Yesterday I Saw 26 Minutes of Watchmen

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watchnuts-713780-753329.jpgDirector Zack Snyder is doing a kind of traveling road show, screening clips from Watchmen ‘cross the nation. Yesterday that road show traveled to the Warner Brothers screening room in Manhattan. The movie will be out in March, assuming Fox and Warner don’t sue each other back to the stone age before then, but I have now seen 26 minutes of it.

First off, Snyder did a kind of breezy chatty intro. In person he seems to enjoy coming off as a bit of a goof — he’s funny and charming, but he gives you no indication that he could ever direct anything with even a trace amount of darkness in it. (And here’s some Snyder trivia: as the woman sitting next to me pointed out, he has incredibly tiny feet.) He basically talked about how the studio wanted him to make Watchmen all about the War on Terror, and he said yeah, but wouldn’t it be cooler if we just made the movie as much like the comic as possible. Then 300 blew up, and the studio started agreeing with him, and here we are. He also mentioned that his current cut of the movie comes in at 2:42, but he may have to take it down for the theatrical release.

Then they rolled tape. Up until that moment I wasn’t sure how I felt about a Watchmen movie. I mean, Watchmen is holy writ. As a colossal fan of Alan Moore — who has taken his name off the project — I’m not supposed to like it. But nerd gods forgive me, it was awesome.

(Note: that incredible Watchmen/Peanuts mashup is by Evan Shaner.)

Clip number one was the death of the Comedian. Picture very intense, very balletic close-quarters fisticuffs between two super-powered entities, both capable of both giving and taking unnatural amounts of damage, staged in a tiny shabby studio apartment. Beautifully choreographed, and with a minimum of irritating jump-cutting so you can actually see the beautiful choreography. (This being Snyder, he occasionally slo-mos the action so you can see it even better.) Walls and kitchen fixtures are being taken out left and right. And instead of the usual pulse-pounding hip-hop score, designed to artificially ratchet up the excitement, it all takes place to Nat King Cole softly, mellowly crooning “Unforgettable.”

The effect is amazing. You’re watching weapons-grade ass-kicking, but instead of it being exciting — or instead of it being merely exciting — the whole sequence is suffused with melancholy: you sense that you’re witnessing the twilight of the idols, the fading away of the great age of superheroics.

Clip number two: a long opening title sequence, basically retelling the history of America in the 20th Century, up to 1985, but with superheroes added. Dr. Manhattan shaking hands with J.F.K. Ozymandias hanging out with Ziggy-era David Bowie. (All this is done with look-alike doubles and prosthetics, not CGI. I wonder if they got Dead Bowie from Dr. Horrible.) Again the soundtrack helps sell it: Bob Dylan, “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” Everything is very composed and painterly. It doesn’t look like 300, but it has that same very obsessive attention to detail and composition.

Clip number three: the origin of Dr. Manhattan, complete with some powder-blue full-frontal radioactive penis ack-shawn. (In context it’s not particularly shocking. I mean, if you were vaporized by a nuclear experiment, would you wear clothes? Exactly. Plus, it’s blue.) I didn’t get the impression that the effects were entirely complete, but the sequence does powerfully convey that 1950’s era nuclear-scientist nostalgia — lab coats, heavy glasses, cigarettes. And some of the CGI was very purty: the ghostly materialization of Dr. M’s circulatory system, for example, and his crystal-clockwork Martian palace.

Clip number four: Nite Owl and Silk Spectre bust Rorschach out of prison. More kung fu fighting.

And that was it. Oh, afterward Snyder brought up Dave Gibbons, the artist who drew Watchmen, for a fireside chat. (Apparently there will be a Watchmen video game. I’m gonna go way out on a limb here and say that it will probably suck.)

But that footage did not suck. It’s difficult to reconcile the obvious good-ness of that Watchmen footage with the basic unadaptability of the book to film, so to do so I have sort of mentally severed the movie from its source, the better to enjoy both. If the movie wants to be a good movie, we might as well let it. I mean, the movie isn’t going to somehow retroactively make the book worse.

Granted, I was excited after I saw footage from Golden Compass, and that wound up being quite a bad film. But if Watchmen is as good as what I saw yesterday, it’ll be the super-hero movie of the year.

Oh, and on the way back to the office I randomly passed Chris Noth from Sex and the City on the sidewalk. So that happened too.