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Mr. Beaks Hails The Filmable WATCHMEN!

Is it possible to be in awe of Zack Snyder's WATCHMEN and still be unsure as to whether it works as a standalone motion picture? And is there any point in judging the theatrical cut of the film at all when Snyder's preferred version, which runs thirty minutes longer, is set to hit DVD this fall (and, perhaps, theaters this summer)? After two viewings, I'm still struggling with these questions. Being that this is a 161-minute condensing of a twelve-issue graphic novel loaded with ephemera and exposition (one which, like most of you, I've read numerous times), this is to be expected. But there is one question I'm no longer pondering, and that is whether WATCHMEN can work as a motion picture - because for long stretches of Snyder's theatrical cut, it works rather brilliantly. Unlike such allegedly "unfilmable" novels as William Burroughs's NAKED LUNCH or Paul Bowles's THE SHELTERING SKY, WATCHMEN doesn't require a top-down restructuring (or, in the case of the Burroughs, a coherent interpretation). Though tricky in that you can never be sure whether Alan Moore is being satiric or sincere, the graphic novel at least comes equipped with a clean narrative. Strip away all the noise, and WATCHMEN is really just a hard-boiled detective yarn, with Rorschach knocking about as a supremely fucked-up Philip Marlowe. So just nail that throughline down (using Dave Gibbons's illustrations as glorified storyboards), and you can start to adorn the narrative with whatever thematic elements it will bear. Easy, right? Though Snyder and his screenwriters, David Hayter and Alex Tse, haven't exactly turned air into gold here, they've still worked a minor miracle with their adaptation by finding a way to keep the film moving while it briefly sidesteps into backstory and origin vignettes. Aside from the shockingly wanton brutality of, say, Rorschach cleaving open a child murderer's skull (rather than humanely setting him ablaze as he does in the graphic novel), there's not an extraneous moment in the theatrical cut. If there's a detour, it serves a purpose, be it narrative or emotional. It's a wonder of elimination, really. Snyder and company have sacrificed plenty - the one-sided banter between the news vendor and his loyal non-customer, the prison psychiatrist's marriage-splintering fascination with Rorschach, an explanation for Veidt's genetically-engineered pet cat, Bubastis - but they've cleanly, sometimes elegantly explained every main character's motivation/neuroses. This may be WATCHMEN cut to the bone, but it is WATCHMEN, and it works sensationally well. If you've read the comic. And that's what's most peculiar about Snyder's achievement: his film is aimed almost exclusively at those who've read the graphic novel. Starting with the opening credits sequence (a cleverly modified walkthrough of Hollis Mason's UNDER THE HOOD), he dispenses with backstory at a dizzying clip, and doesn't seem to be worried that the uninitiated might not be able to keep up. Perhaps he thinks it'll be more mindblowing for the newcomers this way. Or maybe it'll just be utterly confusing. Again, that's something I can't answer. I just know that, as a fan, I love that the first knife flung in The Comedian's defense embeds itself in a framed pin-up of Sally Jupiter. Or that the lesbian Silhouette boldly outs herself via the iconic V-J Day kiss. Or that Dr. Manhattan filmed Neil Armstrong's ho-hum first steps on the moon. These scenes reward familiarity, and, I can only assume, confound everyone else*. Regardless, it gets the film off to a rousing start. It's a welcome elation, too, seeing as how the next twenty minutes or so are a semi-slavish recreation of comic's first chapter. This is also where Snyder hedges his bets on that brilliant introductory montage by having Hollis Mason recount the formation of the Crimebusters for his Nite Owl successor, Dan Dreiberg. It's a clunky scene, but, short of inventing a new opening, unfortunately necessary. Same goes for Rorschach's forced-entry drop-in on Dreiberg and the latter's meeting with Adrien Veidt (a slight diversion from the comic which makes Dreiberg a more active protagonist). Thankfully, there's plenty of eye candy - i.e. Alex McDowell's elaborate production design and Michael Wilkinson's alterna-period costuming - to keep your interest while the plot is being set in motion. But once Snyder snaps the film back to life with The Comedian's funeral (mockingly scored to "The Sounds of Silence"), it never bogs down again. Finally unencumbered by solitary locations and perfunctory dialogue, Snyder roars into the murderous history of Edward Blake with a Wagnerian fury. Never more than a monster in the early stages of the comic, Jeffrey Dean Morgan portrays The Comedian as a beast with a glimmer of guilt in his eyes. When he guns down that pregnant Vietnamese villager, his reprimand of Dr. Manhattan carries a tinge of disappointment, a bit of "Why didn't you stop me!?!?" Same goes for his post-riot diatribe to Dreiberg; in Morgan's interpretation, The Comedian seems to be begging someone to yank his leash. Moore can trash the existence of Snyder's film all he wants, but this is one of those instances where film can actually deepen one's connection to the text. The other key emotional enhancement comes courtesy of Jackie Earle Haley, who claims Rorschach so completely that Dave Gibbons might as well go back and re-draw every frame featuring Walter Kovacs's exposed face (Moore would be cool with that, right?). Rorschach is still the disgusting, canned beans-chomping sociopath he's always been, but there is an added layer of sadness that wasn't perceptible in the Moore/Gibbons conception. Hiding under the feral rage of Haley's Kovacs is a frightened little boy who's holding the entire world responsible for every sin it's ever committed; it's payback for the world's indifference to his mistreatment at the hands of his whore mother and anyone else who thought it'd be fun to take a crack at a funny-looking kid. There's sympathy for Rorschach. To a point. We do feel for the loner when he apologizes to Dreiberg for years of impossible behavior, but we still fear the savage. Still, he's a monster of cruelty's creating, and, thanks to Haley, he's the battered heart of the film. There has been talk that Snyder's WATCHMEN lacks consequence, that the unthinkable tragedy of the third act means nothing because a) the only fleshed-out characters are head-cases in costumes, and b) the threat of nuclear annihilation isn't as frighteningly present as it was during the Cold War. This is fair. Though Snyder and McDowell have built a tactile, fully-believable world, its non-heroic inhabitants are completely unknown to us; ergo, their vaporization is merely the grand finale to a bitchin' f/x light show. But since the effort has been made to identify the news vendor, the psychiatrist et al. in the moments prior to the blast, I've got to think that they'll get their due in Snyder's cut of the film. So I'll cut him some slack on this charge for now. The Cold War disconnect is a different matter altogether, and it's one Snyder won't be able to fix short of throwing us all in a time machine. I can still remember the chill I felt in 1986 at the close of Chapter III, when the vendor is stunned into an act of kindness upon learning that the Russians have invaded Afghanistan. That wasn't fantasy; that was fucking real. Anytime one of the superpowers flexed its muscles, everyone's sphincters tightened. And there was such a profound sense of helplessness. I'll never forget a discussion I had with my dad after watching THE DAY AFTER. Scared out of my wits, I asked him where we'd hide in the event of the nuclear war. "The basement," he answered. "Will we be safe there?" "Probably not," he replied. Snyder does a credible job of recalling that hysteria, but it registers as nostalgia in his film, not mortal fear. Sticking to things Snyder could actually control, I think he made the right choice in opting for a squid-less finale - if only because he cut down on the pre-attack exposition by about three pages. More practically, establishing early that Veidt and Dr. Manhattan are working on a limitless energy project eliminates the need for a late-in-the-game lecture on genetic engineering (which makes Bubastis's presence somewhat puzzling; perhaps that's explained in Snyder's cut); as a film, the story just flows better this way. Also, I like the idea of Utopia breaking out over the very rational fear of a known angry god. WATCHMEN is far from a perfect film, but it has so much greatness in it that I'm unwilling to issue a definitive judgment until I've seen the director's definitive version. True, some of the flaws will remain (e.g. Malin Ackerman's miscasting, the unconvincing old-age makeup, and the often declamatory dialogue copied straight from the comic), but these are minor infractions when compared to the majesty of the KOYAANISQATSI-scored origin of Dr. Manhattan, Haley's Rorschach, Morgan's Comedian, and those incredible opening credits. This is a stunning achievement. I didn't know if Snyder had an artistic identity of his own after 300, but there is a voice ringing out in his WATCHMEN that doesn't belong to Moore or Gibbons. Hayter and Tse certainly deserve credit for wrangling what was believed to be an unruly text, but the soul of this piece must belong to Snyder. It's just goddamn amazing that this movie exists at all. Faithfully submitted, Mr. Beaks

*It reminds me of Michael Mann's mesmerizing, detail-laden opening montage for ALI, which, in less than ten minutes, deploys a series of terse visual cues to account for every obstacle and injustice that's driven the boxer to his transformative showdown with Sonny Liston. Even though it's one of the most brilliantly edited sequences of the decade, I'm convinced Mann lost most of his audience this way.

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