Skip to main content

You're reading a comic book? What are you, retarded?

Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut
(2009)

(SPOILERS) It’s a decade since the holy grail of comic books finally fought through decades of development hell to land on the big screen, via Zach Snyder’s faithful but not faithful enough for the devoted adaptation. Many then held the director’s skills with a much more open mind than they do now – following the ravages he has inflicted on the DCEU – coming as he was off the back of the well-received 300. Many subsequently held that his Watchmen, while visually impressive, had entirely missed the point (not least in some of its stylistic and aesthetic choices). I wouldn’t go that far – indeed, for a director whose bombastic approach is often only a few notches down from Michael Bay (who was, alarmingly, also considered to direct at one point), there are sequences in Watchmen that show tremendous sensitivity – but it’s certainly the case that, even or especially in its Ultimate Cut form and for all the furore the change to the end of the story provoked, respect for the comic book at times gets in the way of telling a good movie.

The most mystifying thing in hindsight is the thought that this cult property would make enough dough (at least initially) to justify the expense lavished on it; this is the kind of thinking that leads to disappointed studios tutting “Never again” when a TRON: Legacy of Blade Runner 2049 doesn’t make the kind of waves expected (both did decent business – indeed, I’d say surprisingly so given the cult branding – but they simply cost too much). Watchmen’s second week drop suggests a sizeable portion of the audience though they were getting a superhero movie of the kind they most definitely were not, whatever lustrous sheen Snyder may have worked across the surface.

I managed not to read the graphic novel until the year leading up to the movie’s release, so I didn’t come to Snyder’s adaptation with the decades of expectations and preconditions I might have; I certainly appreciated the uniqueness of Alan Moore (and Dave Gibbons’) work, but I wasn’t blown away by it, nor did I recognise it as some kind of hallowed object. So I was open-minded in terms of changes to the text, or even the dynamics of the material.

Terry Gilliam (who threw out a Sam Hamm time-altering draft) famously reached the conclusion that Watchmen was unfilmable, and that if it wasdone, it would probably best be a limited series for HBO (cue this year’s “sequel” to the comic). The notoriously disdainful (and disinterested) Moore commented around the time of the comic’s original release “what I’d like to explore is the areas that comics succeed in where no other media is capable of operating”, which didn’t bode well for an adaptation that could sum up its essence. Elsewhere, his collaborator, artist Gibbons, suggested it “became much more about the telling than the tale itself”, which, if Snyder – and those concentrating on the altered ending – misses something, it’s very much that. Because he treats the telling in a very literal, nuts-and-bolts fashion, in order to get that tale told. As a consequence, it does at times feel like “a thing of bits and pieces” as Richard Corliss put it, the irony being that Snyder is so clearly attempting to make it as much of “a whole” as possible (to the extent that there are three different cuts available).

To touch on some of the more salient issues with Snyder’s take, firstly and most famously, there’s the squid, or absence thereof, and it’s easy to see why it was shown the door. I’m not wholly convinced of the idea Moore appropriated from The Outer LimitsArchitects of Fear (but also found in Kurt Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan and Theodore Sturgeon’s Unite and Conquer), which he even references in the comic book – a cheap way of saying “I know, I know” before anyone else calls him out on it – whereby warring humanity unites in the face of a more salient threat (even with a fake alien invasion backstop conspiracy theorised for years now as a card in the elite’s arsenal). And that’s simply because there’s a “What happens then?” hanging over it – it’s nice for a punchy Outer Limits plot (where itdoesn’thappen), but if you have to spend time thinking about how long a truce would actually last… Well, it doesn’t vouch for either Veidt or Dr Manhattan as all that bright, really. The original leaves the problem of how Veidt will sustain the pretence (so they’ve got a giant dead squid... Are there any more in storage?) while the movie shifts the blame on Dr Manhattan, who absconds into the greater universe from Earth and so doesn’t leave the superpowers much to maintain their unified focus on. Which is essentially to say, I think Snyder swaps out a problematic ending for a problematic ending, but at least one that doesn’t invite immediate ridicule.

Then there’s the aesthetic, which on the one hand feels verycomic book, but on the other, works against the premise of depositing superheroes in a credible, faux-real world. Arguably, the latter’s veryfar from Snyder’s vision, slathered as it is in heightened, kinetic action and bold, vibrant cinematography. Which is to say, I enjoy watching his Watchmen world, but it provides no opportunity to explore the contrasts Moore was aiming for. An element of this is simply being realistic about trying to make Watchmen commercially viable (in which case, you get back to “Should it have been adapted at all?” – one might expect that Paul Greengrass’s version, for all the changes he sought to exact, would have been tonally closer to Moore). So bring on the speed-ramping as Night Owl and Silk Spectre beat the shit out of various assailants and hoodlums. There needs to be some recognisable superhero beats in a movie with this kind of budget; to expect otherwise would have been delusional. But it means that what we have is both out of place and well done for what it is (Snyder is nothing if not a decent action director, that is, when he’s not completely at a loss about what he’s trying to achieve – see Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice).

That’s only one part of it, though. The other is the violence. It’s perhaps unsurprising, given the chainsaw grue of the Dawn of the Dead remake (an all-time classic, edge-of-the-seat, heart-in-mouth opening sequence though) and hyper-violence of 300, but for some reason Snyder decided this would also be appropriate to Watchmen, a comic with very limited levels of “in panel” violence. Certainly, no bones snapping through flesh, chip-fat fryers in the face or arms severed at the elbow with a chainsaw. It’s not only gratuitous, it’s jarring and distracting, and more illustrative of the frat-splatter mentality he approaches Moore with than probably anything else in the movie, a kind of imaginative short circuit whereby everything reduces to the blunt and obvious (it’s there in the music cues too, since every choice is pretty much an over-used classic, rather limiting the opportunity to create new associations due to the baggage involved).

And yet, there are sequences where he gets the balance exactly right – the demise of the first Nite Owl, for example (not present in the cinema cut) has exactly the kind of necessary impact and restraint. Both the areas of action dynamics and violence rather highlight – as if it needs emphasising, given the broad cross section of his comic adaptations – that Snyder has a passion for the aesthetics over storytelling. And yet, the guy who sounds like an idiot when he talks about Batman’s motivation for killing in BvS also put Philip Glass to the sequence of Dr Manhattan’s genesis, whereby you can only remark upon a talent for the sublime (and to be honest, I don’t even object enormously to other choices here, like 99 Red Balloons or the clearly ironic Hallelujah to Night Owl and Silk Spectre’s admittedly rather adolescently staged sex scene). The opening montage to The Times They Are A Changing, over-obvious as it is, is also highly effective.

And as if it needs saying, two thirds of the leads are spot-on casting. Jackie Earle Haley is a perfect Rorschach – some have complained he’s turned into a more identifiably heroic character here, but I agree with those who put that essentially down to Moore coming up with a “hero” defined by a code and skillset, even if he isunhygienic – Patrick Wilson a reliably doughy Night Owl who looks straight out of Gibbons’ illustrations, Billy Crudup as Dr Manhattan gets to say he’s had at least twodecent big screen roles (Almost Famous’s golden god being the other), and Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the Comedian illustrates the blip that comes with a TV actor having a rare great movie role but entirely failing to develop it into anything further (he’s his generation’s Tom Selleck, basically, although Three Men and a Baby was more a big success than a great part). In each case, I don’t think you could have hoped for better personifications.

I’m not as down on Malin Ackerman as many either; I just don’t think she’s very well served by the adaption and what ends up on screen. The reveal about her parentage is rather perfunctory, lacking sufficient lead-in to make it impactive (and I’m never that convinced by its cachet in sparking Manhattan’s reinterest in humanity anyway). So it’s Matthew Goode’s Adrian Veidt/ Ozymandias where the movie really suffers. Goode’s good in other stuff, but here he’s giving off creepy potential bad guy vibes from his first scene. In addition to which, we don’t get enough of the character to explore his internal motivation; he’s wheeled on as an exposition engine at the appropriate moment, and that’s basically it.

But scene by scene, revisiting Watchmen reveals a movie awash with elements to like, much more so, I think, than dislike, even as the two opposing forces sometimes cohabit the same scene. I like the Dr Strangelove war room just as I don’t like those Nixon prosthetics. I like The Black Freighter animation hugely, but with hindsight, I don’t think Snyder’s found a way for it to seem sufficiently relevant to the main story (that may in part be because I don’t fully buy into it as an effective means of paralleling Veidt’s path, an antagonist fully aware of his actions and their effects, where as the Sea Captain is not, until it is too late).

On balance, I’d rather revisit Watchmen than most of the Marvel or the “proper” DC properties. If the former are very reliable, they’re rarely very surprising, and if the latter are tentatively finding their feet now they’re going in a non-uniform approach, that inevitably means they’re going to vary wildly in effectiveness. It’s a shame Snyder wore out his welcome by getting sucked into the “mainstream” comic properties, as he was perversely enable to display his tin ear for the characters (a gore hound is possibly not going to be the best benefactor for the Man of Steel). I doubt Watchmen is the best version of bringing an impossible property to the screen, but it still gets a lot more right than could have been realistically expected. I’m quite sure Damon Lindelof’s re-envisioning will be just as divisive, if for very different reasons, but the consideration in all these things should be, is it doing something interesting or worthwhile with the material, rather than whether it’s slaying a sacred cow. I’d say Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut is.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

They'll think I've lost control again and put it all down to evolution.

Time Bandits (1981) (SPOILERS) Terry Gilliam had co-directed previously, and his solo debut had visual flourish on its side, but it was with Time Bandits that Gilliam the auteur was born. The first part of his Trilogy of Imagination, it remains a dazzling work – as well as being one of his most successful – rich in theme and overflowing with ideas while resolutely aimed at a wide (family, if you like) audience. Indeed, most impressive about Time Bandits is that there’s no evidence of self-censoring here, of attempting to make it fit a certain formula, format or palatable template.

I never strangled a chicken in my life!

Rope (1948) (SPOILERS) Rope doesn’t initially appear to have been one of the most venerated of Hitchcocks, but it has gone through something of a rehabilitation over the years, certainly since it came back into circulation during the 80s. I’ve always rated it highly; yes, the seams of it being, essentially, a formal experiment on the director’s part, are evident, but it’s also an expert piece of writing that uses our immediate knowledge of the crime to create tension throughout; what we/the killers know is juxtaposed with the polite dinner party they’ve thrown in order to wallow in their superiority.

Oh, you got me right in the pantaloons, partner.

The Party (1968) (SPOILERS) Blake Edwards’ semi-improvisational reunion with Peter Sellers is now probably best known for – I was going to use an elephant-in-the-room gag, but at least one person already went there – Sellers’ “brown face”. And it isn’t a decision one can really defend, even by citing The Party ’s influence on Bollywood. Satyajit Ray had also reportedly been considering working with Sellers… and then he saw the film. One can only assume he’d missed similar performances in The Millionairess and The Road to Hong Kong ; in the latter case, entirely understandable, if not advisable. Nevertheless, for all the flagrant stereotyping, Sellers’ bungling Hrundi V Bakshi is a very likeable character, and indeed, it’s the piece’s good-natured, soft centre – his fledgling romance with Claudine Longet’s Michele – that sees The Party through in spite of its patchy, hit-and-miss quality.

Never lose any sleep over accusations. Unless they can be proved, of course.

Strangers on a Train (1951) (SPOILERS) Watching a run of lesser Hitchcock films is apt to mislead one into thinking he was merely a highly competent, supremely professional stylist. It takes a picture where, to use a not inappropriate gourmand analogy, his juices were really flowing to remind oneself just how peerless he was when inspired. Strangers on a Train is one of his very, very best works, one he may have a few issues with but really deserves nary a word said against it, even in “compromised” form.

You must have hopes, wishes, dreams.

Brazil (1985) (SPOILERS) Terry Gilliam didn’t consider Brazil the embodiment of a totalitarian nightmare it is often labelled as. His 1984½ (one of the film’s Fellini-riffing working titles) was “ the Nineteen Eighty-Four for 1984 ”, in contrast to Michael Anderson’s Nineteen Eighty-Four from 1948. This despite Gilliam famously boasting never to have read the Orwell’s novel: “ The thing that intrigues me about certain books is that you know them even though you’ve never read them. I guess the images are archetypal ”. Or as Pauline Kael observed, Brazil is to Nineteen Eighty-Four as “ if you’d just heard about it over the years and it had seeped into your visual imagination ”. Gilliam’s suffocating system isn’t unflinchingly cruel and malevolently intolerant of individuality; it is, in his vision of a nightmare “future”, one of evils spawned by the mechanisms of an out-of-control behemoth: a self-perpetuating bureaucracy. And yet, that is not really, despite how indulgently and glee

Miss Livingstone, I presume.

Stage Fright (1950) (SPOILERS) This one has traditionally taken a bit of a bruising, for committing a cardinal crime – lying to the audience. More specifically, lying via a flashback, through which it is implicitly assumed the truth is always relayed. As Richard Schickel commented, though, the egregiousness of the action depends largely on whether you see it as a flaw or a brilliant act of daring: an innovation. I don’t think it’s quite that – not in Stage Fright ’s case anyway; the plot is too ordinary – but I do think it’s a picture that rewards revisiting knowing the twist, since there’s much else to enjoy it for besides.

I'm an old ruin, but she certainly brings my pulse up a beat or two.

The Paradine Case (1947) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock wasn’t very positive about The Paradine Case , his second collaboration with Gregory Peck, but I think he’s a little harsh on a picture that, if it doesn’t quite come together dramatically, nevertheless maintains interest on the basis of its skewed take on the courtroom drama. Peck’s defence counsel falls for his client, Alida Valli’s accused (of murder), while wife Ann Todd wilts dependably and masochistically on the side-lines.

A herbal enema should fix you up.

Never Say Never Again (1983) (SPOILERS) There are plenty of sub-par Bond s in the official (Eon) franchise, several of them even weaker than this opportunistic remake of Thunderball , but they do still feel like Bond movies. Never Say Never Again , despite – or possibly because he’s part of it – featuring the much-vaunted, title-referencing return of the Sean Connery to the lead role, only ever feels like a cheap imitation. And yet, reputedly, it cost more than the same year’s Rog outing Octopussy .

You’re easily the best policeman in Moscow.

Gorky Park (1983) (SPOILERS) Michael Apted and workmanlike go hand in hand when it comes to thriller fare (his Bond outing barely registered a pulse). This adaptation of Martin Cruz Smith’s 1981 novel – by Dennis Potter, no less – is duly serviceable but resolutely unremarkable. William Hurt’s militsiya officer Renko investigates three faceless bodies found in the titular park. It was that grisly element that gave Gorky Park a certain cachet when I first saw it as an impressionable youngster. Which was actually not unfair, as it’s by far its most memorable aspect.

I don’t like fighting at all. I try not to do too much of it.

Cuba (1979) (SPOILERS) Cuba -based movies don’t have a great track record at the box office, unless Bad Boys II counts. I guess The Godfather Part II does qualify. Steven Soderbergh , who could later speak to box office bombs revolving around Castro’s revolution, called Richard Lester’s Cuba fascinating but flawed. Which is generous of him.