Mr. Beaks Sees Twenty-Five Minutes Of Zack Snyder's WATCHMEN, Says More Than "Hurm"!
Published at: Oct. 2, 2008, 4:05 p.m. CST by mrbeaks
"I am going to look at the stars. They are so far away, and their light takes so long to reach us. All we ever see of stars are their old photographs."
When I read, I have a peculiar tendency to sort of "score the book". In other words, as soon as I pick up on the mood of the piece, a melody presents itself - typically a melody from another composer, but not always. It's a habit I cultivated in childhood, and it grew out of my fierce interest in comic books - and since movies were my other preferred method of storytelling, why not treat the reading of a graphic novel like the unfolding of a film? And so it went: Bernard Herrmann for THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS; Vangelis's "End Titles" theme from BLADE RUNNER for THE UNCANNY X-MEN; running triplets of my own devising for any of the Spider-Man series. Sometimes I hum them. Oftentimes, people think I'm certifiable.
For WATCHMEN, it was Prokofiev's "Lieutenant Kije Suite" - or Sting's appropriation of it for his heavy-handed Cold War lament, "Russians" - and it was a purely emotional response to the melancholy origin story of Dr. Manhattan, which begins in Chapter IV, amid the frigid loneliness of Mars, with the above-quoted observation. For me, "Russians" and WATCHMEN have been inextricable since I made that association; it's what I hear every time I revisit Alan Moore's graphic novel (a part of me always wanted to pair the two when I made my brilliant adaptation of WATCHMEN; stunningly, that never happened). I figured it was stuck there for good.
Well, now it's gone, replaced by Philip Glass's mournful, organ-tinged "Prophecies" from KOYAANISQATSI. As far as I'm concerned, Zack Snyder is henceforth in full ownership of Jon Osterman's vaporization and glowing blue rebirth as "Dr. Manhattan". And while I hate to make sweeping proclamations based on twenty-five minutes of unfinished footage (unveiled Wednesday evening by Warner Bros. at The Lot in West Hollywood), I'm beginning to sense that he's transformed Moore's "unfilmable" deconstruction of the twentieth-century superhero into indelible twenty-first century cinema.
But first, Snyder's got to lock down that Glass cue - which, as of now, is not permanent (though it's certainly been on his mind for a while, seeing as how it accompanied the extended teaser at Comic Con '08). He should also do everything in his power to keep the original recording of Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are a-Changin'" for the opening title sequence (a stirring montage of key events starting with the "Minutemen" period and concluding with that molotov cocktail through the glass storefront), even though he told us that he's going to have to expanded the bridge to leg the three-minute tune out to six minutes. If there's a way to seamlessly mesh the old with the new, I'd much prefer it to a new recording; the original is too loaded with deep societal significance. And, oh, what a sickening feeling to hear it whilst watching an overcranked recreation of JFK's assassination from the vantage point of The Comedian as the second gunman (I literally flinched at this).
Moore's tome has not humbled Snyder; it's emboldened him. Whereas Snyder seemed committed to channeling Frank Miller's 300 directly from the page to the screen (with every thrust and decapitation intact), he's bravely added his own flourishes to WATCHMEN. Aside from the music, which adroitly evokes the era (KOYAANISQATSI was very much a 1980s Cold War creation), he's also made reference to the most influential movies of our time. When you see Nixon in the War Room, it's Kubrick's War Room; when Dr. Manhattan is brutally taming Vietnam, it's Coppola's Vietnam (though, according to production designer Alex McDowell, minor stylistic alterations, like the shape of the overhead lights in the War Room, were necessary to avoid legal dust-ups*). Snyder may not be a stranger to audaciousness (he did, after all, remake DAWN OF THE DEAD), but this is the first time I've sensed him in the work. And I think this reconfiguring of classic cinematic tropes is a potentially brilliant idea. Conceptually, it's in keeping with Moore's depiction of pop culture rising up against (or knuckling under) the encroachment of full-blown authoritarianism; hell, I think the notoriously cranky writer might even approve of some of these changes.
I do not, however, think he'd be a huge fan of Snyder's pre-credit fight sequence between The Comedian and you-know-who. Though it's an essential (and very well done) capitulation to the demands of the marketplace, purists will almost certainly carp at the idea of a conventional action set piece (probably a minute long) kicking off WATCHMEN. The jailhouse rescue of Rorschach has also been protracted to show off the combat expertise of Nite Owl and Silk Spectre; again, it's invigorating stuff (Snyder subscribes to the full-shot, long-take philosophy of filmic fisticuffs, which is refreshing in our post-BOURNE age), but it's definitely an embellishment of what's on the page. Same goes for Dr. Manhattan casually exploding a bunch of thugs in a night club - though I think we all can agree on the shot of the tough guys' innards plastered to the ceiling from the impact. This is what happens when mere mortals go toe-to-toe with a real-life "Superman".
One other fan caveat has been the fetish-y appearance of Michael Wilkinson's costumes. Drop it. On a functional level, they work beautifully within Snyder's (and McDowell's) heightened environment; meanwhile, on a thematic level, they're a smart and, I think, necessary answer to the rubber-suit nonsense of the modern superhero movie. With such heavily deconstructive material, Snyder would be remiss if he didn't comment on the medium in which this version of Moore's narrative is being told.
At the end of the day, it's twenty-five minutes of unfinished footage, so I don't want to damn the film with unreasonable expectations by saying it's "epochal" or that it "looks like nothing I've ever seen before" - even though both escaped my lips as I discussed the presentation with Moriarty on the way home. It's too early. And these pre-release, piecemeal hype generators can be misleading. That said, even if Snyder Bathgates the rest of the movie, those opening credits and Dr. Jon Osterman's Glass-scored ascent from man to God are all-timers. Available evidence suggests that these passages won't be isolated glimmers of genius. It's taken two decades, but the light has reached us. People, I think Zack Snyder has conquered WATCHMEN.
My apologies, Zack, but you called your shot last night. You've earned the hyperbole. Now finish this fucker right.
*Yes, the Fox lawsuit came up, and, no, Snyder had nothing to say beyond a stock "We're focused on finishing the movie" type of deflection.)