Released: Out now
Director: Zack Snyder
Screenwriters: Alex Tse, David Hayter
Cast: Jackie Earle Haley, Billy Crudup, Malin Akerman
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Running Time: 160 mins
The term ‘unfilmable’ has been used a lot in the past few months, and mainly in relation to Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Alan Moore’s revered Watchmen comic. It has, however, been a term that’s widely misunderstood. What it doesn’t refer to is a practical impossibility; converting illustrated frames to screen is actually a straightforward process given the right resources. No, what the term ‘unfilmable’ refers to when used by those most dubious of the potential of a Watchmen adaptation is that were the conversion to take place, the film wouldn’t be very good. Suffice to say, Watchmen the comic is unfilmable.
The root of the problem is quite clear. Zack Snyder is intimidated by Watchmen, although in his defence, he is so with good reason. Watchmen has long been heralded as the greatest graphic novel ever written, its tale of a former team of superheroes coming to terms with their mucky pasts and legacies amidst a world facing a seemingly inevitable nuclear war has attracted uniformly positive reviews for well over two decades. The film, though, is a victim of Snyder being too respectful of his source material. It would appear that Snyder felt his role was that of a messenger rather than a creator in his own right, and as a result much of Watchmen’s appeal is lost in the translation.
Watchmen the comic is a smart read, but how interesting would it be if it’s moved away from a backdrop of overblown, increasingly-ridiculous Eighties comics? Or detached totally from its connection to Charlton Comics? How intelligent would it seem if told to an audience left exhausted by decades worth of Cold War satires? And perhaps most pertinently, how clever would it be if the technical innovations Gibbons and Moore crafted were made redundant by a transposition to a different medium? The answer, as we now know, is not very. The only real aspect of the original story’s intelligence that hasn’t faded in the adaptation is the notion of how the world might react to heroes and in particular how it might react to a power that nullifies nuclear threats. There is no doubt that this is still an intriguing proposition but the other layers have gone. It is merely one idea instead of many.
A better film – although perhaps a less faithful adaptation – would have added more of its own ideas, applying itself to more relevant contexts. The burgeoning superhero movie genre, for example, is ripe for dissection and comment, or at least more so than the condition of the comic industry back in 1986, and a braver director might have chosen to alter Watchmen’s set polemic to address this. There is surely a responsibility to make Watchmen the movie as pertinent as the graphic novel and that would require a level of thought and execution not evident here.
So what is Watchmen if it isn’t consistently engaging? Apparently something that is at once both spectacular and dull. With no invention or suspense, it plods through the characters’ origins, merely animating frames that have been pored over for years. Indeed, you can almost feel Snyder methodically turning the page as each scene meanders into the next.
The systematic approach to the adaptation is compounded by some poor performances (Malin Akerman as Silk Spectre is particularly stiff) with only Crudup as the ghostly Dr Manhattan and Jackie Earle Haley as the uncompromising Rorschach hinting at hidden depths. But largely the acting matches the larger than life tone of the film, which seems to stem from the decision to make the world look like Gibbons’ artwork. Comic book art, however, is rarely supposed to be the exact reality – it is an impression of a reality, an interpretation. To be transposed verbatim with live-action resources – though frequently stunning – misses the point. It’s the effect that’s important, not the medium used to create the effect. Watchmen is a grim and gritty comic with a level of detail that made the world seem so much more convincing than, for instance, the Marvel comics of the time. By replicating the medium and not the effect, Snyder creates a Watchmen world that’s at odds with its inspiration, conveying a cartoonish reality where what once felt like real danger is thwarted by a slo-mo kick and silly poses. As an additional side effect, the set pieces are winded by Snyder’s reliance on familiar effects and remarkably pedestrian fisticuffs.
There are inherent qualities, though, such as the refreshing pessimism, a good portion of the characters and some smart exchanges. The story, too, builds to an entertaining crescendo and the overall effect is at least a very different one from the bilge we’re often served by the superhero genre. But it is all in vain as the movie’s potential is swamped by a music video aesthetic and clunky dialogue that would only ever work in a comic book. Ultimately, Snyder’s Watchmen is mechanical, heartless and, tragically, hollow.