Back in October, I had the great pleasure of seeing a test screening of Watchmen. It was all very hush-hush; in fact, many people who had received invitations were not allowed in because they hadn’t filled out an online form. Security was tight, my friends. Going in, we didn’t know what movie we would be seeing. All we knew was that it was a “big budget superhero movie.” We might have been the exclusive first audience to the next Punisher movie. Fortunately, it was much better than that.
Since I had to sign a waiver, I’ve been tight-lipped about Watchmen. What I didn’t want was an elite team of Warner Brothers-trained ninjas killing me silently in the dead of night. But now that the release date approaches, I’m sure no one at “The Bros” would mind a lonely blogger speaking about their movie. Especially since it was totally awesome.
I wonder if I was the only cartoonist in the crowd that night. I have read the Watchmen graphic novel; I’m a fan. I have been severely let down by some comic book adaptations, but Hollywood has been getting better at it lately. I don’t know about you, but the original Superman was pretty bad. Sure, Christopher Reeve was undeniably awesome as both Clark Kent and Superman, but on the whole it felt too stately. Spider-Man was probably the first fun superhero movie, and since then you can’t walk into a video store without spotting a half dozen good-to-great adaptations. My expectations for Watchmen, then, were fairly high.
Fortunately, Zack Snyder delivered. The movie follows the comic incredibly closely. There were even shots taken directly from panels in the book. Like most long-form fiction, much of the story was taken out for the movie. That didn’t bother me. It didn’t bother me that the ending was slightly altered. What matters most is, if you like the movie you’re more likely to pick up the book. Who wants to see the exact same story in two formats, anyway? What’s the point of spending 200 million dollars to copy what was done already? This is a good adaptation.
The actors are not superstars, but they were obviously chosen because they fit the look of the characters. And I must say, they all did a magnificent job. I’m glad there were no huge stars – it would have just detracted from the story. It does take most of your concentration to follow the story.
Some elements of the story: before the Watchmen, there was The Minutemen. You’ve got two generations of superheroes to keep track of. (It’s like a comic book One Hundred Years of Solitude.) Then you’ve got an alternate history where we won Vietnam and Richard Nixon is still President in 1985. You also have to be aware that the present in the movie is 1985, otherwise you won’t get why everybody is so freaked out about nuclear war.
Oddly enough, I found the “real people” (Nixon, Buchanan, Kissinger) to be more cartoony than the Watchmen. They had meetings in a Dr. Strangelove war room, they talked like they were in a 1950’s war movie. Comparatively, the Watchmen seemed almost everyday in their actions.
The special effects were unfinished. I could usually tell what they were getting at, though, as there was a rough animation as placeholder. They didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the story. I kind of enjoyed seeing the filmmaker’s process. It also made me use my imagination, something I can’t say I do very much at movies nowadays. (I love sounding like I’m 93 in these posts.) Really, I prefer animation over live-action in general. Cartoonist bias.
The soundtrack was unfinished as well but there was a fantastic cue for a scene involving a character called Dr. Manhattan. They used a Phillip Glass piece from the movie Mishima. It worked terrifically well, and I hope they keep it in or use something similar. The song selection was a mixed bag. The opening credits (one of the standout scenes) used Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’. Then they used a cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah in a hokey sex scene I hope gets cut. Worse still, it wasn’t Jeff Buckley’s version, or even Rufus Wainwright’s. Was there a rights issue?
On the whole, it seemed too much like a grab bag of well-known radio songs. It isn’t that I’m against Sound of Silence, or even Simon & Garfunkel in general. I’m a fan. It’s that I already associate that song with another, very famous, movie. Mr. Snyder needs to dig a little deeper than a Greatest Hits collection for his soundtrack. Hopefully that will be remedied. But keep the Dylan in.
There were some beautiful scenes of Dr. Manhattan on Mars. They really seemed to play up his Buddhist nature. How can you detach yourself from the illusory world yet remain connected to all things? There are a few hints of this philosophical conundrum. I also thought the love story was handled well for a movie with lots of explosions. It’s not often you can get the nuanced in with the fist fight.
I give my wholehearted recommendation to Watchmen. Go see it when it opens. It is definitely a Theater Movie, one that has as many ideas, as grand a story, as big a climax as anything you will see on a wall-sized screen.