Saturday, 19 January 2013

Who Watches the Zack Snyder?

"Zack Snyder to direct Star Wars film!"

I read that headline last week and my heart nearly stopped. The walls began closing in. One of my least favourite directors was to work on one of my most beloved properties. The thought made me feel physically ill.
The next day, Snyder and his agents thankfully denied all knowledge (though that itself could be a lie) and I started breathing again. But now he's on my mind, itching in the back of my brain, so I want to share my thoughts:

Snyder is a director who actually gets a lot of love, particularly among the geek community, but who I simply cannot stand. That opinion is born not from his obsessive use of speed-ramping (though that is incredibly annoying) but from his atrocious handling of one film in particular.

The rest of his films are exercises in style-over-substance, with varying degrees of success. They are all undeniably stylish, but also undeniably hollow.
Dawn of the Dead is stupid, but it knows it's stupid and plays along (zombie baby!) which at times is kind of fun. 300 is equally stupid but plays it straight, which turns out to be even more fun. Sucker Punch seems to think it isn't stupid and tries to have some kind of message - but whatever that message is meant to be gets garbled in delivery (and it gives its shock ending away before it's even started). I have to admit to not having seen Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole, but it looks very stylish and (like its title) very stupid.

Which brings us to Watchmen.
For those who don't know, Watchmen is an adaptation of Alan Moore's graphic novel of the same name - often voted the greatest comic of all time. I'd read it when I saw the film, but I wouldn't have called myself a fan. It wasn't until I left the cinema, my blood boiling with rage and loathing, that I realised how much I did appreciate the comic! In its own way, the film convinced me I was a fan of the book.

Whenever I say I don't like Snyder's Watchmen (by which I mean I hate Snyder's Watchmen) the reaction is always the same: "But it looks just like the comic!"
Indeed, it does look like the comic. Snyder captures the look and the style of Dave Gibbons' art perfectly. But that's all he captures. Like everything else he's made, it's an abundance of style at the complete expense of substance. Watchmen looks just like the comic, but it feels completely wrong.
Not since Garth Jennings' unholy violation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has a film so totally misread the tone and messages of its source-material.

To explore this idea, we'll be delving into deep spoilers for both versions.

Before we start, let's make one thing clear: this is not about the squid. Getting rid of the squid is actually the only intelligent change the film makes. Tying the story back into Dr. Manhattan, instead of introducing this extra outside element (not to mention the weird inclusion of psychics), is definitely more concise and a neater ending for a film - not to mention that it's probably a better ending in general. I like that the squid is gone; I just don't like anything else.

Watchmen the comic shocked people, infamously so, because of the way it depicted violence. No-one had ever seen violence like this in a comic before. And Snyder seeks to replicate that shock value for a modern audience, so he ramps the violence up much higher.
What he fails to understand is that Watchmen didn't shock people because of how extreme it was (though that was certainly a factor), but rather how realistic it was. Watchmen's entire point is to ask what superheroes would be like in the real world; so, when they fight, it is real-world violence. Violence in comics had always been stylised and cartoonish ("Whack!" "Clud!" "Zonk!") and suddenly Watchmen appeared, showing actual realistic violence - that's where the shock came from. When Snyder (for example) has Silk Spectre literally kick someone's arm in half, he may be making it more extreme and shocking but he's also undermining that realism. Watchmen the film becomes an over-the-top cartoon again, which is exactly what the comic was pushing against.

The one time Snyder's extreme gore and shock-tactics are appropriate - the one time where the comic does this - is at the very end, where we see the devastation of the book's events. The final issue of the comic opens with pages and pages and pages of blood and mangled corpses. At this point, Watchmen is seeking to shock us - to show us the terrible human cost of what has occurred - so Snyder should be free to go all out. So why does he choose this one moment to discover restraint? Why is all we see a blasted cityscape with a few fires burning? Where is that final gut-punch? Where the comic sought realism, Snyder goes over-the-top; where the comic went over-the-top, Snyder shows us nothing at all!

Similarly intended to be shocking is the moment when Rorschach finally snaps. In the comic, on discovering the child-murderer, Rorschach very calmly cuffs him to a radiator and throws him a hacksaw, then sets the building on fire and says the man can either saw off his own hand or burn to death. Then he strolls outside to watch. No one comes out.
Realising that this was shocking at the time, but wouldn't be remotely shocking to a modern audience who already saw exactly that in Saw, Snyder again seeks to make it more extreme. In the film, Rorschach wordlessly attacks the man's head with a meat-cleaver again and again in a fit of rage.
One of these acts is a cold, calculated murder - the other is a crime of passion. This moment is the birth of Rorschach - this moment entirely defines his character - and the two events portray totally different people. One shows that Rorschach has made a very conscious decision to cross a line, where the other shows that he was overcome by his emotions. The first shows us an actual psychopath; the second shows us a man who lost control for a moment.
Snyder's mistake was not to change the events of the scene (there are other ways Rorschach could have killed him, and still remained chillingly detached) but to change the meaning of the scene. Snyder seems unable to see what the scene is supposed to be saying - only what it looks like and how shocking it is.
In that one moment, Snyder changes who Rorschach is, in relation to the story as well as to himself. But that's nothing compared to what he does to Ozymandias. Which brings us to the crux of the problem - the reason that Watchmen made me reject Zack Snyder so angrily.

Alan Moore's Watchmen does not have a protagonist or an antagonist. It has Rorschach - an unpleasant fascist sociopath - who stumbles upon and tries to stop a conspiracy that endangers thousands; and it has Ozymandias - a much nicer man - who is driven to do something unspeakable to (as he sees it) protect the world. It has characters doing the right thing for completely the wrong reason; it has characters doing the wrong thing for absolutely the right reason. There are no "good" or "bad" guys - there are just the characters, what they do, and whether or not you agree with them. This is what makes Watchmen great. Not the violence, not the style, but the fact it makes you think and weigh up your own values. It's written entirely in shades of grey.
Snyder's Watchmen, on the other hand, has a fairly clear protagonist in Rorschach, and a very clear antagonist in Ozymandias. Ozy is given all the depth of a pantomime villain - sneering, condescending, German - and none of his motivations ring true. Far from doing what he does to save the world, he seems to do it just because he's evil. It's so cut-and-dry that it makes me want to scream.
Snyder doesn't even hide the fact that he's the "villain". There's a point where Ozymandias is attacked by an assassin (that he himself hired) in a room full of civilians. This serves to remove the characters' (and our) suspicions from him, as the unseen bad-guys surely wouldn't try to kill him if he was involved. At least, that would be the point of the scene if Snyder hadn't instead used it to show how evil he is. In the comic Ozymandias singlehandedly tackles the gunman - risking his own life to save civilians, like the superhero he is meant to be. In the film he actually ducks behind the civilians and uses them as meat-shields. This superhero is apparently a massive coward and an uncaring bastard, if not entirely evil. Who's behind all this? wonders the audience. Could it be the guy who just got those innocent people killed?
Maybe Snyder decided to play the scene this way to demonstrate how little Ozymandias values human life, as a precursor to his killing thousands. But that's just it - that's what annoys me so much. When, at the end of the comic, he says, "I've made myself feel every death," he clearly means it. This is the one moment that we see the pain and the weight of his terrible actions. He believes he has done the right thing, but it's cost him his soul.
In the film he says the same line, but it feels like an empty platitude. He delivers it with the same lack of emotion that he gives all his other dialogue. How strange that Snyder decided to make Ozymandias detached in this emotional moment, when he made Rorschach so emotional in the scene we mentioned before. Again, he does not see the purpose of the line - he's oblivious to the depth of the character.

It may seem harsh to pin all this on Snyder, but I truly believe this is all his doing. Nothing in the script is wrong - the words and events are fine - it's in the presentation and delivery that Watchmen falls apart. It's the director who asked Ozymandias to give a Ming the Merciless performance. It's the director who shot the violence as an over-stylised cartoon. It's the director who captured the colours, lighting and angle of actual frames from the comic; and then completely undermined the narrative purpose of those frames. It's Snyder who read the comic and saw only shallow style, base shock-value, and plain black and white.
Watchmen's morality should shift and blur like Rorschach's mask (did Moore do that on purpose?) but Snyder takes it at face value. The result is a hollow, empty, worthless film - but it tucks its parts away and dances in front of the mirror wearing Watchmen's face.

Normally this would not annoy me so much. Normally I would let a poor adaptation slide by and just roll my eyes. But this film constantly makes Best Comic-Book Movie of All Time lists at position two or three. This film is more popular among fans of the comic than those who haven't read it. This film is somehow considered a good adaptation. That's why Watchmen fills me with rage - because this praise makes no sense to me!
There's more to an adaptation than mimicking how something looks. Especially something that is revered for the weighty themes at its heart. But, like all Snyder's work, he pours his attention into the style and lets the substance pass him by. As a result, Watchmen not only fails to address, but completely ignores the message of the book.
Zack Snyder got Watchmen wrong. I don't even consider that an opinion. It's a fact.

If that's how violently my body rejected Watchmen - a property I didn't actually realise I was a fan of - imagine the fallout if Snyder got his hands on Star Wars. I wonder if I'd commit clinical murder or a crime of passion? And would he even notice the difference?