Finally. It's here. After 23 years of gestation, false starts at various studios, numerous directors rumoured to be attached to the property, Watchmen emerges into the harsh light of the 21st Century. Was it worth the wait, was it worth all the fuss? Categorically, yes. Let's get one or two things out of the way for a start. This isn't going to please the fanatics of the original graphic novel simply because director Zack Snyder has had to detach certain scenes, sub-plots and vast amounts of peripheral detail present in the book and has made the decision to change the ending which will probably annoy some. To be honest, I was never a huge admirer of Alan Moore's original 'what the...?' ending with the trans-dimensional squid. Snyder's ending does work in terms of the movie that he has decided to fashion from the graphic novel. The central plot is intact, many of my, and probably your own, favourite scenes are delivered with much aplomb. I was worried that a mainstream audience would just not get this film and it still worries me. Those interested in SF, fantasy, comic books and action films, but who may not have read the original graphic novel, will I think get it completely.
It is an alternative 1985, Richard Nixon is still in power, popular after a huge US victory in Vietnam. The victory is possible because of superhero Dr Manhattan (Billy Crudup), a glowing blue creature with powers to rearrange matter at will. He was one of the Watchmen, a retired gang of superheroes, including Ozymandias / Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode), Silk Specter 2 / Laurie Jupiter (Malin Akerman), Nite Owl 2 / Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson), Rorschach / Walter Kovacs (Jackie Earle Haley) and The Comedian / Eddie Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). The film opens with the murder of The Comedian and Rorschach's attempts to uncover the killer.
a bravura use of montage, voice over and music
What we do get is a feast for the eyes, a detailed, labour of love that is extremely reverential to the graphic novel and some particularly inspired performances from Jackie Earl Haley as Rorschach, Patrick White as Nite Owl and Jeffrey Dean Morgan as The Comedian. The noirish detective story at the centre of the film, much like the graphic novel, gives Snyder the opportunity to frame the film with Rorschach's diary entries and introduce each of the main characters. For the majority of the film each character's present day tragedy is rooted in multiple flashbacks, giving us vast amounts of information about these characters and the alternative history in which they exist through beautifully constructed and visually rich moments of concise cinema. Snyder cuts to the chase and for at least an hour this is the Watchmen film that we all dreamed about. From the stunningly detailed opening credits, economically essaying the alternate history of the 20th Century and the place of super heroes within the context of World War 2, the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam War and Nixon's rise to power, to the flashback and flashforward character vignettes that culminates in a bravura use of montage, voice over and music in the unpeeling of the Dr. Manhattan story which simultaneously whisks you from childhood, to youth and to emotionally distracted glowing blue uber-mensch. All done to a suite from Koyaanisqatsi by Philip Glass, ironically another film about life in turmoil. It's probably one of the most exciting pieces of cinema I've seen in a long time.
Confessions Of A Spandex Wearing Super HeroMany complaints have been hurled at the way Snyder brings the romance between Nite Owl and Silk Spectre to the screen. I really didn't have a problem with this and thought Patrick White was particularly effective as the rather vulnerable, if impotent, Dan Dreiberg and Malin Akerman, whilst not as accomplished playing Laurie, brought some sensitivity to the role. Snyder does stumble during the development of their romance and misjudges the sex scene in the Owl Ship. Whilst it is, I assume, supposed to have a kinky edge to it, it just turned into the giggle inducing farce of Confessions Of A Spandex Wearing Super Hero instead of what should have been a scene about real, physical connection between two lost souls. Scoring it with the now worn out song 'Hallelujah', with the deteriorating cultural effect of its recent reality TV show connotations, didn't help matters either. Far better was their post-coital break out of Rorschach from prison and their rescue of kids trapped in a burning building. Both scenes express everything that is positive about super-heroes in the film. The acts of great heroism they are capable of even when the others around them represent their complete antithesis despite the feeling that Laurie and Dan are in it for the sexual kicks. The action sequences are pumped, adrenaline fueled slabs of destruction and violence, a plethora of blood soaked, bone crunching hand to hand combat where Snyder does slightly overuse his box of tricks with copious amounts of slow motion, freeze frames and jump cuts. Fear not though, the fights and violence aren't as mechanistically fetishised as his work on 300. The violence is also extreme and bloody, often quite disturbing, and smacks slightly of a deliberate attempt to make the material edgier for a 2009 audience whose palates are less discerning that those of their counterparts in 1985.
In the middle of the sub-plots with Laurie and Dan, the ex-superhero cum capitalist Adrian Veidt and the navel gazing of Dr.Manhattan in exile on Mars, there's the rather stunning Jackie Earl Haley as Rorschach. His story, related to the prison psychologist after his incarceration, is again a stylish exploration of his existentialist origins, his nihilism born from a troubled childhood. Again, these are details another adaptation might well have left out but their presence here make the film and the character all the more richer, going to the heart of the graphic novel's own exploration of identity, amorality and ethics. As a whole, Alan Moore's satire on comic book heroes and their relationship to the state, the politics of warfare, the nature of authority, the disease of capitalism, the sexualising of superheroes, religion, quantum mechanics and God is pretty much intact and unmolested. Which does beg the question - what is the relevance of the themes to 2009?
our current shade of mass hysteriaAs a cultural product so embedded in the Cold War politics of 1985, where Reagan and the Russians almost seemed prepared to accept nuclear annihilation, how does it now connect with the viewer? This is the film's biggest problem for me. Sure, we can use the Vietnam/Cold War craziness as a reflection of our own post 9/11 paranoia with the War On Terror but the film doesn't give any ground and in its reverence for the source material and the socio-political context of the late 1970s and early 1980s the film tends to suffer from a distancing effect. Watchmen has an awful lot to do - it must competently tell us an alternate history of the US, make us care about a set of often unsympathetic, troubled superheroes and it also has to recreate that mid-1980s fear and paranoia about nuclear war. Many of the characters endlessly talk about nuclear war and that's where the film flounders as these conversations simply replicate the cat and mouse strategic madness between Reagan and the Russians without emotionally engaging the audience. Whilst the scenes of nuclear destruction look fabulous they are detached from us. We're worrying about deflation, a crippled economy and the War On Terror. That's our current shade of mass hysteria. And in the end the examination of forms of mass hysteria is possibly how we find we can eventually relate to these themes of mutually assured destruction.
There are also homages to Taxi Driver, The Man Who Fell To Earth and Dr. Strangelove in the film's lavish production design, even some echoes of Blade Runner and The Matrix in the general feel of the film. The visual effects are, for the most part, excellent and Billy Crudup, as the naked, blue glowing Dr. Manhattan, just about manages to give a performance through swathes of CGI although you'd be forgiven if you get somewhat distracted from his existential philosophising by the rather conspicuous sight of his glowing blue cock. Crudup, along with Matthew Goode's rather pallid and undernourished turn as the anti-hero/villain Adrian Veidt, is possibly one of the weaker performances in the film and falters to deliver that rather crucial moment of realisation in his and Laurie's humanity on the surface of Mars. I also had a problem with the prosthetic make-ups for Nixon and Laurie's aged mother. The make up for Nixon made him look like a Spitting Image puppet and gave the actor no alternative but to put in a rather one note performance.
In the end it is a successful adaptation and abridgement. Even at the long running time of a very packed two and three quarter hours you still feel you're watching a much reduced version. This is, hopefully, something Snyder will now rectify with the Director's Cut announced for DVD. But it still requires you to consider it, mull it over and even now I feel I've barely scratched the surface, intellectually at least, with this review. So, surely it's no bad thing if a film is still prompting you to think about it hours, or even days, after you've seen it. Oh, and get to an IMAX screening if you can as this looks particularly stunning on a huge IMAX screen.
WATCHMEN (Cert 18. Released March 6th 2009. Directed by Zack Snyder)
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