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Entertainment / movies / March 9, 2009

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Watchmen is one of those movies that is so thoroughly slimed with promos and recycled opinions by the time it opens, you’re already sick of it. The film industry term for this is “a saturation release,” meaning a liquid shitstorm of hype covering every surface, oozing into every crevice of the known world. We’ve endured months of this carpet-bombing: all-media ads, star interviews, fan burblings, critical frettings over nudity, sex, violence, nihilism, and Alan Moore rumbling from his bunker in England, disavowing all future film adaptations of his work and predicting that this one will suck.

So when you finally see Watchmen, if your overall reaction is, “Meh,” you don’t know whether the movie itself is to blame for the tepid reaction, or whether the tepid reaction means it must’ve been pretty good because at least you weren’t actively retching throughout. Maybe see it again in a month or so, when they’ve hosed off the sidewalks and the yammering’s died down?

Provided you have another two hours and forty-two minutes to spare in a month or so. That’s the film’s insane running time.

Maybe stick with “meh.”


Watchmen, as the world now knows, is about a sort of emotionally disturbed justice league, a team of anti-heroes battling the dystopian forces of human savagery in an alternate-reality 1985. When the movie proper begins, Nixon’s still president, America’s won the Viet Nam War but is facing off with Russia on the brink of nuclear catastrophe, and the anti-hero team has, ironically, been forced out of action by a law forbidding masked vigilantism. They’re reunited at the funeral of one of their members, the chuckling, raping, kill-happy soldier of fortune called the Comedian, aka Edward Blake (played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan with enjoyable brio). Scary right-wing vigilante Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) suspects that somebody’s hunting anti-heroes and sets out to hunt the hunters.

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As the world also knows, this film is based on the seminal mid-‘80s graphic novel written by Alan Moore (League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, From Hell, V for Vendetta) and illustrated by Dave Gibbons. It posited the “superhero” as a regular screwed-up git, and is credited with ratcheting up levels of narrative complexity and psychological twistedness to challenging heights. There’s been lots of stealing from this source material ever since (The Incredibles, Mystery Men, Hancock), which is another reason why you might say “meh” to the movie. Even if you haven’t read the graphic novel, the whole thing seems vaguely familiar.

If you have read the source material, you see how faithful director Zack Snyder (300) and his team have tried to be. Some say too faithful, though presumably not the fan-purists. In certain ways the attempts at fidelity pay off: the opening of the film’s pretty good, nicely cutty and dense and richly art-designed, finding lively ways to approximate Moore’s flashback structures and multiple narrative lines as well as Gibbons’ vivid color scheme. We get the recreation of the Comedian’s murder (brutal beating, hurled through plate glass window, twenty-story drop to pavement-splatter, counterpointed by Nat King Cole’s dreamy song “Unforgettable”) plus a fast run through Watchmen history back to 1940, with humorous Weegee-inspired frames of crime-fighting mayhem, all presented in a pleasant rush.

You pay for the inventive frontloading, however. Most of the rest of the movie stretches out like the Gobi Desert, one hell of a plod between oases.

Because in many ways fidelity turns out to be the enemy, accounting for cruelly boring expanses filled with chapter-and-verse exposition and plot points that occurred in the novel but didn’t seem to have nearly the same moronic prominence. No wonder Moore kept insisting that the plot was the least interesting thing about his novel. There are endless scenes, for example, with Ozymandias, aka Adrian Veidt (supposedly the smartest man in the world but not smart enough to have an unexpressed thought, apparently) explaining his intentions and actions and future plans at such absurd length they belong in an Austin Powers parody. The actor playing him, Matthew Goode, is triply cursed by a prissy lack of charisma, a stupid outfit, and a long-eared arctic-tiger pet that looked sorta cool in Gibbons’ drawings but now appears to be a cute animated stuffed toy, raising the lameness quotient to the sky.

Don’t pin your hopes on the sex and violence, either. I don’t know what everybody’s on about—I guess the R-rating has given people big expectations—but believe me, if you watch action films much, there’s nothing special going on here, gore-wise. It’s just another day at the office. As for the full-frontal nudity, it doesn’t even count, really, when it involves a big blue naked guy (Billy Crudup + CGI as Dr. Manhatten/Jon Osterman) talking in soothing tones about how human existence is a highly overrated phenomenon. We agree, for the record, but nobody could call the effect of his many pronouncements exciting, johnson or no johnson.

drmanhatten

Snyder, you’d swear, has no idea what works and what doesn’t, judging by the way he allots screen time. For example, he stages an interminable sex scene between the two most boring anti-heroes, Silk Spectre/Laurie Jupiter and Nite Owl II/Dan Dreibrug. Yes, the scene was in the novel, but it took up about five frames. Here they’re humping away for several minutes to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (which is the go-to song for every other movie and TV show lately—I just heard it used in a rerun of Scrubs). Okay, I admit that scene was pretty funny, so it gets a few points for entertainment value.

But these characters are also played by tragically low-wattage actors. Patrick Wilson as Nite Owl is good at portraying the dejected, schlumpy Dreiburg, but he brings exactly the same sad-sack quality to Nite Owl when in costume fighting evil. And Malin Akerman as Silk Spectre was clearly cast for her resemblance to the Gibbons drawings and her ability to fill the vinyl-and-spandex outfit. She can’t act at all, but she’s got more screen time here than Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice.

Contrast these stiffs with Jackie Earle Haley, aka The Main Reason to See This Film. He’s great. He’s playing the masked vigilante Rorschach, and it’s too bad he’s masked, because that means you only get to look at his wonderful, eerie face in a few scenes. He’s got this long, weird head, with high cheekbones, pale, pitted skin, and pale green eyes; it looks like the face of one of those hick sociopathic killers from 1930s mugshots. His head’s too big for his small, narrow body, which also looks vintage 1930s with its hard-labor kind of muscles. The phrase “he’d kill you as soon as look at you” was made for this guy.

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You get to see him in all his glory in the prison scene midway through the movie. The hardcase prisoners are overjoyed and sharpening their shivs for him. But in a cafeteria confrontation, he tells them they don’t understand who’s in danger: he’s not locked in with THEM, they’re locked in with HIM. Oh, it’s beautiful how Haley pulls that off, all skinny five-feet-five of him. Don’t try this at Juvenile Hall, kids. You’ve got to have the fathomless eyes that only genuine insanity—or a gift for impersonating genuine insanity—can bestow.

Haley’s triumph here reminds me of how Mickey Rourke locked down the right tone for Sin City almost single-handedly, indicating the possibilities for a better movie, one not cluttered up with a cast of thousands of Josh Hartnetts and Brittany Murphys and other clueless shmoes. If you just kept Haley and Jeffrey Dean Morgan and then did some major recasting of Watchmen, and if you took the opening and decided to make the whole film fast and flashback-filled and feverishly-colored, and you got very fierce and irreverent and cut all the ponderous dialogue to the bone…well, too late now.

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Anyway, this is the kind of movie that people are going to mob to regardless, and decide for themselves what to think about it, and add their opinions to the opinion-slime gunking up this film experience, just like I’ve done. Because frankly, there’s nothing else playing out there but Elle Fanning in Phoebe in Wonderland, and that’s one movie we’re all willing to leave in its pure, unhyped, unwatched, undiscussed state.

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27 Comments

Add your own

  • 1. Sriram  |  March 8th, 2009 at 10:56 pm

    I’ll be reading the comic book again

  • 2. mechagodzilla  |  March 9th, 2009 at 12:32 am

    One of those times I’m glad I’m out of the country;

    Totally out of range of the entire marketing field.

  • 3. Baltimoron  |  March 9th, 2009 at 3:29 am

    The Nite Owl/Silk Spectre sex scene was revolting. Rather than communicating passion or the characters’ desperate desire for youth/excitement/intimacy, it simply had the camera lingering too long on thrusting body parts. It was shot from the perspective of a leering old mall pervert. Snyder is clearly too much of a hack to depict sex in any fashion other than as pornography.

    You’re dead-on about Haley; both his appearance and performance. Watching him do Rorschach perfectly is almost worth the price of admission, and certainly worth the time spent BitTorrenting an advance copy. It’ll never happen, but we can always hope that someone in Hollywood looks at Haley and has the same thought you did about him looking like the archetypal 1930s peckerwood miscreant and dreaming up a realistic gangster movie to serve both as a vehicle for the man’s talent and a counterpoint to the upcoming Depp/Bale Dillinger monstrosity.

  • 4. harv  |  March 9th, 2009 at 3:30 am

    fuck them

  • 5. Plamen Petkov  |  March 9th, 2009 at 3:55 am

    Never cared for Alan Moore’s writing; it always reminded me of mathematics; too structured into rigid straight lines and I have never read the Watchmen; I tend to stay away from stuff that’s too popular, it’s a sure sign of “lowest common denominator”, so I guess I shall be skipping this one as well.
    The MOST amusing thing of the whole business is the people who say they are fans of Moore yet they can’t stop talking about this movie like it’s the greatest thing since the first Batman; since Moore has disavowed it shouldn’t they also be refusing to see it? Never said people were logical or made sense.

  • 6. cobblers  |  March 9th, 2009 at 6:23 am

    I didn’t like the claustrophobic, painfully stylized graphic novel when I read it in the early ’90s. The apocalyptic plot struck me as uncomfortably reminiscent of Atlas Shrugged. I think I’ll give this one a pass.

  • 7. Col. Richard Hindrance (Mrs)  |  March 9th, 2009 at 6:24 am

    Never cared for Plamen Petkov’s writing; it always reminded me of a barely-comprehensible pretentious tosser trying too hard to act intellectual and aloof.

    Oh Plamen, you’re so cool. I wish I was like you. Can I be your gimp?

  • 8. Captain Chimichanga  |  March 9th, 2009 at 7:01 am

    This is now the third review I’ve read this morning that uses the phrase “seminal graphic novel.” How irritating.

    Stop pretending that this isn’t the best film that Hollywood has produced in at least the last two years.

    If you thought parts were boring or couldn’t handle an extra 40 minutes for your money, there is something wrong with you.

    It’s a movie about comic-book superheroes. Stop taking it so damn seriously.

  • 9. Woz  |  March 9th, 2009 at 10:45 am

    Captain –
    Considering that the graphic novel was smart and engaging, people expected the same of the movie. But you can’t expect the average dope to understand existential philosophy or basic psychology for that matter.

    So they dumb it down and its not that good. Slumdog Millionaire was much better (although it didn’t deserve the Oscars).

  • 10. derriick  |  March 9th, 2009 at 11:39 am

    i hat it when people don’t say a thing about being over saturated with ads and bullshit. stop watching TV you idiot. the excuse that you cant escape it is malarkey.

  • 11. BingoMath  |  March 9th, 2009 at 11:42 am

    a lot of marketing with this movie!

  • 12. Tam  |  March 9th, 2009 at 2:19 pm

    I really don’t get why anyone’s made this film. Yes, people like me who grew up reading too many comic books love this book because it’s a smart critique of the junk we grew up with as kids. But I’m not sure why anyone who wasn’t obsessed with all that stuff would care about seeing superheroes ‘deconstructed’. It’s like looking at those Andy Warhol prints without knowing about Campbell’s Soup or Marilyn Monroe. That said, there probably is an interesting, resonant film to be made from the book given its vast scope, but this isn’t it.

    As an aside, The Incredibles, which, (as Eileen pointed out) is heavily influenced by Watchmen is a far more fascinating film. I’ve never seen such an all-American nasty tribute to fascism and superior firepower as that film, and in time to come I suspect it might come to be viewed much as ‘Triumph of the Will’ is today.

  • 13. Campbell Roark  |  March 9th, 2009 at 5:32 pm

    this film was a flaming piece of shit. It’s not at all faithful to Moore’s story:

    1. the ending is entirely different.

    2. the origin of Rorshach’s “face”- which Moore tied to the Kitty Genovese slaying in 1964- the mask he wears is cut from a dress she had ordered… that is cut wholesale, as is the transformative way in which R. kills his first bad-guy (I guess they thought it was too much like SAW- even though I’m pretty sure they stole that premise from the Watchmen comic…

    3. DR. manhattan’s origin and his beautifully cold, Houellebecq-esque nihilistic pronouncements on humanity’s worth are abrogated more or less entirely, the chapter wherein he ruminates upon the chance of his becoming, and the one where he takes

    4. Whoever did the music for this film should be beaten with a paintbucket and have their genitals ground to pulp with a cheese grater and a firm touch- the fucking riot set to KC and the sunshine band’s “I’m yer boogie man”? What. the fuck. Not to mention Simon & G’s “Sounds of Silence” treacle ruining the comedian’s funeral. Oh and using “Flight of the Valkyries” for the Vietnam scenes… Naw, that’s not the most obviously lame, bald-faced/flatfooted fucken play for cred I’ve ever seen…

    5. the dialogue was completely reworked leaving no cliche unturned, no banality unobserved, no bathos undistlled.

    6.The android they designed to play Veidt can’t pronounce the letter “R.” Which, when taken with his limpid, sterile performance makes the character detestable in the extreme.

    And that’s just the first 6 things that pop in my head. If you dug this shitfest then probably like Don Delillo novels and The fucking Strokes. Hollywood is now 4 for 4 in their unabashed sabotage of Moore’s genius. I stand by The Wall Street Journal for the first time: “Watching ‘Watchmen’ is the spiritual equivalent of being whacked on the skull for 163 minutes. The reverence is inert, the violence noxious, the mythology murky, the tone grandiose, the texture glutinous.”

    Well put.

  • 14. WhereToDownloadGames  |  March 9th, 2009 at 7:18 pm

    great review, don’t believe the hype.

  • 15. jake1  |  March 9th, 2009 at 8:27 pm

    I agree with #13. And then some.In 1986 I was a freshman in high school and a huge x-men fan until some guy gave me the first six issues of Watchmen. I have never read an x-men comic since. The Watchmen is the solitary reason that people take comic books seriously today and Zach Snyder just took a monster dump on all of that. I actually walked out of the theater after 20 minutes and finished it at home as it was intended to be seen….as a shitty camcorder bootleg on the internet.I personally wouldnt have minded if he’d taken certain liberties with the movie as long as he left its most defining trait intact. Its intelligence. But no. This one was for all the Wolverine fans out there.No deep thinking required. Subtlety need not apply. Having trouble figuring things out? Then lets let the smartest characters let loose with some seriously wooden exposition. That shits just for fags anyway, right? Wouldnt want to take time away from another gratuitous slow-mo kung-fu fight or that skinemax style sex scene. And the actors? I mean…DAMN! When a dude in a mask steals the show acting-wise, you know its bad. Snyder should stick to gay porn period pieces and leave the smart stuff to people who,like, i dunno….make movies for people who like smart stuff. This movie is strictly for douchebaggy middle america, which has already declared it a winner. I cant wait til Hollywood ruins Miracleman.

  • 16. Tam  |  March 10th, 2009 at 4:57 am

    Campbell:

    If you’re interested in Kitty Genovese, then also check out Harlan Ellison’s chilling ‘The Whimper of Whipped Dogs’ short story, if you haven’t already.
    Actually come to think of it, much of the worldbuilding of watchmen is borrowed from 60s science fiction authors like Vonnegut and Dick so that was probably the inspiration for Rorscharch too.

  • 17. MoheganSunHotelCasino  |  March 10th, 2009 at 6:29 am

    the graphic novels was better.

  • 18. phew  |  March 10th, 2009 at 9:46 am

    Gosh, I’m glad I don’t live in the US.

  • 19. Plamen Petkov  |  March 10th, 2009 at 9:46 am

    to Col. Richard Hindrance (Mrs):

    Why don’t you comment on the subject but instead choose to attack me? Come on fartbrain, here is MY email petkov00@gmail.com, let me see you write to me and see how far you can get with me. Challenge is open. next move is yours. I am waiting.

  • 20. abelincoln  |  March 10th, 2009 at 2:15 pm

    i totally agree with the asshole-ripping comments but… who cares? the comic still exists untainted, we just get another movie. and really i couldn’t imagine any director doing the comic justice.

  • 21. Rammspieler  |  March 10th, 2009 at 5:40 pm

    abelincoln, the problem is that knowing how most people are lazy fucks who will wait for the movie to a novel to come out, a lot of people who’ve never read the graphic novel either because they are lazy or are too self conscious too read what is basically a comic book only hundreds of pages long and openly admit it, will go see the movie to see what all the nerds are talking about. Then they’ll see it and take it for granted thinking that what they see in the movie (all artistic/budget/time constraint liberties aside) is an actual representation of what the book is about and think it was all a waste of time and that the real fans are idiots for saying what they say about it.

    I know I get pissed every time I hear people lauding the film version of V for Vendetta even though for the Wachiowski Bros. it was nothing more than yet another exercise in “bullet-time” photography and making the then mandatory “Fuck You,Bush” movie that every Hollywood director/producer had to make. Undoubtedly most people went to see it just because it was made by the same guys who made the Matrix trilogy and not because they actually read the original graphic novel.

  • 22. Boxxyfan  |  March 13th, 2009 at 2:02 pm

    Russian dubbing is so fucking lame, exept maybe for Manhattan, and the whole movie is just too long and tedious. Also, nor heard the hype nor about the graphic novel.

  • 23. James  |  March 14th, 2009 at 7:38 pm

    “I didn’t like the claustrophobic, painfully stylized graphic novel when I read it in the early ’90s. The apocalyptic plot struck me as uncomfortably reminiscent of Atlas Shrugged.”

    Rorschach is based on an objectivist character, Mr. A. Alan Moore could hardly be described as a Randroid, though….

  • 24. Doom  |  March 15th, 2009 at 1:05 pm

    Rorschach was based on the Question.

  • 25. captain america  |  March 15th, 2009 at 7:38 pm

    um…i liked it. thought it was great, actually. except for the ending, which made even less sense than the ending in the graphic novel.

    the scene where dr. manhattan is comtemplating his past on mars was just beautiful. so much so that i had to shhhh the teenagers behind me who insisted on yacking through the whole movie up to that point.

  • 26. yal  |  March 19th, 2009 at 12:47 pm

    I just did a saturated release this morning after eating a chili dog and supreme breakfast burrito.

  • 27. Green  |  April 6th, 2009 at 7:52 pm

    The reason to watch renditions of books as movies is because what the director is supposed to do is add their own creativity.

    I liked Watchmen the book. The screenshots are tempting me to watch the movie, but I know that the director of this movie has no ability when it comes to making movies (has anybody seen 300, good thing you haven’t).

    I do agree based on the screenshot of Rorschach above that he is done well.


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