I finally got around to seeing "Watchmen," the recent adaptation of the classic graphic novel, and I had a few ideas about it I wanted to air. I'm going to post a review on my other site once I get around to it, but these notes are separate from my views on the film as piece of cinema and are more in regard to some of the issues surrounding it.
First off, let me say that I enjoyed "Watchmen". It was entertaining and visually compelling. I'm also a fan of the original graphic novel, which I consider one of the classics of the medium. I'm not going to go into some comparison of the two works, since I feel that's kind of like comparing apples and Honda Civics. They serve different purposes and express themselves through different means and saying one is better than the other is a meaningless sentiment.
Now, though I enjoyed the film, I can't say my opinion of director Zack Snyder has improved. I've gone from considering him to be as dumb as a bag of rocks to now considering him being as dumb as a particularly stupid bag of rocks. I don't see his work improving over the course of what I fear will be a long, successful career. He's the directorial version of an abortionist, taking the work of others and cutting out the ideas from like so many unwanted pregnancies. I first noticed this with his "Dawn of the Dead" remake, which was an entertaining film, yet lacked absolutely everything that made it worth remaking. The original was a grand guignol commentary on the ills of American society and human nature; the remake was a zombie film that mostly took place in a mall.
I never actually bothered with "300," which looked like a headache in cinematic form, so let's skip right to "Watchmen". The graphic novel was a rambling discourse on the meaning of heroes in our culture. It was philosophical in its own way. This film is just a particularly epic superhero movie. The words are the same, but the purpose is gone. When the Comedian points to a riot-ravaged NYC in the 1970s and says that this is the culmination of the American dream, the words don't have any meaning. They just sound cool. "Watchmen" wasn't intended to be a thrilling action story, though those elements are there. Snyder located them and focused on them exclusively. A more creative director could have found ways to use some of the paraphernalia Alan Moore included in the book to add depth to the story and give meaning to the ideas expressed in it. Snyder just slavishly translated everything to screen that was translatable and filled it with little in-jokes for the fans.
Apparently I really hate fans. They always seem to ruin everything they claim to love. For example, I feel a less faithful adaptation of "Watchmen" would have been closer to the spirit of the source material. During the project's long production history (there have been talks of an adaptation since the late 1980s) there was once a director (I believe it was Darren Aronofsky) attached to wanted to updated the story to modern times, with references to terrorism and the Gulf wars. The studio balked and subsequently Snyder was chosen, in part because of he promised not to change the story. Wouldn't want to upset the fans by adapting a work that had said something about contemporary society in such a way so that it continues to say something about contemporary society. In a way, this film is like watching a performance by group of Monty Python fans recreating their favorite sketches, repeating everything the same as the original, right down to the vocal inflections. You might laugh because the sketches are still funny, but the spirit of anarchic invention and unexpected surrealism is gone. It becomes a museum piece rather than a continuation of the ideas that made the original have such an impact.
Even a less radical adaptation would have been more interesting than what we got. I would have loved to see Terry Gilliam's miniseries adaptation or Paul Greengrass's take on the work. But unfortunately Gilliam is cursed to never finish another good movie for as long as he still breathes and Greengrass got distracted by less interesting projects. And what we got was a film that is entertaining for exactly the 2 hours, 45 minutes it's playing, but gives you nothing to think about later other than how it looked or hour entertaining it was. It's a fun movie to watch, but a boring one to think about.