Synopsis: Great characters, stunning visuals, and faithfulness to the original graphic novel make this film work. However, confusing storytelling, much of it due to choppily done editing for time, keeps this film from being as great as it could be. Hopefully the Director's Cut -- scheduled for release in July -- will solve some of these problems.
WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS
Today was the opening day of Watchmen, a movie that I, like many fanboys, have eagerly awaited for years to come to the screen. I manage to scrape together enough cash to go to an opening day matinee, and see how well Zack Snyder pulled it off.
I was, shall we say, a bit disappointed.
Not by the movie as a whole, which is beautifully filmed -- some of the visuals are absolutely breathtaking. And not by the characters, which are, for the most part, fascinating and complex. And certainly not for the film's lack of faithfulness to the source material, which is surprisingly closer to the original than I expected, given the sheer size and depth of Alan Moore & Dave Gibbon's graphic novel masterpiece.
No, the problem with this ambitious, but underperforming, 2-hour-and-43-minute epic is that it's really poorly assembled. The editing leaves a lot to be desired. I understand that compression had to be done, but in some places, the film is left feeling choppy and confusing. The story jumps from one thread to another, often without any explanation, leaving the viewer befuddled.
I mean, I am intimately familiar with the original source material, and even I got lost in the movie a few times. I can imagine how confusing it could be for someone coming in cold -- and this will no doubt hurt Watchmen's box office success.
Compressing a work of great literature into a movie is always a dicey affair, and going in, I expected that some liberties would have to be taken with the story's complex narrative structure. And with a story this big, the filmmaker needs to hold the viewer's hand a bit in places, in order to explain what's going on.
Watchmen is, at core, a comic book, and Snyder does a fantastic job of remaining very close to the comic's narrative and visual structure. But a film is not a comic, and the storytelling doesn't work as well here as it could, were the editing somewhat better.
Unlike a book or graphic novel, where the reader can stop and contemplate their place in the story, a film doesn't stop and let the audience catch its breath, the story just keeps going. Thats why the way a film is edited can help an audience follow the story. Unfortunately, Watchmen doesn't do enough hand-holding -- and I blame the editing for this.
Some examples of what I mean:
This is a story filled with flashbacks, but very little care is taken to let the viewer know where they are in time. No subtitled years, no sepia toning or visual clues to say "this is a memory," and very little to help the audience get its bearings. This is an editing problem.
The thread that holds the story together is Rorschach. He's the narrator, and his journal is crucial to understanding what's going on, as he pieces together the mystery. I credit Snyder for keeping the Rorschach's voice over narration of his journal... but one thing that is sorely lacking is that, unlike in the graphic novel, we never actually see Rorschach writing in the journal. In fact, the journal never even makes an appearance onscreen until the last quarter of the film, when he delivers it to the New Frontiersman newspaper. I suspect that the scenes were filmed, but edited out for time. This is a shame.
Another place where the editing doesn't live up to the promise is in explaining the police strike and the Keene Act of '77. The Keene Act is so central to the story, that it deserves a little more exposition, for the viewer's sake. Although it is referred to multiple times, it's never explicitly laid out -- that the police went on strike in '77 because of interference by masked vigilantes, and so congress outlawed masked adventurers -- and so the audience is left not really understanding why the Watchmen disbanded.
This flaw removes some of the sense of danger from being a superhero in the post-Keene world of 1985. For instance, when Nite Owl and Silk Spectre start to go adventuring again, and save the people from the tenement fire, there's no real sense of danger -- that they are personally risking a lot by donning the costumes and going back out to save lives. Again, I suspect that more of the Keene Act exposition was actually filmed, but simply ended up on the cutting room floor in order to compress the movie.
Yet another place where the editing fails is when Dr. Manhattan teleports to Mars. There's very little to indicate that the story has shifted to Mars, no expository dialogue, not even a subtitle to say "Mars." Is this a desert on Earth? The Moon? Where the hell are we?
Perhaps the part of the story that suffers the most from editing for time is the lack of backstory about the original Minutemen, which in the graphic novel is accomplished primarily through Hollis Mason's book, Under the Hood. Naturally, this wouldn't translate to the screen, and I understand why much of the backstory is omitted -- or simply told through the opening credits -- for time reasons.
But when the character of Moloch is introduced, now retired and dying of cancer, there's very little done to explain how he was a bad guy, what kind of supervillain he was, or why the Comedian sees him as his arch-nemesis. There's no sense of history between them.
Although the Comedian's attempted rape of the original Silk Spectre is shown early on, and the Comedian is certainly depicted as a not-so-nice dude, very little is ever shown to actually explain why Laurie hates him so much -- not even when they first meet. This removes much of the emotional impact of the later revelation that the Comedian is actually Laurie's father. Again, this may be a fault of bad editing.
Even simple dialogue between characters suffers under the choppy editing. In an early dinner scene, Dan and Laurie reminisce about Captain Carnage, the masochistic supervillain. Dan recounts how he refused to arrest Carnage, because the guy enjoyed getting beat up, but Laurie never recounts her own experience. So when the conversation reaches the punchline of Rorschach's encounter with the Supermasochist -- and subsequently getting dropped down an elevator shaft -- the joke falls flat (pun intended), because it wasn't quite built up to enough. Again, I suspect that the missing dialogue was filmed, but edited out for time constraints, and the scene suffers because of it.
The character of Ozymandias also feels underdeveloped. Not enough of his fascinating backstory as "the smartest man in the world" is given, like how he predicted the looming nuclear crisis, and retired from crimefighting two years before the Keene Act so that he could work on saving the world his own way. There's no understanding of how he made his fortune, why he watches so many TVs, or even what Bubastis is. Much of this is accomplished in the graphic novel through clippings, and their absence here is felt. Again, I suspect that much of the exposition needed here is edited out for time.
The only major change to the actual story that I didn't understand was why it is Dreiberg, and not Rorschach, who goes to visit Veidt near the beginning of the story, to warn him that a mask killer may be on the loose. I'm not sure what the change accomplished, and why it was felt necessary, because it felt "wrong."
I could live with the revised ending -- where Dr. Manhattan is framed, instead of a staged alien invasion -- if it had been handled better. As it stands, no thought is given to *why* Dr. Manhattan would suddenly attack Earth's major cities, just that he did, and this threat unites humanity. It feels like a cheat, where the right exposition might have made it work better.
OK, enough criticism of what was wrong with the film. here's some of the things it does right:
The opening credits actually do a good job of filling in the backstory of the Minutemen, and events leading up to the present day. Showing the Comedian as the JFK assassin certainly paints him as a dark character. And the lesbian kiss between the Silhouette and the nurse on the streets of New York during the end of the WWII celebration, an homage to the famous Life magazine photo, was brilliant, and sets the audience up for her eventual murder.
Dr. Manhattan is mesmerizing onscreen, and yes, I admit I enjoyed looking at his glowing blue penis. I'm so glad Snyder didn't shy away from Dr. Manhattan's constant nudity. Billy Crudup does a splendid job portraying Jon's growing detachment from humanity and dispassionate demeanor.
Silk Spectre and Nite Owl are also very well developed, and Rorschach is just downright creepy. I only wish that Rorschach's death was handled better, because he comes across as whiny instead of enraged when he goads Dr. Manhattan into killing him.
All in all, this is an entertaining, if somewhat long, film. I only hope that the Director's Cut and DVD release will fill in the confusing missing blanks that editing for time took out.