Monday, May 30, 2011

Miss Media Junkie vs. "Watchmen"

This isn't a review of Zach Snyder's "Watchmen" so much as a position piece, laying out the specific reasons why I didn't care for it much. I think enough time has passed that I can put this out there without getting myself into too much trouble with Snyder fans. Before I get started I want to emphasize that I don't think "Watchmen" was a bad film. It was ambitious, well-meaning, uncompromising, and there were several individual sequences that were excellent. The controversial altered ending didn't bother me. And yes, I have read the graphic novel by Alan Moore, multiple times. I love the book, which is one of the reasons why the film was such a disappointment. Some spoilers are ahead.

I could nitpick about casting choices and story decisions, but my beef really comes down to content. "Watchmen" was always for mature audiences. Characters engaged in brutal violence and had sexual encounters, but these elements were never gratuitous. Instead they served to humanize and demystify the superhero characters. Also, since the comics were composed of very stylized images, you could show more extreme images without being distasteful. In film, this is not the case. One of the biggest mistakes that Snyder made, the same mistake that many directors make, is that he felt the need to justify his R rating, and went completely overboard with the blood, guts and nudity. Film is a more a more visceral medium where everything tends to be heightened, so Snyder easily could have toned down the content in the comic without losing any of the impact of the story.

Instead, Snyder seemed to feel the need to highlight and point arrows at the worst instances of violence. He added shots of bones breaking and blood spurting in fight scenes. Dr. Manhattan makes his enemies explode into a pile of quivering red viscera instead of simply disintegrating. A particularly heinous addition came late in the film, where a simple murder during a jailbreak sequence became a far more splatteriffic dismemberment by chainsaw. I can understand including one or two instances of really extreme violence in the most intense sequences, but even the shock value wore off by the fourth or fifth time viewers were subjected to Snyder's brand of up-close, slow-motion carnage. Alan Moore strove to make the violence in "Watchmen" distasteful and abhorrent. Snyder milked it for all it was worth.

And then there's the sex and nudity, which was so distracting that some viewers couldn't get past it. I didn't have much a problem with the male full-frontal nudity, but Dr. Manhattan's genitalia seemed to be the most memorable part of the film according to a much of the reaction chatter. The sex scene between Night Owl and Silk Spectre was another matter. Filmed in slow motion and set to a cover of the severely overplayed Leonard Cohen song, "Hallelujah," it was the low point of the movie. I wish I could have pulled Snyder aside to explain to him the difference between a cinematic sex scene and soft-core pornography. The problem wasn't that we were seeing the characters mid-coitus, but again, it was the way the material was presented. The scene went on for too long and the tone was all wrong. Was it supposed to be campy? Was it supposed to be touching? Funny? Disturbing?

Is it any wonder then, that the adult content totally overshadowed the rest of the film? Zach Snyder's "Watchmen" got so many of the little details right. It recreated period settings and costumes and stayed as faithful as it could to the complex story. There is no question that Snyder is a fan of the material. But that said, I don't think he understood "Watchmen" or what needed to happen in order to bring it to a wider audience. The movie plays like a precocious twelve-year-old's reading of the book, that is too enamored with the novelty of the sex and violence. It's not enough that the adult content appears in the film, but Snyder wants to make sure that we notice and appreciate it. And that attitude, paradoxically, just made the everything feel more juvenile. Compare the treatment of the content in "Watchmen" to David Cronenberg's "A History of Violence," which also had plenty of gore and nudity. Compare the maturity of the storytelling to "The Dark Knight," which gave us better portrayals of nihilism, anarchy, and the corruption of heroes, all with a PG-13 rating.

I wanted to like "Watchmen" very badly. I wanted to be able to share that story with friends and family who were unfamiliar with the title, and see the comic book genre reach a new high. Instead, I ended up loaning out my copy of the graphic novel and warning people away from the film, who I knew couldn't handled the amped-up content. Somehow "Watchmen" on screen was less accessible than "Watchmen" on the printed page, catering aggressively to the fanboy crowd and alienating everyone else.

And I think that's a shame. "Watchmen" had strong enough material that it could have been something more. So I can't see the movie as anything but a wasted opportunity.

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