Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Watchmen

I hereby officially nominate Zack Snyder for the coveted position of most annoying film director. There have been challengers to the throne, certainly. Michael Bay and his frantic continuity-be-damned style, J.J. Abrams and his inability to frame shots and obsession with lens flare, both were certainly contenders for the throne, but I think with The Watchmen Snyder has officially proven that as directors go, nobody can top him for sheer, distracting and inept direction.

The Watchmen was a highly respectable comic book made by the highly insane Alan Moore. While it's a bit too complicated to be summarized neatly into one paragraph, it's essentially about a group of mask vigilantes in a 1980s teetering on the edge of nuclear war. Opening with the death of the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), the situation is investigated by Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) who is somewhat sociopathic, and he believes that these vigilantes are being targeted. Then, a bunch of stuff happens, it's quite good. Snyder, naturally, misses the point completely.

Much has been made of the film's visual fidelity to the source novel. Indeed, Snyder does frame his shots almost exactly as the graphic novel does. However, there's one very important difference, and that is that there's a sense of grittiness in the novel. The world is run down, dust seeps into the old superhero materials, and it's weathered, broken, and decayed.

But Zack Snyder doesn't do decay. He is confused by grime, or proper film speed (more on that in a minute), so in spite of the precise framing, it doesn't actually look like the comic. It's all given a CGI sheen, with the faults polished away until everything gives off an unnatural shine. These are real people who suddenly look fake, living somewhere in the uncanny valley.

Speaking of the uncanny valley, the acting is...not good. Much has been made of Jackie Earle Haley's Rorschach, but I'm not sure. It seems like a voice, rather than a performance, and while he's not bad, it is a bit distracting. At least he's acting though, unlike the rest of the cast. Casting seems to be dictated by who looks most like the book's characters, not who can actually turn in a decent performance. Special note needs to go to Malin Akerman as the Silk Spectre part 2. It's shocking, in fact. A group of people speaking in their second language in Sukiyaki Western Django had a more convincing grasp of the English language than she does, and she moves like someone who is unfamiliar with what we humans call muscles. The problem is, none of the other actors are exactly convincing as human beings. One wonders if Snyder is even interested anything other than CG and slow motion.

That neatly brings me to the next big issue here, and that's how much of the film is in love with changing film speed. In 300, which I also hated, Snyder seemed to be obsessed with slow motion, so much so that it seemed like the film was being played at the wrong speed. Now, Snyder has discovered the fast forward button, so he has discovered how to make things go fast too. The opening fight scene is a prime example of this, which makes it feel as though a small child is playing with a remote control behind you. Even worse, since regular dialog does not suffer from Snyder's usual slow motion flourishes, it creates a break between the dialog and the silly action scenes. It doesn't matter that going normal speed and without gratuitous CGI blood and injury it would have been a better action scene, Snyder is so obsessed with his tricks and silly speed altering that he ignores what would make a good film. There's no rhyme or reason to it, it just emphasizes how artificial everything is, an how Snyder is committed to ruin otherwise decent sequences with visual tomfoolery.

In fact, it's quite interesting how, for a film marketed as the product of a "visionary director" how his vision makes everything worse. The story here is good, the images are well framed, and some of the juxtapositions of image and dialog are quite brilliant. All of those good things? Lifted directly from the book. It's a good book, and much of the goodness of it does get translated on screen. I will say that the music is mostly good - and, unexpectedly, mostly what I was listening to while reading the book - though I'm not completely sure Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah was particularly well used here - it's behind a sex scene and just seems wrong somehow, perhaps it just doesn't match the rhythm of the scene.

Truth be told, when I was reading it, I thought it was a fantastic book, but would be difficult to effectively translate to film. It's actually not a very action packed book, more focused on the after effects and people uncertain of what to do with themselves, packing in much highly necessary back story and different visual tricks. Excellent, but not exactly effective for a concise picture. Here, it's 3 hours long, and it's hard to imagine it being shorter.

Honestly, script wise, it's mostly faithful - the ending is altered, though only one change was really annoying - and with a different director and different actors, it might actually be a pretty good movie. Three hours or not, someone here actually gets the jist of the book, and the point. The main problem is that the director does not understand what the point is in the least, and every decision he makes hurts the film on some level. That's why I nominate him for the most annoying director. He's obsessed with visuals and making things "cool", but his supposed vision just takes away from all his projects.


  1. Yeah I haven't seen this film, but using Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" for a sex scene shows a distinct misunderstanding of both music and sex. For one, despite having a songbook 90% composed of sexy songs, "Hallelujah" is more of an introspective thing, and the instrumentation is decidedly unsexy. A much better choice is "Waiting For The Miracle" or just about anything really. Even that particular album had sexier music than Hallelujah, particularly "Dance Me To The End Of Love". Oh well, how can one expect genius from the 300 guy. I always said that, if played a proper speed, that film would have lasted all of 20 minutes.

  2. It was an odd scene, just because it felt so wrong. Apart from the introspective lyrics, it just is the completely wrong sound and beat for the scene, and the images match the song really badly. All I could think of was how someone could edit that scene and watch it, but still not figure out how badly matched the music and images are. Of course, this is 300 guy, and I had just watched two hours of trainwrecks of fight scenes to that point, so I kinda knew.

    Yet Leonard Cohen does make a lot of sense for sex scenes in general.