Sunday, June 7, 2009

Review: Watchmen

Watchmen (2009, Zack Snyder)

The marketing campaign proclaimed that Watchmen was from the ‘visionary’ director of 300. While that film certainly offered some interesting and well crafted visuals (produced by a Montreal visual effects company no less), I felt the story and characters to be cold and distant. The overall experience was very flat, with very little I found to be engaging or memorable. It was more of a video game that lasted 2 hours than an actual cinematic experience, the best of which offer actual plots, character arcs and themes. ‘Visionary’ perhaps, but only to a certain degree. So when wind carried the news that Snyder was at the helm to translate the Watchmen comic to the screen, a book heralded by many to be multi-layered and complex in narrative devices, character development and setup, I was…curious to say the least. Having never read the actual comic at the time, I made it my duty to read it through the movie’s opening weekend while the big crowds flocked to the multiplexes. It was a thrilling 48 hours (breaks included). I don’t think I had read a comic that carried such heavy themes, ambiguous characters and dark undertones before, certainly in a ‘superhero’ comic book. A few days later, during those amazing bargain Tuesdays, I made the trek myself to witness what director Snyder had in store for the paying customer and new born fan of the comic.

In an alternate 1980s United States, Richard Nixon is still president, and the United States and Soviet Union are consistently on the brink of nuclear war. Super heroes, the likes of which were welcomed and adored so many decades ago, have now been outlawed and cannot roam the streets at night any longer to protect the innocent. A band of former crime fighters called the Watchmen, are called back into action when one of their past members, The Comedian, is brutally murdered without warning in his very condo home. Soon, Rorshach (a virtual psychopathic crime fighter who illegally hunts down criminals), Nite Owl II, Silk Spectre II and Dr. Manhattan (essentially a floating, naked, blue man who is the result of a terrible nuclear accident) are drawn back into action to unravel who or what is behind the murder. Their fears, weaknesses, pasts, the public’s general rejection of super heroes and the possibility of nuclear annihilation are but some of the obstacles which stand in their way. All in a day’s work for a crime fighter, right? Their investigation will propel them to question their usefulness in society, to mend wounded relationships and maybe, just maybe, save the world like in the good old days.

To start things off, that ‘visionary’ quality that Snyder apparently has was very apparent. The movie looks very, very slick, but never too slick, thus avoiding a dangerous pitfall that could have deprived the movie of the serious and dark tone that haunted the comic. The camera moves in all sorts of locations and at all kinds of speeds, a technique reminiscent of the Matrix films (or the first one at least), giving the film a rather dynamic look and feel. This worked well because I bought into the idea, as I read the comic a few days earlier, that Watchmen took place in a well constructed world. A alternate universe, one that perhaps defies the laws of nature at times, but a world that nonetheless follows its own rules. When that fascinating world was presented on the screen, it was intriguing to see specific comic panels appear in cinematic form, and then to see the camera move around and offer a different point of view to those very panels. I know some have complained about the use of the Matrix-esque camera movements, lending the movie a far more ‘action’ and ‘Hollywood mainstream’ feel, and while I suppose I can agree with that sentiment, I can’t say it ever bothered me. In fact, as I wrote only a moment ago, I thought it worked wonders for this world originally thought up by the great Alan Moore. It kind of felt like the book was really being brought to life. This is, of course, in addition to the fact that the visual effects are quite impressive. I’m not one to quickly praise films that rely heavily on computer generated imagery, but Watchmen is a case in point when a film uses it to great effect and does an effective job at re-creating the Watchmen world. It’s always fun to shun those darn CGI effects, but I just can’t do it with this film. It looks really good.

Which brings me to a possibly more crucial point. How faithful, or accurate is the movie in terms of plot and characters? Does Zack ‘I can do cool camera tricks’ Snyder give the film any content beneath the beautiful photography? Well, to my surprise, very much so. Granted, one must expect that, even with a 2 ¾ hour film, not every subplot and element of the original plot can be inserted into the movie. Certain things that I very much enjoyed reading did indeed fall by the wayside, such as the Black Freighter inside story, but overall, many, if not all of the encompassing themes are retained. The fear of nuclear attack, the ‘dark age’ for superheroes, the idiosyncrasies of each character, etc, much of it was retained. I could never fully determine whether or not someone who hasn’t read the comic would be lost in this intricate and complex world because, as I’ve said, I had read the book beforehand. Still, I think Snyder aptly fulfills the task of presenting these ‘heroes’ as anti-heroes , each one with his or her own flaws, some of which cut very, very deep. The film even allots some running time to some of their back stories, albeit briefly. While I’m sure purists would have loved a 6 hour film featuring every nitty gritty detail from the source material, that was never going to happen. Perhaps the one important character who receives the short end of the stick is the infamous Ozymandias, but then again, he never was awarded that much time to be fleshed out in the comic either. But apart from him, everybody pretty much gets their moment to shine, especially Rorshach, Dr. Manhattan and Nite Owl II, played by Jackie Earle Haly, Billy Crudup and Patrick Wilson respectively. Each brought their respective characters to the big screen very admirably and left the biggest impression by the end of the film. As has been written time and time again, Jackie Earle Haly is practically steals the show as Rorshach, prociding the viewer with one of the most manic and depressing anti-hero crime fighter to ever grace the screen. My guts tell me Christian Bale’s Batman would think twice before hunting down this man. The one actor who, as I breezed over several reviews, was consistently shunned for her performance was Malin Akerman, who plays Silk Spectre II. While it is true that not all of her scenes rang true, particularly during her fateful confrontation with Dr. Manhattan on Mars, she’s still pretty decent as Silk. I never saw her character in the comic as particularly heroic or daring, but rather as a young, frustrated individual who was thrust into the role of superhero against her will, thus making her a bit of a whiny girl, even if still very brave. As Silk, Akerman brings those qualities to her role. She’s the girl who is wrestling with the thought that there is another life she wanted to have, and yet feels almost instinctively drawn back to the world of crime fighting, despite what she may tell her old friend Nite Owl II. All in all, I thought movie goers reacted rather harshly towards her performance. Unwarranted criticism if you ask me.

Not only do I think the cinematic translation retains most of the essential elements of the book, the film adopts the very moody and atmospheric tone of the comic as well. The mood of this movie is more akin to Nolan’s Batman series than, say, the Spider-Man trilogy. What’s more, the film is rather graphic in certain sequences, not shying away from depicting how intense the ‘crime fighting’ can be. This was a very much welcomed element to the film as so many action films released by studios these days refrain from going all out in order to earn a PG13 rating, thus allowing more youngsters into the theatre rooms. Not so with Watchmen, which features blood splattering, a particularly awkward sex scene, a nasty Vietnam murder scene, and a rather unpleasant death to one of our heroes. I wouldn’t go so far as to say this is on par with the original Die Hard or Sin City, but it’s not far off. With so many franchises and studio films shying away from truly intense and gruesome violence (violence is pretty gross most of the time anyways) with the last Die Hard film and especially the recent Terminator outing, it was, in a strange way, refreshing to see a comic book movie that told a dark tale with practically no holds barred. Some complaints were aimed at how the film depicts the moment Rorshach changes his colours from a mostly decent crime fighter to positively crazy man hunter. While I won’t give away how the event transpires in either the book or the film, I thought both versions worked well. Why was the change made at all? I honestly don’t know, but I thought it curious that fans cried about how ‘less gruesome’ the moment is in the film. I don’t know about that…I don’t think either death scene is any more pleasant than the other.

Many have criticised the film for shunning away from many ingredients that made the source material so rich, and effectively offering a very ‘Hollywood’ or ‘slick, big budget’ version of their long cherished book. I respectfully disagree. Unless a studio was willing to make a television mini series, which would indeed have offered writers and a director much more running time to flesh out some subplots and even include others that were completely omitted from this cinematic version, I think movie goers received one of the better possible silver screen interpretations of Alan Moore’s famous story. Are there things missing? Yes. Are certain things changed to give the movie a more cinematic and possibly ‘action flick’ feel? Yes (the crime fighters seem to possess a whole lot more dynamic fighting skills than in the book). But for what was actually preserved from the original story, the performances by the leading actors and the brutal tone of the film, I enjoyed the ride a lot. In fact, I would encourage anyone looking for a comic book movie which is serious in tone, to the point of even turning many of our 'heroes' into pretty cold and rough people, to not miss this film.

Want to read another take on the film Watchmen? Be sure to read this review at the always enjoyable Hamster Factor.


Courtney Small said...

While I was not too keen on Akerman's performance, I found your interpretation of the character rather interesting. It made me want to revisit both the film and her character again.

Keep the great reviews coming…

edgarchaput said...

It's definitely a film worth revisiting. I haven't done so myself (I await the DVD release) but there are certainly many things that I hope will grow on people if they take the time to watch it again.

Anonymous said...

Glad to see you liked this Edgar. I was even more of a fan than you, but all I've heard since it's release has been negative feedback. I thought it managed to be its own film, changing the themes of the novel in tiny ways and I preferred the different route Snyder took with the ending.