime scene tape: thick black letters on a yellow background (where have I seen that before?)… Separated at birth: Watchmen and The Incredibles (outlawed superheroes being killed one by one to further a costumed bad-guy’s master plan he believes is a noble goal, plus costumed character done in by his own cape )… Dust mites floating in the air illuminated by Dr. M’s glow… Dr. Long doesn’t seem quite the putz he is in the comic (when Rorschach gives his phony inkblot answers, the shrink has an ever-so-slight ‘you’re bullshitting me’ look on his face)… The scientists working with Ozy in Antarctica take the place of his servants and the people who whipped up the beastie in the comic – like I said, very cleverly thought-out & entirely logical condensing of two separate subplots. Snyder’s strategy reminds me of the difference between the first two, overly faithful-to-the-book Harry Potter movies vs. the later ones that came alive as movies because they did the same thing without ruining the movie experience for people who read the books. If you want to see the perfect example of that, take a(nother) look at what they did to V for Vendetta; no wonder Moore doesn’t trust Hollywood.
Joe is an occasional animation scripter and freelance NYC writer covering animation and sci-fi/fantasy entertainment. His work has appeared in the NY Daily News, Newsday, the New York Press and, as they used to say on Rocky and Bullwinkle, ‘a host of others.’ He is a regular contributor to the animation industry website awn.com, but it’s much easier to visit joestrike.com to see what he’s been up to lately.