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Friday, March 06, 2009

Watchmen is, as feared, a creative failure. There's a lot that's already been said about this and a lot still to be said, but here in brief is my take on what went wrong.

The first half of the film, as I put it to our group shortly after leaving the theater, is not even terrible. It's just completely unremarkable—a perfectly slavish adaptation of the comic that holds about the same level of critical interest as a high school theater club production of Watchmen might. (This is, of course, a little too glib—there are numerous things about the first half that are in fact actively terrible, most notably the soundtrack and most of the acting, but let those slide for now.) The effort to recreate panel-by-panel the experience of reading the comic is impressive in its dedication but doubly wrongheaded, because (a) it will always fail to achieve perfect fidelity, and therefore fail to satisfy and (b) films are not comics, they are films. The point (if Watchmen must be made into a film at all) is not to "make the pictures move" but to translate from one media to another. Translation in this case would entail studying and appreciating the moves Moore and Gibbons make in the comic and then finding analogous moves that speak to/against cinematic form; it's not about doing a shot-for-panel remake.

One of the best shots in the film is therefore a shot of a door slowly swinging open and closed, allowing us momentary glimpses inside a closed space the camera does not enter. It's a shot that nicely evokes comics without using the already hackneyed slow-everything-down-to-the-speed-of-panels technique, while at the same time being something comics cannot themselves do. Sadly, there's hardly anything else like this moment in Watchmen, as Snyder relies almost entirely on slo-mo and failed attempts at direct quotation throughout.

That's the first half of the film: not even terrible.

The second half—beginning approximately at the moment of a laughable sex scene during which (among other things) the film's bad soundtrack completely jumps the shark—is terrible, precisely because it ventures away from inoffensive slavish fidelity to plot changes and directorial choices that completely misunderstand the very point of Watchmen. And no, I'm not talking about the squid. I'm talking about:

* the replacement of the Schmittian friend-enemy logic in favor of very poorly explained God-is-watching-you-so-be-good silliness;
* the inability of the filmmakers to let the characters fail as the theme demands they must, most notably in the case of the filmic Nite Owl pointedly not signing on to Ozymandias's scheme (but for some reason being allowed to leave Antarctica anyway);
* a general (if inevitable) dumbing down (instanced for example in the switch from "Robert Redford" to "Ronald Reagan" in the last scene, almost certainly because it was feared that the audience wouldn't get the reference).

Even "I did it thirty-five minutes ago" is bungled; the line is delivered, at which time we jump to a countdown-in-progress. The anti-simultaneity was the entire point. This isn't hard.

If Watchmen the comic deconstructs the superhero, does Watchmen the film? Not at all. The characters' rough edges have all been sanded away, leaving little more than generic action movie badasses that (in our theater at least) were getting cheers in all the wrong places. Both Rorschach and Nite Owl, in different ways, remain uncomplicatedly and conventionally "heroic" in word, deed, and presentation—with plot and dialogue changes shoehorned in whenever necessary to keep it that way—and if you were going to make a Watchmen in which such a thing were possible, you really shouldn't have made the film at all.

And did I mention the soundtrack? Unbelievably bad.