Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Lost World of the Watchmen

Watching Zack Snyder’s new adaptation of the happily uncredited Alan Moore and the very-much credited Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen is somewhat like watching the CliffsNotes to Moby Dick. Regarding any other product of the comics medium, such a statement would be ludicrously pretentious. In the case of Watchmen, however, we are dealing with something very much like a great work, and films of great works are rarely successful. Made under conditions of extreme aesthetic intimidation, they are always caught between the desire to capture the success of the original by osmosis, i.e. imitation, and the knowledge that cinematic adaptations are almost always at their best when they are least faithful. Snyder’s Watchmen, unfortunately, tends to have the worst of both worlds. Its faithfulness undermines its power, and the moments when it is unfaithful are rarely an improvement.

Snyder has what many other filmmakers in his position have lacked, however, namely a good excuse. Watchmen has long been acknowledged—by director Terry Gilliam and Moore himself, amongst others—to be essentially unfilmable. Its plot can be described fairly simply: a group of retired superheroes, most of whom have no super powers, try to solve the murder of a former colleague in an alternative 1985, in which the world is poised on the brink of nuclear annihilation. This brief if accurate description fails to convey, however, anything of the intensity with which Watchmen assaults the reader. Dense, non-linear, and kaleidoscopic in structure, Watchmen is a book which defies and defines its genre while simultaneously deconstructing it. The comparison to Moby Dick is apt in that Watchmen’s power derives from the fact that it remains a genre piece even while it is subjected to an overwhelming concentration of forces which lead, ultimately, to the sublime destruction of itself and its own medium. Much as Melville set out to write a simple, above-average tale of adventure on the high seas, and ended up anticipating literary modernism by over half a century, Moore and Gibbons set out to create an interesting twist on the superhero genre, and ended up producing a tour de force of post-modernism. Watchmen is a book that got away from its authors and inadvertently became more than the sum of its many, many parts.

Snyder’s film, unfortunately, is nothing but parts. One senses while watching it that the filmmakers cherry-picked the book for its most impressive setpieces, which they then quite faithfully, and quite spectacularly, committed to film, sometimes almost frame-for-frame. Certainly, this leads to some extraordinary moments, but they remain only moments. In Moore’s book, by contrast, they lead inexorably, but completely without the reader’s awareness, to a stunning final reveal in which all the loose threads, all the bizarre twists and turns of his seemingly inscrutable narrative come together in a single, apocalyptic moment involving a vagina dentata straight out of a Freudian nightmare. This horror has, notoriously, been erased from Snyder’s film, along with most of the other small details which could not have been contained in a movie of any manageable length, but which are essential to Moore’s steady escalation toward something like the end of the world. Without its great magician’s reveal, and everything that leads up to it, Watchmen on film feels somehow partial, unfinished, and lost in its own web of homages to the formidable original.

Read the rest at The New Ledger.