Monday, 27 December 2010

Watchmen (2009) - Zack Snyder

I used to have a really nice leather bound edition of the Watchmen graphic novel. Like a mug I punted it out on E-Bay and spent the money I made on early Sarah singles. I kind of regret doing that now (still I do love those singles), but that's life I guess. What I'm getting at is that I haven't read Watchmen for well over a decade. I always felt that had it been a 'proper' novel, rather than a graphic one then it would be held up alongside those other modern classics that all teenagers read, The Wasp Factory or The Dice Man for example.

Unfilmable. That was always the cry that went up whenever news would seep out from Hollywoodland, that some poor unfortunate was about to spend the next few years of their life trying to figure out how to bring this to the screen. Which isn't all that surprising when you look at just what Watchmen is. The story itself is incredibly dense, with stories within stories (even a whole separate comic tale being told parallel to the main event), it takes place over a period of fifty years (so lots of jumping back and forth through time), it's very violent and wouldn't take to being toned down in any way, so it would have to be marketed towards adults (which in those pre Dark Night years felt far too risky for major studios). Plus it would be expensive, really expensive. Oh yeah and the threat of nuclear war hangs over the whole thing like a huge wet blanket. Happy stuff then. Summer blockbuster? Yeah right. There was more chance of Terry Gilliam making Don Quixote, than Watchmen ever ending up at the local Odeon.

So you get the gist, with even Gilliam deeming the book unfilmable, after circling it for a year or so and eventually giving up. After all just making Dr Manhattan (huge naked blue bloke) come to life was enough of a headache to keep most people away from attempting an adaptation. However roll forward a decade or two, and the leaps in technology now meant it was possible to make a faithful version of Watchmen. Enter Zack Snyder, a man who is able to make films that on paper sound woeful, remaking the classic Dawn of the Dead for instance and actually turning in a finished film that I enjoyed, when all I really wanted was to hate it. That impressed me. He followed that with 300, yet again I was more than ready to despise it and once again I liked it, even if it was as empty as an English church. So for me it wasn't a problem that he was going to be the person to bring Watchmen to life.

There was always only going to be two ways of making this film. First you either cut it down to the bone, throwing away all the little sub plots and have it as a straight ahead murder mystery. Or you go with the second option, just go for it, film everything, leave nothing out and have a huge flabby beast of a film. I'm glad Snyder did the right thing and went for the later option. It was trimmed for the theatrical version, to a mere 162 minutes which was all over the place in terms of pacing. So you can imagine what the version I watched was like coming in as it does at a whopping 215 minutes. Oh yes it's the full bells and whistles edition, they don't call it the ULTIMATE CUT for nowt you know. It staggers forward, and after a while you just settle in and watch it in much the same way you would a decent mini series. There is no real momentum to the film, it starts and then drifts along at it's own pace until it ends. I can't see how it could be any different and still be faithful to the source novel though.

The actual story itself is set in a slightly alternate reality, where superheroes exist but have been outlawed, Nixon is president despite the fact that it's 1985, and the cold war is very much raging with the threat of all out nuclear war hanging over the film. But as I said earlier there are multiple storylines taking place in various periods in time, throw into the mix an animated pirate tale and you have the sort of mess that only someone like Robert Altman could pull off. But Snyder manages it, and it really comes across that he is a fan of the original story. Alan Moore who scribed said original story didn't want anything to do with Watchmen, after watching Hollywood wreck two of his other babies, From Hell and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Hopefully he'll calm down and see just what a service Snyder has done to his pride and joy. There are shots and dialogue that come directly from the pages of the original. The casting is spot on, Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach is particularly memorable, kind of like Dirty Harry played by Ewen Bremner. As I said I can't see how it could have been better. Maybe the awful sex scene could have been cut, but that's about it. Oh and some of Snyder's music 'taste' is dubious at best.

Okay so far so positive. Now for the negative stuff, well there is that sex scene which is just so horribly tacky. It made me squirm and I was sitting there alone, it's a painful watch. Then there is the fact that Snyder doesn't really have any style as a director, he's good at what he does, but not once in any of his films do you feel that you are watching a Zack Snyder film. He is at the top of that tree of the new breed of generic directors that use slow motion because it looks good. There doesn't seem to be any thought beyond 'what would look awesome'. Maybe I'm being mean, I don't think so though. Stick any of them next to a Kurosawa or Lean and they'd become as transparent as their films. But maybe it's the fact that Snyder doesn't have a unique vision that that has allowed this film to be so close to the comic it was based on.

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