**/**** Image A Sound A Extras B+
starring Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Carla Gugino
screenplay by David Hayter and Alex Tse, based on the graphic novel by ALAN MOORE and Dave Gibbons
directed by Zack Snyder
by Walter Chaw It knows the notes but doesn't hear the music. Watchmen, Zach Snyder's long-awaited, over-hyped adaptation of Alan Moore's venerated graphic novel, is technically proficient and occasionally beautiful-looking but also flat and nerveless. It has no heart and, more damning, no real understanding of the irony of itself, save for a title sequence set to the tune of Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'" that's bound to be the best five minutes I'm going to see in any movie this year. In this stirring montage, a travelogue through the three ages of comics against the backdrop of American history, Snyder captures the idea that what Moore accomplished in casting a conversation about idol-making through the most populist medium of pop culture is in fact translatable through film, this other most populist medium of pop culture. Where the picture missteps is in restoring the superhero group Watchmen to the heavens, resurrecting pop icons in impossible, perfect, virtual tableaux: the character designs are impeccable, the suits are clean, and the violence is obscene, yes, but glossy enough that when things stop for a moment to delve into one character's appalling creation story, it feels unearned and exploitive--so much so that the question that fast follows of why the rest of it feels removed and inhuman almost derails the entire enterprise. Coming from a guy who more admires the Moore source than loves it, it occurs to me that Watchmen is a movie made by Dr. Manhattan; it should've been made by Rorschach.
Freeze any frame of the film and find in it the panel that inspired it. With each section separated by grabs from the covers of the comic book's initial run, fanboys should have no quarrel with the fidelity of the piece--but the reaction to the picture will likely continue to be fairly muted, as devotees of the graphic novel didn't exactly appreciate it for its slickness and sexiness. I'd hazard that what attracted people to the book is that Moore's vision is one of absolute respect for the power of the image in molding human history. Snyder does seem to understand this in restaging the Kennedy assassination with one of his masked heroes as the culprit, drawing a line pure and true from Zapruder's inauguration of film as history to the comic-book medium's inextricable hold on the collective imagination-in-formation. The power of Moore's work is that it takes the divine and, like Milton's mission, explains the ways of these gods to men in terms that men can understand: they're corrupted by their power and governed by their avarice and the essential baseness of being human. This sentiment is all but jettisoned, alas, by the time Snyder recasts the pathetic victories of sexually-reawakened schlub Night Owl (Patrick Wilson) and paramour Silk Spectre (a severely overmatched Malin Akerman) as triumphant victories. Watchmen--filthy with its director's now-trademark ramping technique--sees itself as a superhero adaptation of a human book. The failures of these characters are just weaknesses our übermenchen must overcome, not the foibles and hubris that lead to their downfall--and ours.The picture makes icons that are impossible to identify with. As They mourn and rail, it's the preface to heroism as opposed to the portent of doom. Should it be "wicked cool" when omniscient, omnipotent Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) causes Charlie to explode with a wave of the hand, or should it be laden with the kind of ambivalence and dread that imbues a statement identifying Dr. Manhattan with "God is real, and he's an American"? (A statement that strikes the same chord as Oppenheimer's invocation of the Bhagavad-Gita: "I have become death, the destroyer of worlds." He was an American, too.) Maybe Watchmen fails because it comes at the end of a cycle of superhero films; maybe it fails because Bryan Singer already did it better with Superman Returns. Accordingly, characters like The Comedian (an excellent Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley, ditto) don't exist in a grey area as sociopathic, pregnant-women-killing, convict-deep-frying, mask-wearing freaks (as they do in The Dark Knight, for the most obvious example) but are instead glorified in this bleakly ironic stroke as the very golden calves Moore sought to dissect. The bedevilling conundrum of filming Watchmen isn't its non-linear storyline, its broad shifts in tone, its scope, its explicit sex, blue full-frontal nudity, or gruesome violence. No, the conundrum of Watchmen is that it's a commentary on idol-making in our culture, the near-instant transformation of any atrocity and cause into buzzwords and ad art--and yet, armed with all that mainframe memory and truckloads of cash, the temptation is to turn Watchmen into an exercise in idolatry. Rorschach, deeply unpleasant and clearly unhinged, is seen in the film as an antihero rather than as something sad and dangerous. The Comedian, a rapist and murderer, becomes the voice, completely without irony, of the American Dream's unravelling.
Consider a moment where The Comedian arrives to dispel a crowd of protestors in a Nixonian 1985 (Tricky Dick is on his fourth term, buoyed there we gather by a victory in Vietnam courtesy God-like Dr. Manhattan), shot by Snyder exactly like Kilgore's arrival on the beach in Apocalypse Now but granted here the lustre of a bona fide hero's arrival. It's possible that Watchmen serves merely as a reflection of a cynicism so ingrained in our culture that it's nigh impossible to create ironic heroes--possible, too, that because we're saturated with these indelible, iconic images from popular culture, we're no longer able to resist cheering the well-staged homage. See the scene in Forrest Gump taking its cue from Midnight Cowboy for another example of what can happen when the sign is violently divorced from the signifier. Or maybe all heroes in 2009 are ironic to us and subject to instant suspicion and mistrust--but what about The Dark Knight? Or Hancock? Isn't it possible, too, to have dark heroes who represent to us the potential in the midst of all that chaos and ambiguity to embody a notion of hope, however tenuous? Perhaps that's beside the point, since Watchmen fails because it never suggests a product of mature conception. It's the computer that plays Rachmaninoff.
For the uninitiated, Watchmen opens with the murder of The Comedian, setting off self-styled hardboiled gumshoe Rorschach to launch an investigation into what he suspects might be a vendetta against masked vigilantes, who were once allowed to flourish in this askew United States. His voiceover advances the narrative (bits from a journal he keeps read like a cross between Dashiell Hammett and Arthur Machen), and it's through his providence that we meet the surviving members of the eponymous legion of superheroes as he seeks to warn them before whatever it is does whatever it wants to do. While the basic twist of the thing is still taken from one of the best hours of the original "The Outer Limits" called "The Architects of Fear" (which Moore references directly--the film only obliquely), the much-discussed revised ending of Snyder's film is actually a marked improvement on the graphic novel's. After 2.5+ hours of flashbacks and interlacing stories (and really, is this difficult for anyone reared on five seasons and counting of "Lost"?), its new sting has about it an utterly modern, completely sensible conclusion to the sense of doom that a creature like Dr. Manhattan should have engendered in the first place. It plays on a culture of fear, not of the unknown "out there" but of the unknown within--the one distinguished by our essential inability to understand the products of our hand anymore. One thing to puzzle out the mechanics of levers and axles, another altogether to explain Blu-rays and Ethernets. The rest of Watchmen--book-ended as it is by a wonderful opening and a solid conclusion (though a long fight in the arctic between three antagonists is distended and moronic)--is a wax effigy and a camp curio. A piffle, a pittance, and everything of which critics of comic-book movies accuse the genre, it's faithful in every way except the poetry and philosophy. It's sleek when it should be ugly and its darkness is a child's impression of nihilism. The movie's all about the jerking-off, not the yawning emptiness and self-loathing that immediately follows. It's pretty. And it means nothing to me. Originally published: March 6, 2009.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Warner brings Watchmen to Blu-ray in its breathlessly-awaited Director's Cut. (Churlish of me to complain, then, that there's no option to view the theatrical cut?*) I can't imagine anyone still on the fence about the film being swayed in either direction by the additional 24 minutes, which most memorably consist of a (superfluous) bit where Laurie is interrogated on a military base in an attempt to smoke out Jon--thus facilitating an earlier segue into the Mars sequence with Dr. Manhattan's origin story--and another where the O.G. Nite Owl is beaten to death by Knot Tops to the strains of "Cavelleria rusticana." If you consider that "cavelleria rusticana" translates as "rustic chivalry," it's kind of moving that Hollis flashes to his rose-tinted crimefighting days as he lands a few stray punches in self-defense; if you consider Scorsese's definitive use of this music in Raging Bull, the moment becomes considerably more hacky. There are some added shots of the street vendor and the black kid reading a comic book outside his newsstand (though the animated "Tales of the Black Freighter" has not, contrary to rumour, been integrated into the narrative as in the graphic novel), and to my mind they have the unfortunate effect of drawing attention to how thoroughly the movie marginalizes people of colour. I guess I'm saying I don't much care for the new material, although its biggest offense is perhaps that it throws off the pacing of a film I thought hummed along rather nicely in its previous form.
Positioned by the hype machine as a vaunted "killer app," this set unfortunately requires a player equipped with BD Live or BonusView to get the full effect. (I'm really behind the times with my BDP S300, I admit.) Without the Zack Snyder-hosted "In Movie Experience," a promising interactive mélange of storyboards, trivia, behind-the-scenes footage, and plain old commentary, Blu-ray users are left to peruse a series of HiDef "Focus Points"--running 3-5 minutes apiece and numbering fewer than usual (there are 10 in total)--all too cursory in their alleged "focus." The clip called "Blue Monday," for instance, doesn't go much farther than showing Billy Crudup in a jumpsuit covered with LEDs in explaining the F/X achievement that is Dr. Manhattan. Conversely, too much attention is devoted to who-gives-a-shit? minutiae, like how they were able to light one stuntman ablaze for the prison riot using fire gel. (Not exactly a magic trick that hasn't been explained before, that.) I will say I enjoyed the segment embarrassingly titled "Girls Kick Ass" due to its glimpses of Carla Gugino posing for faux pin-ups; where's a step-frame gallery when you actually want one? At any rate, that's the first disc, not counting the feature film itself. Presented in a 2.40:1, 1080p transfer with 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, it looks and sounds almost drably unimpeachable. This thing was destined for showrooms anyway, but make no mistake, it deserves to be. Demo moments? Just press play. An ad pimping the Blu-ray releases of The Dark Knight, 300, Watchmen, and the Harry Potter series cues up on startup.
Disc 2 contains a gratifying trio of featurettes, starting with "The Phenomenon: The Comic That Changed the World" (29 mins., HD). Herein, various DC executives past and present lick their chops as they reflect on Watchmen's success in terms of sales figures and various civilians throw in their two cents--which in the case of the lead singer from My Chemical Romance is slightly more than what his opinion's worth to me. Still, an OK "Dummies"-style primer on the comic and its influence, though I take issue with artist Dave Gibbons's opinion--one that feeds into an aggrandizement of Snyder's film that eventually overtakes the piece--that the time was ripe now that we've had all these comic-book movies for Watchmen to come along and deconstruct them, since that neglects the subversive achievements of Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and Superman Returns. In "Real Super Heroes: Real Vigilantes" (26 mins., HD), we meet a pair of real-life costumed crusaders, i.e., Tothian and Ecliptico. Interestingly, they're less the butt of a joke than another example of the deadly earnestness that plagues both sides of the vigilante divide. Much food for thought here as the Bernard Goetz shootings are exhumed and the effectuality of the police force is studiously debated.
Lastly is the formidably entertaining "Mechanics: Technologies of a Fantastic World" (17 mins., HD), in which James Kakalios, a Minnesota-based physics professor who served as technical advisor on Watchmen as part of the National Academy of Sciences and Engineering's 'Hollywood matchmaking' program, talks about the credibility or lack thereof of the film's science. Offering up a "miracle exemption" that allows each character one impossible act, he reveals, for example, that Nite Owl's ship could fly, but would require an energy source in the neighbourhood of 5000 gallons of gasoline to travel from New York to Antarctica. I love that he makes Dr. Manhattan, from his blue glow to his teleportation skills, sound utterly plausible and Rorschach's grappling hook sound outlandish, and his enthusiasm is beyond infectious. The video for "Desolation Row" by My Chemical Romance (3 mins., HD) rounds out the platter; I didn't listen to it, but it's in Dolby Surround. A DVD inside the keepcase sports a Digital Copy of Watchmen. Originally published: July 23, 2009.
*A reader informs me that the bundled Digital Copy is actually the theatrical cut, but that's still not as good as having it in full 1080p.