Not Coming to a Theater Near You 2000–2009 The Decade in Review

Who Watches the Watchmen: Trends in Post-Millennial Cinema by David Carter

Who Watches the Watchmen: trends in post-millennial cinema by David Carter The first decade of the new century has closed, and with it commences an attempt to contextualize the arts, events and politics of the past ten years. This attempt is, in other words, to articulate a synecdochical zeitgeist of the age, a desire to definitively speak about a particular era – such as “the sixties” or “the eighties” – in shorthand, with the pretense that it encompasses a uniform group of opinions, artistic styles and moods. In the case of the past decade in question, such classification may prove difficult, however, as it has yet to engender a commonly agreed upon name.

This difficulty in retrospection naturally extends to cinema, which, in the past ten years alone, spans tens of thousands of works. I admit that I have difficultly reconciling a particular year’s worth of cinema with another enough to speak about it with confidence, and recapping a decade only exacerbates the issue. To facilitate discussion of the past decade’s cinema, however, I will concentrate on one film, Zack Snyder’s 2009 Watchmen, as indicative of the varied and sometimes conflicting ideas at work during the 2000s.

At first glance, Watchmen’s mish-mash of conspiracy theories, super heroes and international politics seems to have little in common with the bulk of cinema in the first decade of the new century. Yet beyond these superficial aspects, Watchmen has many traits that indicate a new era of filmmaking and viewership, both for good and ill. Regardless of your assessment of the film, it is an invaluable tool for understanding the progression of cinema during the decade and a good place to begin speculation about the future.

Watchmen is derived from the popular and revered comic of the same name, and a large number of films of the past decade were similarly derived from other media. The decade’s biggest big-office successes – the Harry Potter films, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Spiderman, Christopher Nolan’s Batman films and Twilight – all have their genesis outside of the world of cinema. To date, sixteen of the decade’s top twenty-five grossing films as listed on (on 12/14/09) have origins as books, television shows, comics or cartoons, compared to six from the 1990s (same data set). The 00s also saw studios looking beyond the standard text-to-screen adaptations, turning the Disneyworld ride Pirates of the Caribbean into a massively successful franchise and adapting over forty videogames into films, with only eleven videogame films being made in the two decades prior.

Adapting an existing property is a double-edged sword for filmmakers: on one hand, you have a ready-made audience eager to see their beloved work translated to the big screen, but with that comes higher expectations and greater scrutiny. Although Watchmen deviates from its source material at times, it's ultimately faithful to the majority of the work. Many of the decade’s adaptations are equally faithful, which raises questions of the authenticity of their filmic versions as separate works of art. How can one adequately judge the filmic Watchmen when most of its words and images already exist in another form? Scenes are recreated whole cloth, and Snyder prided himself on his ability to recreate completely the iconic images of the source, something for which he received praise from critics and fans alike. Since it is not precisely Snyder’s vision on screen, can we then call Watchmen “art” of the same pedigree as its source, or is it simply reproduction? Is it possible to assess the merits of Watchmen, Harry Potter, et al., without a consideration of the source?

There is not an easy answer to the questions raised by the wave of adaptations and remakes that have dominated the decade. As a film critic, I’m inclined to believe that one can analyze such films separate from their origins, yet I am fully aware that you can’t critique the plot, art direction or pacing of Watchmen without critiquing Moore and Gibbons’ work as well. Adaptations don’t defy criticism, but they do preclude it to an extent. I’ll admit that I am not a fan of the original comic, but I am loathe to prejudice my assessment of its cinematic counterpart on that basis because the comic has been praised so highly by literary and comic scholars, making me feel that I, as a film critic, would have my opinions immediately discounted by readers and my peers for daring to challenge the status quo. The problem is the same for most viewers, who would have heard of the accolades and honors the comic received prior to seeing the film. The difficulties of having a “pure” cinematic experience with an adaptation or remake will likely follow audiences and critics into the next decade.

Watchmen capitalizes on a wave of nostalgia in American cinema for 1980s popular culture, much in the same manner as two other adaptations from the past decade, Transformers and GI Joe. Again, nostalgic cinema is a safe-bet for studios but it has the added benefit of not being held to the same quality standards as literary adaptations. Critics are united on the poor quality of Transformers, the Friday the 13th remake and their ilk, yet audiences continue to see them in droves. Each decade’s cinema has its own fixation with the past and even though they haven’t begun yet, the “teens” will feature an even larger number of 1980s nostalgia films: The A-Team, The Karate Kid, Dallas, Wall Street 2, TRON: Legacy, Red Dawn and Clash of the Titans are all currently in production and, if successful, this predilection with nostalgia could continue for several more years to come.

The wave of adaptations and nostalgia films has a common link unique to the 00s: the increased abilities of CGI to realize what was previously considered unfilmable, a claim once made about Moore and Gibbon’s comic. Watchmen, like The Lord of the Rings and Snyder’s own 300, relies heavily on computer-generated effects for everything from settings to characters. The improvements in technology have lead to a marked increase in the number of fantasy films produced. Of the twenty top grossing live-action films of the decade, all could be considered “fantasy” films in some way and utilize CGI. Compare the then-groundbreaking effects of 1991’s Terminator 2 with 2003’s The Polar Express or 2002’s The Two Towers. Two changes in the way CGI is used are evident: the first is that CGI is no longer used simply for effects, but for world and character creation. One could not accurately call anything in The Polar Express a “special effect;” it is all a special effect. Secondly, CGI is intentionally employed with more subtlety now. The character of Gollum and characters and settings in The Polar Express are not meant to register in the audience’s minds as special effects, but as real.

Snyder commented on his goals for Watchmen before shooting began in 2007, “The goal of Watchmen is not to do a CGI movie, but to do it when it is necessary.” Though, indeed, it may not be a “CGI movie,” CGI is extensively used throughout. Rorschach’s mask and Dr. Manhattan are both conventional actors mixed with CGI to varying degrees and Snyder uses the technology to create everything from Mars to Vietnam, none of which are intended to appear “unreal” but rather to be inseparable parts of Watchmen’s visual pallet. James Cameron’s Avatar will be the final blockbuster of the decade and it is poised to extrapolate the CGI-based fantasy cinema of the 2000s to yet-unseen extremes. Look for fantasy cinema to continue to be a huge part of the cinematic landscape into the teens, especially if Cameron’s gambit is as successful as early reports make it out to be.

In another trait common to cinema of the 00s, Watchmen exists in multiple versions. There is the theatrical version, a longer “director’s cut” DVD and finally an even longer “Ultimate Cut: The Complete Story” DVD that combines the director’s cut with the animated Tales of the Black Freighter. Which is the real film? If scholars were attempting to analyze Watchmen twenty years from now, which version would they use? The increased storage capabilities of DVD and now Blu-Ray have made differing versions of films the rule rather than the exception – be it an “unrated” version, a director’s cut or something else – creating a quandary for viewers and critics alike.

Currently, offering a different version on the DVD release encourages viewers who saw the film in the theaters to purchase the DVD as well, increasing the revenue streams for studios. I predict that over time this will begin to have the reverse effect, as viewers may opt to wait for “final” versions to arrive on DVD, particularly in the case of “unrated” versions. Take for example the comedy genre and films like Pineapple Express, Role Models, Step Brothers, and Superbad. All appeared on “unrated” DVDs after their theatrical runs, with some containing up to ten minutes of additional footage. That these longer unrated versions would appear would have been evident to most filmgoers during their theatrical releases and as this becomes more commonplace, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that viewers could begin eschewing theatrical runs for such films completely.

Watchmen is narrated by Rorschach, a misanthrope, conspiracy theorist and doomsday prophet. He oversees a world in which there is essentially no hope, save a small glimmer given as a coda that the truth about the events in the film will someday come out, yet it lasts but a second, since the audience immediately knows it will be dismissed as lunacy. The film shows that those stronger than you will do as they please and you will not be able to stop them, a message not cautionary but misanthropic and cynical.

The film’s cynicism echoes in the words and actions of the other characters as well. A pivotal moment in the film is the extended discussion between Dr. Manhattan and Silk Spectre about whether or not the Earth is worth saving. The eloquence of Manhattan’s argument compared to Silk Spectre’s nullifies the importance of his latter change of heart. Ozymandias’ hypothesis that humans will only embrace peace if they are afraid of punishment from an angry god – in this case, Dr. Manhattan – is shown to be correct. Though their beliefs are shown as being at odds with one another, Rorschach, Dr. Manhattan and Ozymandias all seem to agree on the inherent rottenness of humanity. The surviving characters in the film agree that Ozymandias’ orchestrated catastrophe avoided an inevitable nuclear holocaust.

This suits the preconception of other films from the decade, as fate and the inevitability of disaster are common traits of the post-9/11 cinema canon. The decade saw dozens of films where the entire world is pushed to the brink of destruction and humans were powerless to stop or avoid the tragedy. Cloverfield, 2012, The Day After Tomorrow, I Am Legend and Watchmen all feature colossal disasters which, not coincidentally, heavily feature New York City. Regardless of the other stories being told in these films, each features an inevitable disaster, continuing the post-9/11 idea of tragedy and destruction as a new facet of American life. The films of previous decades often show these disasters being avoided at the last minute through the hero’s ingenuity or bravery, such as in War Games, The Lord of the Rings trilogy and in many of the science-fiction films of the fifties and sixties. Post-9/11 cinema either shows the heroes being unable to stop the inevitable or, more often, left to deal with the consequences of these events.

As a fatalistic superhero fantasy that utilizes CGI, Watchmen combines many of the prevailing narrative and technological trends of the 2000s, making it an excellent example of the decade’s mainstream cinema. I will be honest and admit that I did not like Watchmen very much and, to take it a step further, I did not like many of the mainstream films of the decade. There were still many phenomenal films released, produced both within and outside of mainstream cinema both in America and abroad, yet with each passing year, the number of films that I felt compelled to see by desire or even curiosity seemed to dwindle.

Watchmen is certainly not to blame for any of these trends I’ve identified but my reasons for dissatisfaction with this decade are all present in the film, making it an optimal vehicle for discussion. Snyder replicates rather than creates; he doesn’t transcend his source material and I feel it could be argued that he doesn’t try. Naturally, my preference for cinema art biases me against films that are meant to take a secondary position to other media as in the case of Watchmen and so many others. If the filmic Watchmen wasn’t made with the intent of being equal to or better than the comic version, what was the point of making it at all? Secondly, the ubiquity of multiple versions reduces the definitiveness of any one of those versions and makes cinema more like a product than work of art. More and more films are shot with the DVD version in mind, making the theatrical releases feel as if they are simply requirements rather than completed works on their own.

Much like Rorschach’s diary at the end of the film, Watchmen stands at the end of the decade as a lens through which the past ten years can be viewed and evaluated. Whether you admire the film or not, it is invaluable as a place to begin that evaluation.


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