When I enter Zack Snyder's cinematic worlds, I feel like I'm looking through two windows. One is an entry-way into a vivid environment unlike anything I could ever imagine. It's lush and rich, but there's also depth and a sense of smart watchfulness. It's my favorite kind of cinema, where artistry finds the perfect path to blend with reality, teasing the eye, the emotions, and the mind. The other window, however, is not so magnetic and vibrant. It's off. It's not terrible, but it's not right. The world is a few shades from where it should be, the people and environment not acting quite right.
Stand back, and these windows create one cinematic experience, much like a stereoscope. But unlike that retro tool that makes the world 3D, these windows collide on screen, leaving a film that can, at times, be perfect, while at other times -- so far off the mark. Watching Snyder's fan-fueled adaptation, Watchmen, I am two people -- the fan who loves to see these characters brought to life in such a beautiful, vibrant, and exuberant manner, and the missteps that keep the film from being all that it could be.
What baffles me most about Watchmen is Snyder's casting choices, which volley between truly inspired and completely uninspired. An entire post could be spent discussing how spot-on Jackie Earle Haley is as Rorschach, how Jeffrey Dean Morgan takes an all-too-brief role and gives it emotional depth, and how Patrick Wilson almost became the perfect Dan Drieberg (save his naked scenes, which spoil the shlump persona). Even some of the supporting cast are stunning. I'd want no one else to play Moloch than Matt Frewer, and Stephen McHattie is wonderful as the nostalgia-drenched Hollis Mason. These choices are pitch-perfect, and better than I could have imagined, which makes it even more surprising and obvious when he misses the mark.
First, there's Malin Akerman as Laurie. She's not bad, but she is stuck with problems out of her control. She's got no chemistry with Wilson, and she's way too young. While you can sense the age and nostalgia in Dan, Laurie looks fresh-faced and ready to go, as if no time has passed between becoming a crime fighter, fighting, and being forced into retirement. It pulls that necessary weariness out of the scenes, making her seem like a kid trying to kick-start one of the original Minutemen, rather than another retired hero. Matthew Goode, meanwhile, is also shackled to how ill-suited he is for the part. He can offer some depth in his performance, but he always seems to be playing superhero, not being Ozymandias. His special suit is the only thing that suggests muscles and strength. He's not the chiseled-jawed, broad-chested man from the graphic novel. It's quite hard to buy him as the unstoppable force of brains and brawn that he's supposed to be. You can't begin to imagine this man defeating the Comedian so easily.
He also loses his mystery. From the first moments, there is no question over who is behind the new menace. The shadowed figure arrives at the Comedian's flat and he looks just like Veidt. I'm still trying to figure out if Snyder meant for it to be so obvious, or if it was a subtlety that missed the mark. I lean towards the former, though I can't imagine why Snyder would choose to make it obvious. Why? Because Ozymandias' role in the affair is obvious throughout the film. There is no question that Veidt is the grand puppeteer of the drama, as each shot lingers on the look in his eyes and that menacing grin. Rather than following Rorschach along as he pieces together the clues, the viewer waits for the characters -- even seemingly unstoppable Dr. Manhattan -- to catch up.
This palpable character divide makes me want to travel elsewhere. I don't want to follow the men to Doomsday. I want to see the rise and fall of Drieberg -- from his mechanical talents to his personal life and lust for Laurie. I want to see Rorshach's life and dig into his past more. Most of all, I want to spend an entire film on the Comedian -- a man who is horrifically loathsome, yet manages to reveal heart. Is this is a man with uncontrollable anger issues who decided to hate himself and follow his rage, thus ignoring his humanity? That's my theory.
But ultimately, I'm desperate to know the original Minutemen more. In the graphic novel, they're a side note, easy to move on from. On screen, they're immediately engaging, which is completely due to how Snyder introduced them. I'm utterly in love with the title sequence, as we see the rise and fall of the first group of masked heroes. Snyder's rich 2D montage offers depth and beauty in a way 3D still can't manage. They are photos and moments brought to life, muted but vibrant tones a bit like colorized black and white film. In five minutes, as Bob Dylan's gritty voice sings, we learn everything we need to about the world of the Watchmen. And although the Minutemen are mere footnotes, I'm saddened by the image of the Mothman being taken away, Dollar Bill dying in a revolving door, and most especially, The Silhouette's ghastly murder. I want to be in their world, because there's nothing I would change about these moments. They're perfect -- for how they represent both the characters and this alternate reality.
A montage like this lies in stark contrast to, for example, Dan and Laurie's eventual sex. As Leonard Cohen's voice purrs, it's hard not to laugh. A moment which should be bringing our two heroes together, whilst also offering fanboy titillation, ends up being nothing more than a joke. It seems Snyder meant it that way since, as Dan and Laurie, er, "arrive," Archie lets out an industrial belch. It's not sexy. It's just silly. Likewise, I find it incredibly apt that "Sounds of Silence" was played during the Comedian's funeral, but it starts and ends so abruptly that the magic is tarnished. Perhaps were are meant to be jolted just like Laurie is when she's whisked to her mother's home, but instead, it makes the song feel shoe-horned in.
But then I love the moment of Hollis' demise, Rorschach's rescue from prison, and Dr. Manhattan's meltdown on TV. The film is a dance that whisks us back and forth between the best and the worst, and fortunately, the best are bright enough to shed light into the lesser darkness.
For me, there's enough great to carry the not-so-great, and I never grow tired of my favorite parts, like that epic title sequence. But I know it's not the same for us all, so it's time to get to the questions and discussion.
- How do you feel about the casting? Who should have been changed, and who was spot-on?
- What did you think of Snyder's musical choices, from "Unforgettable" to "Sounds of Silence"?
- While Snyder remained quite faithful to the graphic novel, and often referred to it to film each scene just right, he did make some adjustments. Do you think they worked for the story? Did he do enough, not enough, or too much?
- An appreciation of the material is essential for a great adaptation, but when does fandom interfere with cinematic storytelling?