SPOILER ALERT: If you don’t want to know anything about "Watchmen" before you go see it next March, don’t read this post.
I saw about 20 minutes of footage from the "unfilmable" film on Wednesday and I’m very happy to report that Zack Snyder has a found a way to make "Watchmen" truly watchable.
The most pressing question in all of the fanboy universe right now is whether Snyder’s adaptation of the landmark 1986 comics epic "Watchmen" will deliver a classic finally realized or a merely bad idea pursued too long. Alan Moore, who wrote the original graphic novel, has been steadfast in mocking the basic notion of making a movie out of his sprawling, layered and uniquely structured tale and, to be sure, the story uses many devices (such as a secondary story presented as a book-within-a-book) that defy translation in any mainstream film, but does that mean that the core story of the graphic novel itself cannot be taken to the screen in an artistically and commercially viable film?
The true answer to that question will come in March with the release of the film. But I can tell you that, judging by the footage I saw on Wednesday, Snyder has approached the source material so deftly and with such acute understanding, that this adaptation is absolutely a worthwhile endeavor.
Snyder, who as a public speaker is enthusiastic and charmingly scattered, chatted a bit before the screening and in the small room of journalists, Hollywood types and selected fan press, you could sense a real surge of excitement when the lights dimmed.
For so many people (myself included), the first "Watchmen" reading experience all those years ago was a pivot-point in our pop-culture lives and, for better or worse, seeing it come to life on a screen is a stirring occasion.
The movie begins (as the graphic novel does) with a closer-than-close view of a yellow smiley-face button and begins to zoom out. The button is on the shabby bathrobe of the "hero," called the Comedian, who looks scruffy and bleary as he makes a cup of instant coffee in the kitchen of his high-rise apartment. The television is on and the talking heads (all actors doing spot-on versions of John McLaughlin and Eleanor Clift as well as a less recognizable Pat Buchanan) are debating the menace presented by the Soviet Union. Their chatter also informs the audience about Dr. Manhattan, the blue-skinned creature who was once a man but now, with his god-like powers, is a walking deterrent to America’s enemies. The Comedian, taking it all in through jaundiced eyes, changes the channel and watches President Nixon giving a speech and then, after flipping again, he chuckles and daydreams as he watches a perfume commercial for a scent called Veidt. Then a mysterious figure kicks in his door and a bloody confrontation begins…
It was difficult to keep notes as I was watching everything — Snyder has jam-packed the screen with details that every "Watchmen" fan will recognize if they catch them as they fly past. After the out-the-window murder of the Comedian (played by a grizzled Jeffrey Dean Morgan), the camera soars down to the bloody sidewalk below and goes "back into the button," zooming into the yellow of the smiley-face lapel pin that is now speckled with blood (again, just like the graphic novel). Some Bob Dylan music plays (Snyder said there are three Dylan songs planned for the movie, "because it just feels right, appropriate to the tone") as the film turns to a somewhat dizzying montage for the title sequence that delivers a major history lesson of this alternate Earth. Some of it made the audience chuckle (is that a good thing?), such as when the iconic imagery of the JFK assassination is shown but with the added conclusion of the Comedian holding the smoking gun or the shot of Ozymandias outside Studio 54 with Mick Jagger and David Bowie look-a-likes (who, on reflection, appear almost as outlandish as the costumed hero). There’s a lot of this and it feels sort of "Forrest Gump"-ish at some point and (along with the goofy rubber nose worn by the Nixon character) I felt a flash of anxiety. Was this too many jagged images delivered in a row? How could anyone who didn’t read the graphic novel make sense of it? And that one fleeting image of a dour young boy watching as smirking men walk into his prostitute mother’s bedroom — how on earth could any uninformed viewer be expected to connect that with the character that would become Rorschach?
Then Snyder showed a sequence from the middle of the film that made me wildly hopeful about it. It follows the origin of Dr. Manhattan and, like the graphic novel, skitters back and forth through time, following the character Jon Osterman (Billy Crudup) back-and-forth from from his life-changing accident back to his childhood to meeting and wooing his future wife. It’s absolutely brilliant and, for those who worry that a movie can’t capture the bold narrative alchemy of Moore, this sequence shows that Snyder is a crackling-good storyteller, not just an action choreographer with a flair for green screen.
That was followed by a prison break sequence, which happened to be the scenes that Snyder was filming while I was on the set. Again, great stuff, and, in tone, a nice mesh between the fairly absurd idea of people in costumes beating up bad guys with a reality-grounded storytelling style that has weight and consequence.
After the lights came up, I started thinking that "Watchmen" wants to be the "GoodFellas" of super-hero cinema (and, to take the Martin Scorsese reference further, that "The Dark Knight" was sort of the "Taxi Driver" of the genre, with its propulsive and nightmarish nihilism and urban mercilessness). Like the 1990 gangster epic, "Watchmen" looks like it will be a complex, visually dynamic film that follows the generational decay of a larger-than-life, romanticized tribe. The members of the tribe, be they damaged nobles or mad-dog soldiers, lose their way as the world around them becomes more cynical, bloodthirsty, compromised and corrupt. "They’re all broken," Snyder told the crowd.
He also noted the number of clear cinema references ("Apocalypse Now," "Dr. Strangelove," the Tim Burton "Batman" films) and famous names and faces sprinkled throughout. "It’s a pop culture soup we want to ladle out." He added that he wants audiences, now so inured to caped crusader films, to be pulled in thinking that this was a straight superhero film, only to "have their minds blown" the way his was when he started thumbing through the original story by Moore.
Initially, Snyder was reluctant to take the project on and when he did, he was going to concede to the existing screenplay’s plan to update the time-setting of the film to modern day, where the modern war on terrorism and other geopolitical factors were hard-wired into the story by Moore. "I didn’t pound on the table," Snyder said. But, after contemplating all factors, he realized that its setting in the 1980s (and earlier) gave it weight, texture and context that was essential. "There’s a reason," he said, "that the graphic novel was groundbreaking."
Also, answering a question from the audience, he quickly and decisively dismissed the notion of creating a sequel or prequel to this movie, no matter what. And he in fact pledged that if that did happen, it would happen without him on board.
After the screening, I chatted a bit with Zack, whose team brought along props and costumes from the production to dazzle the audience of tastemakers. Walking toward the reception, he said that the original story of "Watchmen" was so artfully crafted that his central task as a filmmaker was making sure he stayed faithful. He said the R rating was vital and the movie does have a lot of blood splatter and Dr. Manhattan’s blue penis is right there for all the world to see. "We had to deal with the question how often do we show it, how much is too much? Crazy stuff."
I was very happy that I could tell Snyder, with genuine enthusiasm, that his movie looks great. It’s not the graphic novel because it doesn’t need to be, the same way that, say, "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "The English Patient" could be extremely different on the screen than they were on the page, with success in each medium. Snyder looked giddy after finally getting to show significant footage to a room of people outside of the production. "This is part of the road show, spreading the word. This is great."
And what is Snyder up to now? He told me he is writing a script for a film called "Sucker Punch," which he says will fulfill his fondest wish as a moviemaker. "I want to do a real action movie."
I actually laughed out loud. What about "300"? "No, seriously, this will be different. I want to do a really intense, R-rated action movie that has super sexy scenes and is extremely cool. I want to take the action into the stratosphere. It’s not like anything I’ve done."
After "Watchmen," I suspect Snyder will be able to do just about anything he wants as a filmmaker.
– Geoff Boucher
All "Watchmen" images courtesy of Warner Bros.
2004 photo of Zack Snyder by Ricardo DeAratanha/Los Angeles Times