Review: Zack Snyder's Watchmen - Bordering on Brilliant
by Alex Billington
March 4, 2009
Zack Snyder has done the impossible. He filmed the "unfilmmable." He's brought to life one of the greatest graphic novels ever written. How do I even begin to write about this and all of its glory? Is it faithful? Unquestionably so, but is that necessarily a good thing? I'm not here to criticize Watchmen, instead I want to talk about the experience and whether Snyder pulled it off. My gut reaction is that he did. And I'm saying that after having seen it two times already. It's not an easy pill to swallow, which is not only a testament to its faithfulness, but also to the gritty style that Snyder brought to the Watchmen world. I don't think I'm caught up in the hype, because even after two viewings, it's still just as brilliant.
There's so much contained within the Watchmen story, that it's quite a challenge to describe it in one sitting, but that's part of why it's such an incredible story. Watchmen is an ensemble film, about a group of masked vigilantes - Ozymandias, Rorschach, The Comedian, Nite Owl, Silk Spectre, and Dr. Manhattan - who have since retired. It begins in 1985, in an alternate reality where thanks to the creation of Dr. Manhattan, the United States has won the Vietnam War, President Nixon has been re-elected for a third term, and the Soviets are threatening to start a third world war and launch hundreds of nuclear bombs our way. And this only just the beginning. The underlying question that the world's smartest man, Adrian Veidt, wants to answer: In a world this chaotic, how do you achieve world peace and save humanity?
From the opening credits, where we're treated to a beautifully composed montage of scenes that not only show us what this alternate reality is like, but also give us a brief history of the first masked vigilantes, it's obvious that Zack Snyder has an immense understanding of the graphic novel. Even his choice to put the opening text of "Watchmen" on the sequence showing the original Minutemen from the 1940's being photographed, seems to allude to the fact that Snyder does "get it." So there's no point in questioning his understanding, it's just a matter of determining whether the elements of the story that he put into the film in the end were enough to be entertaining and have the same moral implications in the end. To put it up simply - I was both entertained and awe-struck.
I'm a movie guy, I always have been, always will be. I prefer movies to books and even graphic novels, so my reaction to Watchmen is less of a criticism on whether Snyder was able to take everything that was contained within the graphic novel and bring it to life on a screen, but instead, a reaction to his presentation of those ideas and whether they have the same weight when presented this way. And they certainly did. The feeling I was left with when it finally ended was unlike anything I've ever felt before. It's a journey, not unlike The Dark Knight, where we get to see the extensive progression of all of these characters, beyond just their introduction. Sure, The Comedian dies in the first scene, but over the course of the film, we understand why his death means so much more.
The biggest question is now whether or not being entirely faithful to the graphic novel was a good thing. Snyder could have easily chosen to take even more liberties than he already did in adapting certain parts of the graphic novel or completely change its structure in order to be more cinematic. However, here is the inherent problem - most moviegoers have, for the entire life, seen cinematic versions of stories that have been modified to work better seen through the lens of a camera. It's what we've all grown up watching and falling in love with, so seeing a story that was completely written to be printed in a book adapted exactly as it was conceived is a bit awkward at first, especially if you're not prepared for this going in. But at the same time, if Snyder would've change it at all, the film would've missed the mark completely on achieving the same levels of brilliance as the graphic novel.
Would anyone have wanted to see a Watchmen movie that was not faithful? Of course not, and I don't think Snyder changed so much that it could be called unfaithful, by any means. In fact, the only major change he made was to the ending, but his adjustment result in an even more profound look at society and humanity. As I said earlier, I'm not here to criticize how faithful Snyder was, but instead, look at whether what he presented was as powerful cinematically. And the ending that he did go with left me in more wonderment than even the way the graphic novel plays out. That kind of experience is something I cherish, especially because it's so rare to see a movie that actually has such an extreme level of interpretation to it.
I can't say Watchmen is flawless, but it comes quite close to achieving that impossibility. Snyder presents his vision of Alan Moore's story, that not only looks outstanding and is an unforgettable experience to watch, but is also just as epic and thought provoking as the graphic novel itself. Moviegoers must go in with at least a minor understanding of what they're stepping into, because it's such a unique and visceral world, it's hard to become wrapped up in it unless you know what to expect. That said, Watchmen does indeed border on the same brilliance that the graphic novel does and due to its absolute faithfulness and attention to detail, is an extraordinary adaptation unlike anything I've ever seen on the big screen.
Alex's Watchmen Rating: 9 out of 10