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Watchmen

Posted on Friday, March 6th, 2009

Dave!In the epic masterwork, Watchmen, the god-like being known as Dr. Manhattan is a being who experiences his past, present, and future all at the same time. Despite his incredible power over matter, time, and space, he's nothing but a slave to an existence that has already been written. His every moment is "going through the motions" of a life that is fully predestined and known to him.

At one point in the book, Dr. Manhattan is exposed to a stream of tachyons which interrupt his all-knowing vision. Suddenly his boring walk through life is exciting again because he can't see the future. He had forgotten what it's like to not know what's going to happen.

Which pretty much explains how I felt about the film adaptation.

I had read the original graphic novel so many times that I knew every detail. I already knew the future of the story because I knew how it would all end. But the movie version of a dense story like Watchmen had to change to be film-able, so suddenly I was experiencing the excitement of not knowing. So many things were the same, but a lot of the details were different. Including the ending.

For those who haven't seen the film, I can sum it up spoiler-free like this: Watchmen is a surprisingly good film and faithful adaptation that lives up to the hype. It was a remarkable tribute to the source material on almost every level. I really enjoyed the film overall, despite two curious missteps I felt could have been easily avoided.

My spoiler-riddled review (which assumes knowledge of the original Watchmen graphic novel) follows in an extended entry.

Watchment Bloody Smile Button

Watchmen is a story that most everybody, including myself, felt was un-filmable. It is a monstrously complex and detailed work that simply cannot be translated to film... even one with a running time of nearly three hours. So imagine my surprise when director Zack Snyder, writers David Hayter and Alex Tse, and a genius cast and crew managed to pull it off. And I mean really pull it off. Yes, a vast portion of details were altered or dropped altogether. Yes, the ending has completely changed. Yes it's a bastardized version of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' genius tale... but somehow it works. It almost works too well. I found myself dropping out of the film to smile at the many little details that Snyder put in the movie which were so perfectly taken from the comics, as to be uncanny. I anticipate many more smiles as I watch the film a few more times in the theater, and many more times on the eventual DVD release.

Spoiler Zone!

As far as changes go, I approve of absolutely everything... except two items, which I'll get to in a minute. Otherwise, the movie was sheer genius for adapting the impossible to create an experience that's thoroughly enjoyable. Both for fans of the comic and those experiencing the material for the first time.

Most of the changes were out of necessity. In a comic, you can flip back and forth as you read it to go back and revisit details you may have missed or forgotten. Sitting in a movie theater, this is impossible. You must experience the film as it unfolds, and no important detail can be missed or forgotten without destroying the story. Zack Snyder and his writers GET this. And they totally nail it.

An example is Dr. Manhattan's first girlfriend, Janey Slater. In the comic, they keep having her pop up so you don't forget her and the pivotal role she is destined to play. The movie doesn't have this luxury given its limited running time. So instead of several small appearances to keep her in the back of your head as the story unfolds, the movie instead gives you a few appearances where they matter, then drives them into your head with shocking appearances you won't forget. Unlike the comic, Snyder has Janey Slater appear at the television studio when Dr. Manhattan is confronted by the press over the idea that his presence gives people cancer. Her dramatic removal of her wig to reveal her thinning hair from chemotherapy provides a compelling reason for Dr. Manhattan to leave the planet in absence of all the little scenes that were lost in translation from the book. They again deviate from the comic by having Janey be the one from Adrian Veidt's "Pyramid Deliveries" who hires the guy who hires the assassin who attacks Veidt to reinforce Rorschach's "mask killer" theory. It's a shocking revelation that helps streamline the plot in a way that the movie-goer can more easily grasp in the confines of a film. It's genius decisions like this that make Watchmen somehow work in the cinema.

Another way Snyder was smart is knowing where to cut and change things. In the graphic novel, Rorschach's origin has him giving a brutal killer a choice... burn by fire, or use a hacksaw to cut off his hand and escape. This disturbing semblance of choice (which is really not much of a choice at all) is subtle layering which is used to draw the prison psychiatrist into Rorschach's world. Eventually, just as Rorschach was changed by the way the world unfolded to him and the choices he makes to deal with it, the psychiatrist is forced to change as well by making choices of his own. It's the kind of brilliant interplay that Alan Moore used to weave his tale that makes Watchmen so compelling. But Zack Snyder doesn't have the time to work through multiple sessions with the psychiatrist like they did in the comic. He only has time for one session to get his point across. And since all the interplay with the psychiatrist has to be cut, the reason for having Rorschach give the hacksaw choice to the killer is null-and-void. So instead Snyder has Rorschach take a meat cleaver to the killer's head. It's a more brute-force method of telling his origin, but it more quickly establishes Rorschach's disturbing nature. Again, it's a clever change that compresses pages of comic book into a single moment for a similar effect.

I could go on and on about how much I respect the decisions Snyder and Co. made to adapt the material properly. Using the angel in the cemetery at The Comedian's funeral as a nod to the angel statue in front of the original Silk Spectre's nursing home. Having Veidt use hyper-observation of Dr. Manhattan's facial twitches to explain how he could figure out a way of defeating him. It's all so perfect. Which makes me wonder how they could have fucked up so horribly in a couple places.

Surprisingly, neither of the two changes I hate in the movie are the revamped ending. Sure the giant squid is gone and, even though I don't think the movie method of scaring the world into peace is as believable or compelling, I do think it works well in the context of the film.

No, the two changes I thought sucked in the film are things which changed NOT because they wouldn't work in a movie or took to long or were unfilmable, but because Zack Snyder and the writers made stupid choices that were a disservice to the story.

The first is having Dan Drieberg be the one to talk to Adrian Veidt about the "mask killer" instead of Rorschach. This makes NO sense. The mystery is Rorschach's crazy theory, not Nite Owl's. As originally written, this conversation was key to illustrating the polar opposites of the characters. This was then brilliantly mirrored at the end of the story when Rorschach doesn't go along with Adrian's compromise... even in the face of armageddon. It is an important story point that defines the characters, and I simply don't understand why Snyder allowed it to be changed. It didn't save time. It didn't better move the story ahead for film. There was no reason to alter it at all.

The second is having it be Jon's wristwatch instead of Janey's wristwatch that was left in the intrinsic field removal chamber. I can't fathom why Snyder would make this change. Janey's boyfriend was turned into a big blue freak who is emotionally vacant and walks around naked. Why would she get into a relationship with him? It's not like her and Jon had been dating and in love for years. What was it... a week? In the comic I felt she did it out of obligation. Jon became Dr. Manhattan because of her broken wristwatch. By removing this element, suddenly her relationship with Dr. Manhattan makes no sense to me. It also makes her sacrifice less meaningful because it undermines her loyalty to Jon. I can only guess Snyder did this because he felt it was a quicker way to tell the origin, but I disagree. It would have added maybe two seconds of dialogue to sneak in that fucking broken watch and keep the character's truer to the graphic novel, but instead it was discarded for no good reason (at least that I can see).

Maybe I'm just nit-picking, but those two changes were so glaring and incomprehensible that they acted like speed bumps in an otherwise smooth adaptation. The fact that they could have so easily been avoided make them all that more puzzling given how incredibly well thought-out the other changes were.

Regardless, this is a film that's worth your valuable time... even if you've never read the original comic. I am in awe of everybody involved who managed to do the impossible and bring the Watchmen to life. If only all comic book movies were this lucky.


Categories: Movies 2009Click To It: Permalink
   

Comments

  1. B.E. Earl says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more.

    I loved this film and I was genuinely surprised at that reaction, because I just thought it couldn’t be done.

    I thought the same thing when Dan went to go see Veidt, but I missed the second change you mentioned. I think I was in the middle of an incredible movie high at the time. 😉

    I don’t know why, but I was really looking forward to the fight in Antarctica when Veidt deflects a bullet with that dish/disc and then uses it as a frisbee type weapon. The scene still worked, but it’s those few panels in the comic that really stick with me.

    I’m choosing not to nit-pick, though. This thing more than lived up to the hype and I couldn’t be happier.

  2. Sybil Law says:

    I can’t wait to see this movie!!

  3. NYCWD says:

    I didn’t have a problem with Dan going to Adrian. The film had already been Rorschach heavy, so I welcomed the break of pace.

    I agree that the difference in watches makes a huge change to the dynamic. The fact that it was her watch, that he had taken home and fixed, in the chamber that “killed” him was what glued her to him. Otherwise, there’s really no reason for her to be with him if she didn’t want to be so there is no sacrifice on her part. Or so it seemed to me.

    Overall though, very true to the essence of the graphic novel and an excellent translation.

  4. I borrowed the original novel from a friend about two years ago and it still sits here on my desk unread. For shame. I’ll read it in its entirety tomorrow and then hurry to the movies. TO THE MOVIES!

  5. keith says:

    Dave,

    Just got home from the cinema. I have never read the books and now know that I was all the poorer without it. great review and dont you wish all adaptions where this good. I would like to think best adapted screenplay… but highly unlikely.

  6. kilax says:

    Now I want to read the actual comic book so I can pick up on the changes you mentioned, especially the changes in the ending!

  7. Avitable says:

    The reason that I think they had Dan go to tell him was two-fold. One, it kept Dan in the story a bit more since they cut out a lot of his meetings with the original Night Owl. Secondly, there was something that Adrian said during that meeting that I seem to remember was important for Dan at a later date.

    The ending was the biggest flaw to me. I can’t comprehend why Snyder didn’t see that the real-life reaction to an attack by an American superman would be for the world to band together against America. The squid could have been done and would have made more sense. I also felt that the scene at the end between Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan was off – the tension wasn’t there. I still enjoyed it quite a bit, though.

  8. Mary Sue says:

    It appears I am the only person on the entire planet who caught the fact that the free energy reactor thingie was acronymed S.Q.U.I.D.

  9. ajooja says:

    I was waiting until I saw the film before I read your post.

    I didn’t know much about the characters beforehand and it still worked for me. I loved it.

  10. I caught the Dan bit and thought, “Hmmmmm, that’s an odd choice” but it didn’t really bother me. The watch I didn’t catch, although I think that part of the reason you’re bothered is that you know how long they knew each other, how much it really was early days for them. In the movie they don’t deal with that and I suspect that people who haven’t read the book will just assume that they’ve been together for a long time. Your interpretation of their relationship in book makes total sense to me, although admittedly I didn’t read it like that when I read the book.

    I did have my own “watch” moment. So I’m watching the beginning were our “mystery guest” is whaling away on the Comedian, more so than is needed to kill him, and I’m thinking, “Wow, this is great – showing the anger that Adrian has towards Blake after Blake beat the crap out of him when they first met (something that I thought Adrian alluded to at the end of the book). Can’t wait to see how they make that tie in at the end.”

    And then…they didn’t.

    It was just a small thing, had no bearing on whether I thought the movie was good or not, just seemed like a missed opportunity. But then, with a story as dense as Watchmen, I suppose there will always be plenty of those…and I suspect that people who interpreted that small scene in the book differently than I did probably won’t notice it in the movie, much less care one way or another.

    I liked the movie on the whole and was pleasantly surprised by the casting choices (Adrian and Laurie in particular I had had doubts about before seeing the movie – silly me, I shouldn’t have worried); the changes, for the most part, were fine as far as I was concerned.

    Excellent review, dude.

  11. Dewey says:

    Very satisfied with it. Didn’t like the ending defiantly took away from the original, honestly I wanted to see how the alien would kill everyone with it’s psychic brain resonator and would amplify a signal pulse and broadcast it… terrible information. I wanted to see blood, but everyone was just animated. Maybe they’ll go into more details of the massive explosion.

    Can’t wait for the 40 mins of extended footage directors cut.
    Lots of stuff they just skimmed over.

  12. Belinda says:

    Well done, friend. My experience was slightly sullied by viewing in a theater full of tittering teenagers. I mean, I understand a giggle or two the first time you see a giant, nekkid blue guy. And maybe the second. But EVERY? SINGLE? TIME? that he appears on screen? Which is a LOT? Holy crap.

    An interesting note–my husband had never read the source material, so went in to the film as a blank slate. He remarked that the way the movie ended “felt a little off.” I thought that was interesting, considering that it WAS a little off.

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