Sometimes an embargo is like a muzzle, and it can chafe – especially as international outlets go to press with the review that you can’t publish. But I get it, and this is the game I’m playing, which is why I abide by the rules.
But sometimes you push the edge of those rules a little bit, and so I’m here with initial thoughts on Watchmen. Some of this you’ll see reflected in my review, a 4100 word opus that remains sealed away. This isn’t my review, not by a long shot, but I think you’ll be able to tell where I’m coming from with these few paragraphs. There may be mild spoilers for those unfamiliar with the graphic novel.
If nothing else, Zack Snyder’s Watchmen
demands praise as an awe-inspiring achievement. Snyder has done what
many considered impossible – he took Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s
seminal comic book, Watchmen,
and turned it into a movie. And not just a movie; Snyder hasn’t created
some processional of images or a living audio book. He’s made
a film that feels like a living, breathing thing all its own while also
being – almost completely – the book. Snyder’s Watchmen
captures the themes and the meanings and the characters that Moore and
Gibbons created but makes them his own, turning the movie from being
simply an adaptation into something that feels closer to collaboration.
he only done that, Snyder would have earned kudos from me.
But he does more; Snyder had crafted a movie that flirts with honest to
God greatness, that doesn’t just capture the events of the comic but
also the humanity and the emotion. It’s a remarkable film, and an
uncompromising one. It’s the sort of movie that major studios are
simply not supposed to be making now that the 1970s are over. Watchmen
doesn’t hold your hand and walk you through the story; in fact Snyder’s
movie dares the audience to keep up, demanding something much, much
more than the passive viewing experience so many expect when watching
even the best superhero movies.
The best sequence of the film is probably the extended ten minute Dr.
Manhattan origin scene; in a self-imposed exile on Mars, the nigh-omnipotent Manhattan remembers his origin and his life, and
it’s here that the film showcases everything that makes it great.
Scored with Philip Glass music, the scene uses strong, vibrant visual
storytelling to weave the strands of Manhattan’s origin and the history
of the Watchmen world’s
superheroes together while also creating gorgeous tapestries for the
viewer. Snyder’s every frame is packed with information, ranging from
the tiniest details that only obsessives will note to bigger things
that supplement the story in a glance. And over it all is the narration
of Billy Crudup, bringing a sense of disconnection as Dr. Manhattan,
but not coldness. It’s an arresting performance filled with grace and
subtlety; on the surface Manhattan believes that he has left behind his
human emotion but we can see that it’s still there, hidden just under
the icy blue exterior of the man who has forgotten how to be a man. And
Snyder and screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse have the good sense
to allow Alan Moore’s original words to be mostly what Crudup speaks;
from script to post-production, where the incredible illusion of this
atomic man was created (Manhattan isn’t simply a blue, glowing guy.
There are… things happening inside of him, swirling reactions and
hints of other cosmos just beneath his skin, which is still
recognizably that of a human being), Snyder has brought together every
element in nearly perfect harmony to create a scene that is stirring
and moving and awesome, in the most old-fashioned sense of that word.
The other notable thing about Manhattan on Mars is how little it has to
do with your preconceived notions of Zack Snyder’s filmography. There’s
very little speed ramping (while Snyder does play with film speed in
some scenes, especially flashbacks, you’ve probably already seen every
moment in the movie that uses 300-style
speed ramping) and there’s almost no physical conflict. All of the
action is emotional, but that doesn’t mean Snyder is simply sitting a
camera down and shooting people yakking. Those ads declaring Snyder to
be ‘the visionary director of 300‘
may be a bit much, but there is no question at all that Zack Snyder is
a man with vision, a director who is uniquely attuned to the very
visual demands of screen storytelling. And he understands the subtlety
of it; going in I thought that Snyder, in his self-admitted near
slavishness to the book, might try to recreate the actual visual motif
from the comic book version of Dr. Manhattan’s origin – a slowly
falling photograph. He doesn’t, which indicates a serious understanding
of where the visual storytelling of comic books and motion pictures
diverge. That sequence is perfect in a panel-driven medium, but in film
it would be ridiculously and distractingly stylized. While Snyder opted
for an overly stylized approach to 300
– based on overly stylized material – here he reigns things in,
bringing style but not gimmickry, making every scene gripping to
look at but not putting directorial affectations in front of
storytelling. Every moment in the film looks great, but not to the
point where you spend the movie marveling over how great it looks.
There’s more. I wish I could go into full detail about how amazing this movie is, and how Snyder has made the cinema screen conform to Watchmen and not the other way, but I’m already skating right at the edge of what I should be sharing. Keep an eye here, though, as I’m fighting to be able to publish my rave in total.