March 07, 2009

Watchmen Review

Here's a spoiler-free critique of the film I saw just last night.
Watchmen was astonishing. It is an instant classic, a lusty, no-holds-barred, laser-precision adaptation that throws all caution to the wind, embracing both slavish reverence and dark satire with equal dynamism. The film transcends the superhero genre that gave it life even as it feeds off of it for sustenance. The result is a sophisticated intersection of heady philosophy, shocking violence and gratuitous sex. Watchmen is indubitably the most lavish adaptation of a graphic novel ever made and quite possibly one of the finest book-to-screen endeavors ever produced.

I've been waiting for a Watchmen movie for 20 years. Yes, 20 years ago is when I first read the individual comic book issues at a friend's place, he only had the first 9 of 12 issues and after reading them (at 12 years old) I was obsessed with finding all of them for myself. I was in love with the characters, story, it was like no other I had read before or since. Once I had found all the comics from the series, every few years, I'd read them again and again, each time discovering something new and understanding the whole plot even more and recognizing how much of a complex, multi-layered mystery adventure this really was. A world in which costumed superheroes were part of the fabric of everyday society.

A story about a determined masked vigilante named Rorschach who sets out to uncover a plot to kill and discredit all past and present superheroes. As he reconnects with his former crime-fighting legion – a ragtag group of retired superheroes (only one of whom has true powers) – Rorschach uncovers a wide-ranging and disturbing conspiracy with links to their shared past and catastrophic consequences for the future.

I had first heard of rumors of adapting & filming this comic book ever since I was in college 11 years ago when there were talks that Terry Gilliam would do a 6 part Watchmen mini-series on HBO. Industry-watchers know how tough a time Watchmen has had on its way to the big screen, what with its long and difficult development, directors jumping ship left and right, and the public disavowal of co-creator Alan Moore -- not to mention that pesky lawsuit. Part superhero movie and part mystery, like the book, this epic movie followed a group of has-been crime fighters dusting off their latex suits in an alternate-history 1980s America, potbellies and psychological deficiencies and all; quite appropriately, Watchmen the movie earns its R-rating with decapitations, gore, and bone-crunching action -- a comic book movie for adults... not kids!

The choice in casting mostly no-name actors was wise, and unlike the simplified screen hack jobs which have mocked Moore's incredible body of work in the past, Snyder's adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' landmark graphic novel is simply astonishing. After my one viewing in IMAX, I believe that despite making some key departures from its source, this is as close to replicating Moore's Watchmen (its characters, story, and world) as any filmmaker could have come.

As the reviews roll in I'm sure it will be very divided. But it will no doubt be a box office hit! The characters, special effects, action scenes, art direction, pacing, set design, costume design and acting are all top notch. It stood alone as a comic and it will again as a film, it's not your typical super hero movie, its not set in the usual DC universe, it doesn't feel like a Batman or Superman film at all, stylistically it stands apart, and Snyder definitely has a style in how he shoots and edits his films.

But was the movie any good? Unquestionably. What it does from a thrill-ride standpoint, it does thrillingly, demonstrating the same technical virtuosity that made Snyder’s 300 and Dawn of the Dead such indelible adventures. But other than those cranked-camera showdowns and standalone set pieces, it doesn’t seem like it’s really trying to be a thrill ride, which will surely disappoint those who are attending primarily for that sort of satisfaction. Snyder has effectively synthesized his own directorial impulses with the dimensions of Moore and Gibbons’ source material, and created a truly unique, truly BIG movie, with some truly big ideas. I can’t help but wonder how many or few of them will be lost on the majority of the folks who see the film, including many of those immersed in the lore of the graphic novel, but it’s instrumental to one’s eventual love or hate of Watchmen that you understand the point of view that the film has and the perspective from which it’s coming.

It has a climax that is – as fans will know – different to the book’s ending but is faithful to its spirit, not only binding together the original series’ narrative themes but providing a more suitable catharsis for the movie’s story and scope. I found most of the few changes/surprises were welcome. I can't go without mentioning the tremendous sex scene between Nite Owl and Silk Spectre II aboard his ship Archimedes (and as I type those names, I realize how hard a sell Watchmen will be to non-comic fans), but still, it was hot!

And we must end, as the film sort of does, with the amoral and yet super-moral Rorschach. Though there are other terrific performances in this movie – notably Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who gets bonus points for appearing on stage at the Leicester Square premiere actually looking like his character The Comedian – Watchmen the movie belongs to the man in the shape-shifting mask.

I'll be be counting the days to the DVD release. The director’s cut of the DVD that will be 3 hours 25 minutes (nearly an hour longer than the theatrical version) which will include “Tales of the Black Freighter” the 15 min. animated short from the comic book's original companion story.

In conclusion, as being a huge fan of the graphic novel, and being a huge critic and skeptic of most superhero genre movies, I must say that Watchmen DID live up to the hype, and that is difficult for any movie to do. Visually powerful, intense and uncompromising, Watchmen is an ambitious comic-book film whose technical and thematic strengths have surpassed my expectations.


Andrew said...

I saw this last night. I deliberately stayed away from the comic before seeing the movie, but even so I'm familiar with the story and a lot of the iconic imagery associated with Watchmen. Even without reading the source material, I can see how what most people are saying is true...that this is faithful translation (as opposed to an adaptation) and that Synder did as good a job as anyone could have bringing it to life.

Coming in to the movie without having read the comic gives you a different perspective. It certainly is visually powerful, intense and uncompromising. And the film looks fantastic. As an attempt to film a comic book it's probably very successful. As movie it doesn't do much for me. I thought it was OK. Good, but certainly not great.

The actors do a fantastic job with what they're given to work with, but I found it hard to invest in or care about most of the characters. The exception was Rorschach (a brilliant mask performance) and Dr. Manhattan, who I thought was oddly sympathetic and probably the best-realized CG character in a movie since Gollum.

My biggest issue is with Synder's choices as a director. Even without having read the comic, it's obvious he's trying to be too faithful to the source material. The opening sequence is conceptually brilliant, but not well executed (if you want to do a comics-inspired opening sequence, you're better off with something like Kyle Cooper did for Spiderman 2). Synder's love affair with the Matrix-inspired speed up/slow down effect gets old fast. There is some downright clumsy editing in places. Much of the over-the-top violence - which I know comes directly from the pages of the comic - is just pointless after awhile.

Overall, I thought it was an interesting, technically brilliant film that's flawed because it's just too hung up on being faithful to the original.

Ron said...

Great points Andrew!
I can totally see where you're coming from, thanks for the comment.

Anonymous said...

Incredible review, and Andrew has a point, but I think Snyder did the best anyone could do, because if he DID change more of the story to make it a better movie, the fans of the book would hate it!

So he changed as little as possible, so as to please the most people, and especially the built-in audience.

Keep in mind, there will be no sequels, so he's not actually trying to grow a franchise. ;)

Anonymous said...

Oh, and fantastic blog, btw! Been a daily stop of mine for months now! :)