Movie Review: Watchmen

March 9, 2009

Byron Graham
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There is only the blue penis.

The new Warner Brothers’ release “Watchmen” has generated a ubiquitous and misleading ad campaign, breathless anticipation, heated debate and a bitter lawsuit between two Hollywood studio conglomerates (FOX and Warner Brothers). Since its release Friday, there is little or no critical consensus to be found among Internet message boards, critics or post-screening chatter in multiplex restrooms.

Fans of the graphic novel written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons either celebrate the movie’s achievements or refuse to forgive its minor omissions. People unfamiliar with the film’s source material are alternately thrilled or alienated. As far as I can tell, the only experience shared by all the people watching “Watchmen” is the enduring image of that big, blue penis.

This next bit is intended for the comic book fanboys decrying the difference between “Watchmen” the film and “Watchmen” the book while trying to haggle down the price of a Dr. Manhattan action figure. “But Zack Snyder changed the ending,” they’ll say. Big deal, take a shower. However, I know that the story would not have survived the transition from the page to the screen in its preexisting paneled and speech-bubbled format. The movie would have to take a 45-minute detour to end the way that Alan Moore ended it. The theatrical cut is a bladder-straining 2 hours and 45 minutes as it stands. What’s important is that whoever is responsible for translating a beloved work of fiction to the screen understands the source material and express the central themes and important ideas and characterizations therein, and Zack Snyder, who directed the script adapted by David Hayter and Alex Tse, succeeded in that regard.

I participated in a phone conference interview with Mr. Snyder, who generously set aside a half hour to speak with college journalists across the world. He politely answered our questions and offered a lot of insight into the process of making such a controversial film out of a property with a cultish following. He expressed his disappointment over Alan Moore’s disapproval over (and rumored Warlock curse on!) the project. Snyder remembers asking the studio “When do we get to talk to Alan Moore?” before learning that the reclusive genius had refused to be involved and ceded his royalties to Dave Gibbons.

I asked Snyder what he thought made the movie definitively a “Zack Snyder” film, since each of his movies (the Dawn of the Dead remake and 300) were well-defined entities prior to his films. He replied by describing his visual style as absent of the shaky camera and spastic editing that plagues most action filmmaking, noting that “a filmmaker should be like a conduit for the adapted material, … and the personalization is inseparable from the process.” This spirit shines through in “Watchmen.” Snyder clearly “gets” the graphic novel and from a visual standpoint, the film is tirelessly faithful to it. He mentioned his collaboration with artist Dave Gibbons and referral to panels from the book as templates for some of the filmed sequences. I recognized several details from the book in the set design, and from a purely visual standpoint, “Watchmen” is a perfect movie.

Movies, though, have sound, which wasn’t so great for this picture. To begin with, most of the casting was wrong. Malin Ackerman is too young to play the Silk Spectre II. She’s also not a great actor. Patrick Wilson is too thin to play Nite Owl, and really, he’s too waspy and vexing to be in movies at all. Matthew Goode fit OK as Ozymandias, but he was also a bit too young. Jackie Earle Haley is a delight to watch as Rorshach. Billy Crudup was serviceable as Dr. John Osterman, but after that character becomes Dr. Manhattan, his performance is eclipsed by the masterful CGI and dialogue that Snyder described as “render[ing] pure philosophy at every turn.”

Which brings us back to the blue penis. The decision to make Dr. Manhattan anatomically correct (he was drawn without his indigo organ in the graphic novel due to the Comic Code) was both brave and truer to what Alan Moore intended to write. Dr. Manhattan’s disillusionment with humanity is expressed by his refusal to wear clothes unless absolutely necessary. So I applaud the big blue penis, and I applaud Zack Snyder’s “Watchmen.” Of course, I prefer the book for its language, art and Faulknerian story structure, but it’s the version I was first introduced to and came to love. Snyder and co. clearly respect the book and its fans but manage not to alienate would-be fans who haven’t yet discovered the novel. So, go see “Watchmen” folks, if only because blockbusters are good for the economy.