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watchmen (the movie): too good for its own good?

Could Alan Moore have been both right and wrong at the same time? This is what I keep asking myself a few days after seeing Watchmen.

The anticipation for this movie, certainly among the graphic novel nerds like myself, was probably matched in recent memory only by The Dark Knight. Zack Snyder & Co. clearly went through an herculean effort to remain as true as possible to the source material. Everything is there: as good and sometimes better as you could have imagined it. The complexity of the story remains untouched, and given what the book was this is, to me, nothing short of astonishing. Even the change to the ending, with the now-famous removal of the squid, is definitely an improvement. The squid may have been ok in the 80s, but these days… it just wouldn’t fly.

And yet… as the movie was ending I felt a bit exhausted. The story is, clearly, simply too much to cram into two and and a half hours unfiltered. Maybe it would be better suited to be a miniseries (Battlestar Galactica comes to mind as an example). The best way I can describe it is by using the oft-abused metaphor of drinking from a firehose. But even as it blasted your brain with raw data, Watchmen also felt somehow … surgical. Not that it had no soul, but, perhaps, that it had simply borrowed the book’s soul without developing one of its own.

More importantly, I was just sad. Not because the movie leaves you sad, but because I was immediately convinced that the movie would be a commercial failure (I still am). Why? Well, I knew the story really, really well going in. And even so, it was almost an effort to keep up and take it all in. Every scene, every sequence, was dense with references, in-jokes, subtext, and, of course, the time-jumping criss-crossing plotlines. I tried to think what would someone who hadn’t read the book, who wasn’t as much into multi-level, dense meta-plotlines (read: most people), would take away from the movie, and if they would enjoy it at all.

No, not all movies have to be blockbusters. But let’s face it: when you spend $150 MM to make a movie and then (at least) $50 MM to market it, and you basically spend over a year splattering trailers all over TV, cable, newspapers, and the interweb, that’s what you’re angling for. And in that, Watchmen fails miserably. It is not, in my opinion, making the story accessible to a wider audience which is part of what movies like this one are supposed to do.

Which brings me back to where I started. Moore famously stated that Watchmen was “inherently unfilmable”. We have the movie now, which proves the literal part of that statement wrong. But in staying true to the story as it was, in all of its complexity and overwhelming fury, it shows that it hasn’t made it more accessible at all — if anything, it’s become less accessible since you can’t just savor it: once you enter the theater you have to take it all in, beginning to end. So the movie becomes less a movie than a live-action version of what we already had, failing to become a unique entity on its own right. The alternative, chopping up the story to turn it into a marketable movie, would have also eviscerated it, negating the reason for doing the movie in the first place. In a word: unfilmable.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it. A lot. But I enjoyed it a bit less than I would have if I knew that everyone else would enjoy it as much. And that’s part of what makes a movie like, say, The Dark Knight, great. It lets everyone, fans and not, in on the fun. Isn’t it?

Update: A week later. Watched the movie again tonight. It’s as good if not better on a second watching. However – theater half-empty. At 7 pm on a Saturday. I hate to be right sometimes.

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