SPOILER ALERT: Specific scenes from the movie are discussed in the text that follows.
Two weeks ago I watched the Watchmen. I sat in the movie theater with someone who’d never read the graphic novel on my right, and someone who had devoured it as I did on my left.
It is two weeks later. I am sitting on my couch. I am thinking about how disappointed I am by the film. It is six weeks ago. I am sitting in a room watching the Watchmen panel. Watching David Gibbons’s enthusiasm emanate from his eyes as he speaks of the un-filmable film. Delighting in the excitement coating his voice. Realizing how very emotionally invested I am in what’s coming. The film is waiting for me six weeks in the future.
Two weeks ago I am sitting in a movie theater. I tune out the nonsense on the screen that encourages me to purchase branded soft drinks and buttery popcorn or watch shows about manly men who fall trees for a living. I am distracted by the memory of the first time I saw the Watchmen trailer and the subsequent birth of my anticipation.
Admittedly, I have been counting down to the film’s opening for some time. I didn’t want to be an apologist for it, but I did not want to condemn it as many did (and many tend to do) before even seeing it. I knew about the controversial decision to change the film’s ending—that is, to leave out the giant squid—which did inevitably upset many purists who believe comic-book film adaptations that do not religiously follow the source material automatically fail.
Regarding the giant squid (which came up at the Watchmen panel at the con) I felt more than a little relief that, for me, it would not be like watching Stephen King’s It all over again. Tim Curry made me feel unadulterated fear during almost the entire movie—fear that unexpectedly turned to bewilderment as I blinked at the giant spider. While I was ready for the possibility of not loving Watchmen, or perhaps even hating it, I certainly did not want to be embarrassed for it.
Furthermore, I’m not a purist, so I understand that certain elements of the novel would fail on-screen; I was ready to forgive the necessary changes that would allow Snyder to translate onto film the graphic novel’s essence. Sacrifices had to be made to keep the film’s pace and length within agreed-upon limits—Snyder would have to truncate and adapt certain scenes and leave out characters that furthered the plot in the novel so beautifully. So long as he captured the novel’s essence, I would continue to keep an open mind about everything else.
Settling into my seat, I found I was pleased with the way Snyder handled the opening. He introduces all the characters in a solid way that I felt would sit well with mainstream audiences and hard-core nerds alike.
The middle part of the movie was not bad. Given the time constraints and the number of characters involved, I realize it’s nearly impossible to make them all three-dimensional, but had I not read the graphic novel, for example, I don’t think I would have appreciated Laurie’s frustration with Jon when she leaves him.
I also question their decision to not let us see more of Hollis Mason—again, I understand certain characters had to be left out or handled as marginal ones, but Mason is more integral than, say, Silhouette—but, hey, they had to make sure to throw in as many hot Silhouette scenes as possible since she’s into chicks and that’s hot.
Similarly, I felt Snyder’s handling of the prison psychiatrist could have been tighter. I agree that we don’t need to see the turmoil between him and his wife, but I wish we could have gotten a better sense of how he becomes increasingly unnerved by Rorschach. I mean, come on: This is Rorschach!
Certainly, many of the scenes featuring Rorschach are nicely executed, particularly the ones of him in prison (even with the tweaks Snyder makes to help bridge gaps caused by having left out scenes from the novel). Still, I really liked how we flash back and forth between Kovacs and Kovacs’s childhood memories when the prison psychiatrist administers the Rorschach test to him. Jackie Earle Haley’s cold, steady eyes as he answers the psychiatrist in that Rorschachian monotone made me squirm with delight.
Unfortunately, I felt Snyder botched Rorschach’s prison-escape scene. When Laurie and Night Owl find Rorschach, he excuses himself nonchalantly to, presumably, use the bathroom. Laurie expresses frustration because she and Night Owl have just risked everything to rescue him and she cannot believe he’s slowing them down just to use the bathroom, and taking his time at that. The film misses this point of this moment entirely. In the scene, Laurie and Night Owl stand right outside the bathroom door, which swings open, revealing, of course, the real reason Rorschach goes inside. I understand that Snyder had to deviate from the source material so that in the film, Rorschach retrieves his face by the time his fellow Watchmen find him; to keep exactly to the novel here would have messed up the film’s pacing. But making that change did not necessitate having that bathroom door swing open. Had the film successfully established the tension between Laurie and Rorschach early on, the scene would have made sense and kept to the source material’s essence.
The scenes depicting Jon’s accident and Dr. Manhattan on Mars are something to behold on screen—as many people have already pointed out, they are lifted faithfully from the pages of the source material, as are many of the scenes from the beginning and middle of the film. In all, however, the middle part of the movie left me flat. The dialogue added to help explain portions of the novel that were left out was oftentimes incongruous and made me wince a few times. There also needed to be more character development—which by no means requires one to include every single scene from the source material—to make me care about these people. Somewhat distracting during a few of the scenes was the soundtrack. For example, I found it jarring to hear “99 Luftballons”—a song I love—when Laurie goes to met Dan for dinner.
Still, I remained hopeful as the film drew toward what I feel is the pivotal moment of the graphic novel: the faceoff between Manhattan and Rorschach. Watching it unfold on screen, I immediately noticed that the two were not standing in the correct positions—that is, they were flipped. Thinking it was not a big deal and checking my tendency to nitpick, I then stared bewildered and with much chagrin as Nite Owl pops up and joins them.
What follows from the point Rorschach dies can be described only as non sequitur—all included to help explain Snyder’s choice to include a character in a scene in which he does not appear in the source material. Indeed, at the precise moment where Snyder should have stuck closely to the source material, he deviates from it. Up to that point he had been sticking somewhat closely to it—indeed, during moments where he needn’t have done so.
Manhattan and Rorschach, who to me are the two pillars of the graphic novel, have fought on the same side despite being polar opposites. The god acts for the greater good and is not quite as detached as he seems to be (and as many think he is). The psycho is unyielding even in the face of Armageddon (but perhaps despite his inherent creepiness is not so lost a cause after all).
Everything has come down to these two, and while technically still on the same side, their philosophical differences have at last caught up with them. They both know what must happen, and it cements and defines them. They do not and should not have an audience.
Having Nite Owl watch and then scream out a la lame Darth Vader makes absolutely no sense. Further, I still question how in Nite Owl’s grief-stricken rage, rather than charge at Manhattan—or, more realistically, fall to his knees helplessly, since I don’t think Nite Owl would be so foolish as to engage Manhattan—he instead runs back inside to pummel Ozymandias.
Snyder robs this pivotal moment of its essence, and it is his questionable alteration, sloppy and utterly unnecessary, that made me apathetic about the remainder of the film. By the time the credits rolled, I felt nothing but disappointment. The un-filmable film proved itself to be un-filmable.