"Thermodynamic Miracles...events with odds against so
astronomical they're effectively impossible, like oxygen
spontaneously becoming gold. I long to observe such a thing."
-Doctor Manhattan from "The Darkness of Mere Being" (WATCHMEN #9)
Much like oxygen turning to gold, the odds of WATCHMEN making a successful jump from comics (where it's long enjoyed "Citizen Kane" status) to film seemed equally astronomical. After all, how could the format and time limitations of a movie even hope to capture the deep, meditative currents and multilayered complexity of Moore and Gibbon's masterwork? In short, who could pull off the cinematic miracle of filming what many (including its author) considered to be unfilmable?
Well, having watched The WATCHMEN on its opening day, I believe I've witnessed just such a miracle.
Recalling Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy (the other unfilmable film), WATCHMEN director Zack Snyder was able to take an immensely complex story and not so much slavishly adapt it, but DISTILL its essential elements and themes into a remarkably streamlined yet coherent tale. Sure, plenty of material and story beats were cut, but what remained was everything I've loved about WATCHMEN for the past 23 years. Yes, it's THAT good.
Some of the many highlights:
1. The Intro sequence: Set against Dylan's "The Times They Are a Changin'", Synder elegantly establishes the movie's alternate history using archival newspaper photos and videos, some of which added details that, while new, were perfectly in sync with the WATCHMEN sensibility (such as the helmet reflection of Doctor Manhattan filming the first moon walk).
2. Visual fidelity: I appreciated the fidelity to the "camera work" of Dave Gibbon's original layouts, in some cases faithfully duplicating the framing, iconic character poses, and even cover images from the original 12-issue maxi-series. Stand-outs include the micro-to-macro pan from the bloodstained smiley face button up to the Comedian's shattered apartment window (from issue #1's cover and opening page), a giant Doctor Manhattan looking over his shoulder to greet Rorschach, the Comedian perched on the Owlship during the Keane Riots, and Manhattan's immense clockwork fortress rising out of the Martian soil. What a surreal thrill it was to see so many of these memorable sequences brought to life.
3. Emotional fidelity: Even more impressive than the visual faithfulness of the movie was how it precisely duplicated the emotional tenor of the WATCHMEN's most daring chapters despite their necessary streamlining. My two favorite chapters have always been "Watchmaker" (the Doc Manhattan origin in issue #4) and "The Abyss Also Gazes" (Rorschach's tale in issue #7), and I was floored by how Synder (1) duplicated the unique feel of each character's backstory and (2) seamlessly integrated them into the larger movie without the jarring emotional disconnect you'd expect from such "detours".
4. The acting: Although I prefer starring roles of comic book movies to be cast with unknown actors, the flipside to that is not knowing what kind of performances you're going to get. Happily, the relatively unknown (or not widely known) cast of WATCHMEN turned in some outstanding performances. Some of the best were Billy Crudup's ethereal Doctor Manhattan, Patrick Wilson's likeable Dan Dreiberg, and (of course!) Jackie Earle Haley's Rorschach...which leads me to...
5. Rorschach: Like I've said before, the spooky-yet-strangely-noble character of Rorschach in not only my favorite WATCHMEN cast member, but one of my favorite characters in all of fiction. Not a favorite in the sense of admiring everything he does or believes, but more from the ruthless emotional power of his story, especially the twisted moral/psychological origins of his masked identity. Jackie Earle Haley's performance of Rorschach and his alter-ego Walter Kovacs was almost frightening in its accuracy, amplified by the convincing reality of his pattern-shifting mask. Reading the WATCHMEN comics, I had always imagined Rorschach having more of a blank monotone voice than the more guttural voice used by Haley, but (unlike Christian Bale's ludicrous Cookie Monster Batman voice) it never crossed the line into distracting caricature. As great as Haley's entire performance was, his session with the hapless prison psychologist was absolutely riveting and unforgettable.
6. The Ending: Probably the most controversial aspect of the movie, Snyder's decision to alter the nature of Veidt's hoax worked surprisingly well and, I have to admit, works better in some ways than Alan Moore's original concept. Instead of a Lovecraftian alien threat obliterating half of New York, Veidt tricked the world into thinking the exiled Doctor Manhattan was punishing humanity from afar for their nuclear escalation, thereby bringing an almost instant peace between the warring superpowers. The essential goal of Veidt's plan remained the same, while keeping the potentially ultra-campy sight of a giant trans-dimensional squid from possibly derailing the sense of realism Synder managed to build up to that point. It also allowed Snyder to shed the entire "mystery island" plot line, which I felt didn't damage the story at all. Sure, the size and scope of Veidt's plan wasn't as far-reaching...but it was a logical "story branch" to prune.
7. The R-Rating: The one factor that gave the movie even a chance of succeeding was the decision to go with an R-rating. Rather than watering the story down for a PG-13 audience, the studio took a risk and retained the tough language, disturbing violence, sensuality, and...most important...its daring exploration of morally ambiguous themes only adults and mature teens are equipped to wrestle with. Naturally, clueless parents will still bring kids that are far too young to WATCHMEN, but at least the R rating will keep a majority of the kids and pre-teens away (I hope).
8. The Music: The eclectic mix of music really enhanced my enjoyment of the movie and helped to really anchor the narrative to its various time periods. Not in a manipulatively nostalgic kind of way (i.e. Forrest Gump), but simply as another tool to establish a specific tone. The aforementioned Dylan song was a big one, but 99 Luftballoons and Ride of the Valkyrie also set the perfect emotional tenor. Also, I've gotta download Desolation Row, the My Chemical Romance tune that kicked off the end credits.
Of course, even movies as great as WATCHMEN don't get everything right. Here's a few of my very minor quibbles:
1. The unconvincing look of the aged Sally Jupiter. Like they did for Titanic, I would have preferred an actual (and less beautiful) old lady to play the 1985 version of Jupiter, and not Carlo Gugino wearing old lady makeup.
2. The distraction of using actors to pose as low-wattage real world celebrities. It seems like a waste of time and energy to have cast people to play Eleanor Clift, Ted Koppel, or Lee Iacocca (!) when generic reporter/businessman figures would have accomplished the same storytelling goals . Somewhat annoying and self-indulgent on Snyder's part.
3. The somewhat thin background of Adrian Veidt. As the film's main threat, it would have helped to carry over a bit more of his impressive life story from the comic version. Of all the film's characters, Veidt was the most remote, yet the most important to understand in his outlook and motivations. They touched on them just enough to make it work (and explain his grandiose trappings), but there could have been a bit more to drive home the moral ambiguity and messianic arrogance of Ozymandias.
4. I would have preferred to see the Comedian wearing that sinister leather gimp mask during the Keene Riots scene. After Nite Owl asks "Whatever happened to the American Dream?", the fully-masked Eddie Blake answering "You're looking at it" would have achieved a much more unsettling effect than his domino mask look. I can understand the argument for visual continuity, especially with so many characters and time periods being covered, but I guess I miss the grotesque final "evolution" of the Comedian's costume.
Like I said, minor quibbles...and certainly nothing to seriously impact my overall enjoyment of the movie, which I would rate 4.75 out of 5 WATCHMEN Blood-Stained Smiley Faces!