Movie Review – Watchmen
The Ulysses of comic book films delivers a big punch. Not quite the knockout, but one that leaves its opponents very dazed.
Principal Cast : Jackie Earle Haley, Malin Ackerman, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Patrick Wilson, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Carla Gugino, Dan Payne, Niall Matter, Apollonia Vanova, Glenn Ennis, Stephen McHattie, Matt Frewer, Danny Woodburn, Robert Wisden, Laura Mennell.
Synopsis: In an alternative 1980’s, a group of banned superheroes come together again when one of their own is brutally murdered. Together, they must uncover a sinister truth and save the world, even though it might mean the death of millions of people.
Who watches the Watchmen?
In the 40 minutes or so that it took me to drive home from the cinema, where I had the pleasure of watching Watchmen with Fernby Films alum and contributor Greg “Colin” Bowden, and some other friends this weekend, I struggled to come up with an adequate way of opening this review. I’d love to come in and say that I thought Watchmen was revelatory, the story and themes were incredibly complex and heady, that the action was superbly staged and overall, the film was an amazing cinematic experience. But that would be doing the film a disservice. Watchmen is not the greatest comic book film ever made. It’s not even a great film period. The film has some almost fatal flaws, and they must be explained before you go and see what can only be described as a watershed moment in comic-book film cinema history.
I know Colin is going to lambast me, probably publicly flay me, for saying as such, but I left the cinema with a mix of both elation and disappointment. On the one hand. I had witnessed a film so daring, so complex, that at first it beggared description. A film so head-bashingly complicated I doubt I picked everything up in one single viewing. But what disturbed me about the film is… well, I’m not sure. Let’s work it out together, shall we?
Watchmen, as many of you now know, is based upon the graphic novel (read: adult oriented comic book) by master storyteller Alan Moore (who disassociated himself from the film) and Dave Gibbons, which came out in the mid 80’s to a blaze of critical acclaim. Perhaps rightly regarded as one of the single greatest exponents of the comic book medium, a respected publication called Time Magazine awarded it a place in it’s top 100 literary masterpieces of the last millennium. I will admit to never having read the entire thing. I read approximately three issues of the 12 issue series before giving up. At the time I tried, I found it too cerebral, to heavy, for at that time, I enjoyed my comic fare a little more, well, superheroic. But isn’t Watchmen about superheroes? you ask. Indeed, it is, but not in the way you’d expect. You see, the core theme of Watchmen, among the many within the tome Moore once said was “unfilmable”, is that of redemption and human sacrifice, the sacrifice of oneself for the sake of the rest of a humanity which despises you, which lives in the gutter, which is questionably still going.
Set in an alternate universe where Richard Nixon did not resign, and instead repealed the Constitutional Term Limits set decades before, allowing him to run for office a third and fourth time, the superheroes of the 40’s and 50’s are black-banned, a law was passed whereby their presence was effectively illegal. This isn’t the world in which Superman, Batman or Spider-man exist. This is a dark, dirty, more Mystery Men-esque alternate world, with humanity slowly descending into a moral, ethical, and social swamp of decay so deep there’s almost no turning back. The cold war is still in effect, and as we pick up the story, the US and Russian forces are moving inexorably closer to nuclear war. Indeed, the Doomsday Clock, a device by which humanity can measure just how close it is to nuclear war, is mentioned and seen several times within minutes of the film’s opening moments. And what a brutal opening.
The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a former superhero and now retired, is murdered by an unknown assailant, and his death sparks into action an investigation by fellow retired crime fighter Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), who, along with the slightly podgy Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) and sublimely sexy Silk Spectre (Malin Ackerman) follow the trail of death, deception and blackmail until they discover the reason behind it. The Silk Spectre, her alias Laurie Juspeckzyk, is in a relationship with the nuclear enhanced Dr Manhattan (Billy Crudup), a blue (naked) man with the power to split atoms, manipulate matter, and see through time. The problem with this relationship is, as proven by Dr Manhattan’s increasingly distant emotional state towards the young woman, is that the super-powered ex-human appears to be questioning the very reason for humanity’s existence. As somebody with the powers of a god, and the ability to do just about anything he wants (except, apparently, wear clothes) Dr Manhattan is perhaps the key component of the film that makes Watchmen so watchable. His emotional state, his ability to connect with his fellow man (or woman) is the pivotal story thrust around which almost everything else revolves.
I don’t want to give too much away, especially at this early stage for those who haven’t seen the film. However, I’d like to bring to your attention some material that might sway you one way or the other in terms of your viewing choice. Watchmen, for all its hype, is not a traditional superhero film, in the truest sense of the word. Nobody here flies, nobody here can do anything remotely superhuman save for Dr Manhattan, who simply cannot possibly wear any less clothing. A chief caveat with the film is the almost pornographic way director Snyder has blatantly allowed us to see Dr Manhattan’s package, and almost reverently concedes that he can by showing us even when not entirely appropriate. So, for those who haven’t seen it yet, let me tell you that there’s a fair amount of penis in this film. Blue penis, to boot. You’ve been warned. Does the fact that there are more than one blue penis on screen at a time occasionally put you off? If so, then perhaps you’d best avoid this film. What’s the plural of penis? Penii? Hmm. Strange things happen when you think about it so late at night.
Also, the film is often exquisitely violent. In the same way that 300, (Snyder’s other film of recent note) was graphically bloody, the context was sound, and thus, you almost expected it. Here, there’s enough gore and blood to fill a horror film festival and still have plenty to spare for the latecomers. Bodies are de-limbed and beaten to a pulp in gratuitous amount, often, unjustifiably so. If I can be brave enough to make a comparison, when The Dark Knight showed violence, it was tough, uncompromising brutality that was needed to subdue an enemy: here, it’s a little bit of overkill. Moore’s uncompromisingly hard-boiled story has been lavishly recreated on the big screen, so no doubt this was intentionally left in as was (again, I remind you that I haven’t read the original source material) originally written. I admit to enjoying some of the more kick-ass moments of the film: Rorschach embodies pure rage and sociopathy, his mission is to seek out evil and destroy it: often, that means crossing the line the rest of us wont. But for those who are squeamish in the slightest, perhaps best to leave this film alone for a while, until the safety of “chapter skip” on DVD is available.
Where does Watchmen get it right? Well, for starters, the attention to detail and superior filmmaking technique is to be commended. Zack Snyder has recreated the original comic (at least, as near as I can tell) perfectly, and I will admit to recalling the tone of the issues I did read are distilled on the screen here. There’s a sensibility of devotion to the material that’s at times hard to diffuse from the really disturbing visual cues we get to enjoy: Dr Manhattan’s penis notwithstanding. The overarching tension of the cold war, which was heightened at the time the original comic was released, is lessened somewhat by the fact that, well, it’s not true, and we no longer live in an age where we are constantly under threat from an unknown terror who can destroy us in the blink of an eye….. hmmm, or are we? Snyder’s reluctance to part from the source material, at least, until the ending, is to also be commended, as I think it’s one of Watchmen’s greatest attributes, and one of it’s most annoying factors. For me, the story is so well constructed, the characters so well defined and complex, that it’s a film desiring more than one viewing to extract all the nuances and juice you can get. On the other hand, it’s a film so bloated by it’s own complexity that Watchmen newbies like myself, or at least, people utterly unfamiliar with the story, will no doubt struggle with all that’s going on. Watchmen plays like an ensemble piece at times, and when it does, it fails to entertain. When the story focuses on a single character, things work well. The problem is, I think Watchmen does a lot more of the latter, and too little of the former.
Some of the casting is dead-set spot-on. Haley is sublimely gritty as Rorschach, a man so affected by the decay of society, so inwardly focused and calmly resolute to saving us from ourselves, that for me, he is the character. Rorschach is a hard-ass. He’s bad, and not in a good way. He kills, he bludgeons, he brutalises people, just to extract information or get the results he needs. He’s a blunt instrument, lacking subtlety through his tortured, maladjusted childhood. There’s a moment in prison, where Rorschach has been incarcerated, just after disabling an attacking convict, where he is heard to scream at the surrounding inmates: “I’m not locked in here with you…. you are all locked in here with me!” A sentence that sends a chill of fear, and a thrill of impending ass-kickery, through the audience. It’s lines like this that you can’t fake, and Haley gives it the emotional content it deserves. Rorschach doesn’t really care if he lives or dies, as near as I can tell. Perhaps I am reading the character wrong, but he’s so discontent with humanity and society that perhaps, given the right moment, he’s better off going out in a blaze of glory. At least, that’s the mentality I got from him. Of all the characters in the film, Rorschach is the one who gets most of my empathy.
Malin Ackerman, who has appeared in films as diverse as 27 Dresses, Harold And Kumar Go To White Castle, and The Heartbreak Kid, is decent as the sexy, stunningly beautiful Silk Spectre. Kicking and smashing her way through the film, she retreats from her relationship with Dr Manhattan due to the man’s increasingly alienating behaviour. She’s torn, her past keeping her from pushing forward in life, and devoted to her partner, although when she meet’s up with fellow hero Nite Owl, Daniel Dreiberg, Manhattan is quickly pushed to one side…. at least, for a while. Ackerman is good enough to give the character the emotional and developmental weight the role deserves, and since her part is pivotal to the protection of the world, this is a fear that was justifiably resolved. I had thought Ackerman wouldn’t be up to the task, but I am happy to say I was proven wrong. Only time will tell if my thoughts on this matter are encompassed by the rest of the cinema-going public.
As Ackerman’s chief liaison in the film, Patrick Wilson plays a solid role as Daniel, who assists the Silk Spectre in returning to the costumed ways of fighting crime. Wilson is charismatic, has a decent screen presence, and is perhaps more in tune with Ackerman’s chemistry than she is. He leads he in their relationship, and I think he’s the better performer: the tension between them is palpable, and adds much needed dramatic weight to an already bloated ensemble piece with people pounding the stuffing out of each other. The Nite Owl is the technology junkie of the bunch, the Watchmen equivalent of James Bond’s Q, if you will. Matthew Goode is, and I have to say it, miscast as retired hero, and public figurehead, Adrian Veidt, otherwise known as the superhero Ozymandias. Goode is supposedly a supremely good looking, benevolent philanthropist, but he plays the role more like a camp pseudo Nazi. For me, his was the weakest role in the film.
And I cannot possibly go any further without mentioning the “appearance” of Billy Crudup as the god-like Dr Manhattan, otherwise known as Dr Jon Osterman, a scientist unlucky enough to be caught in some kind of radiation experiment that transformed his body into, well, a giant blue naked man capable of rearranging the universe with merely a thought. Crudup plays both the human and altered versions of the character, although appears blue and naked due to the help of some wonderful CGI. While I cannot speak for others, I’d have to say his character, at least as far as Snyder let him play it, is the least accessible for the viewer of any in the film. As a character, he’s fascinating, his unrestrained power could destroy the universe, yet he chooses to remain on Earth. And even he questions why. We see him in action single-handedly winning the Vietnam War for the US, at the behest of an non-impeached Richard Nixon, exploding bodies as he marches across the territory. When we see him in “present day” 1985, though, he’s less inclined to help humanity with it’s problems, as Manhattan views them as temporal and transitory, something we need to learn to deal with if we are to succeed as a species. Crudup does well, but the character is too emotionally distant to really get to empathise with, and as such, becomes merely a background character for me.
Watchmen is told in a fair degree of flashback, constantly zipping to the past in order to clarify the positions of the present: it’s a helter-skelter style of movie making, and not without it’s drawbacks, but here, it seem to work quite well. The lengthy opening credits, told with vignettes of heroism and the disintegration of the superhero world when they are banned, is unusual and brilliant, a truly awesome way to montage us into the film. Team America were right. If you want to get a lot of information to an audience, and set the tone for the film, then a montage can do it really well. Snyder has given the film a lovely textural quality, almost comic-book style within the film frame, and several of his scenes are shot in a way that truly elevates the medium to an art-form. The brutal murder of the Comedian, at the beginning of the film, is one such moment, a richly layered, stylish and moody noir moment of blood and sadness. The film begins like a funeral, and with one too. The overpowering decay of society if rampant throughout, and this is eventually what the fuss is all about: at least, to the key cast, who have to decide whether to save us all or not. It’s not a laugh-out loud film, although there are a few (and I mean only a few) moments of brief, almost sadistic, levity.
Watchmen plays like an amped-up crime film, and to a certain degree, that’s what it is. Fantastical themes and events aside, the film is dominated by the hunt for the Comedian’s killer, by Rorschach and The Nite Owl, and their determined effort to uncover the truth about why he was killed. It’s ambitious, turgidly toned, stylishly directed and generally well acted. Some of the themes the film espoused are perhaps a little controversial, a little, well, left of centre, but then, what’s a good film without something to talk about around the water-cooler. There’s shades of The Incredibles, Mystery Men, and even Blade Runner about the film, as Snyder has borrowed some of the best from the best, if you get my drift. But as a whole, it’s a film somewhat bloated by the sum of it’s many parts. It must have been a challenge to shoehorn the massive novel form into a 160+ minute movie, given the depth of the thematic narrative. There are moments that drag, a few scenes here and there that appear a little long, a little unnecessary, and I think some judicious trimming with the editor might have come in handy. A tedious sub-plot featuring Carla Gugino could possibly have been expunged from the theatrical cut without making too much difference, as a case in point. And what’s with the old-age make-up on Carla, by the way? It’s atrocious, and I saw better facial make-up jobs in the old Charlton Heston Planet Of The Apes. Surely they could have done that better? The touches of noirish pulp fiction seep through the very pores of the movie, and coupled with its dimply lit, misanthropic hero undercurrent, is a strange blend of sexy leather-wearing cool, and alienating violent effusiveness. The focus of the film is dialogue, and I have to say that after a while, you want them all to stop talking and just bust a few heads. Which they do, I’ll admit; it’s just that it takes so long to get to.
Watchmen will probably be regarded as the best comic-book film to come out this year. I do believe they’ll be right, and considering the films based on comic-book characters we’ve had in the last few years (Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, not to mention The Dark Knight) and now this, I think fans of the medium must be salivating in expectation that their favourite characters have a more than decent chance to make it onto the silver screen. While Watchmen is ambitious, and not without some flaws, it’s a decently made film that will appeal to an unfortunately smaller majority of the viewing market: mainly due to it being seen as a comic-book film. As a film, it wants to be a Citizen Kane, in reality, it’s perhaps equivalent to a Godfather Part III. Good film, but not as good as it needed to be. Incredibly, rumours abound that there’s an extended edition, and directors cut of this film, each extending the running time by many minutes, including a completely excised sub-plot of a story within the story, that will be returned in full to the final film. I have to say, I am a little more than dubious to see how adding more footage to a long, bloated film is going to improve it, but then, I thought the same about the Lord Of The Rings films at first…..
Ambitious, lopsided and unevenly told, at times, this film reaches some dizzyingly amazing heights…. at others, it’s stiflingly hard to appreciate. I would say in conclusion that I did enjoy watching this film, and no doubt upon further viewings will probably reappraise my initial thoughts. There’s a lot to be enjoyed here, and a lot to be frustrated at, if I can be brutally honest. I’d recommend this film to those who enjoyed the original comics, and to those who enjoy (or appreciate) a film made purely for the sake of trying to tell a story about humanity gone awry, and how there are those among us willing to take a chance to fix it. It’s not perfect, but it’s a good try.
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
As a relative newcomer to the whole Watchmen phenomenon (doo-doo-da-doo-doo!), I openly admit that I was not fully prepared for what was to come. Having seen the previous incarnations of Moore’s previous works (V For Vendetta & League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen) and found them to be quite enjoyable (I know there will be lashback on this. And I don’t care.), I guess I should have come to expect something along the same vein, but it went much further than that.
This film, while alive with huge splashes of colour and texture, it truly reveals itself to be a very dark piece of cinema. This I believe is even darker than The Dark Knight, which took the comic book film genre to a entirely new level. The characters are all tormented by dark secrets in each of their respective pasts, ranging from tortured upbringings, to acts of violence of broad varieties.
If there was one thing that I got from the film is that there are some called in the world to commit the dark acts to protect and preserve the greater good – an example would be the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima & Nagasaki, two acts which we look back on with a certain amount of shock and shame, but these acts led to the end of World War II. The Watchmen seem to fall into this category – they must become the villains to be the heroes. Yes, it is a very twisted concept, but if you carry this in to the film, it just may make more sense.
For me, Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) is the true hero of the piece. His character plays by only one set of rules and principles in life to survive and get what he needs to enforce justice in the world. This is the one thing that never wavers with him, and this an attribute that must be highly regarded and admired. The scene in the prison cafeteria is one the most memorable, and reminiscent of the prison scene in Batman Begins.
I would also have to make this warning to potential viewers of this film: THIS IS NOT FOR THE SQUEAMISH. Those with sensitivities may find this film very hard going to get through, and may perhaps even want to leave. And, personally, I could not blame them. The violence is very graphic and high in splatter factor, and there are other scenes that will cause great discomfort for some.
But if you can get through it, you may be satisfied with your perseverance. Admittedly, there are parts from the graphic novel that are missing from the film that would certainly help to make the story somewhat easier to follow, but fear not, as director Zack Snyder has said there will be much more added on the DVD when it will be released, including a CG short film based on a chapter of the novel. Now that I’ll be looking forward to.
The action sequences are splendid in their construction, with the prison sequences providing a large amount of entertainment for the audience. The performances are varied, but I feel that all were effective with the material they were provided with to help the story flow along. The flashbacks at first can be somewhat confusing but they eventually help to understand what the heck is going on and bring order out of the chaos.
I must confess that the CG rendition of Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) was a frustrating distraction. Well, one particular part was distracting….. The development of the story between Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) and Silk Spectre II (Malin Ackerman) was too short, but it is expected so to preserve the health and sanity of the cinema-going audience – I hope there will be an expansion of this in the DVD, as well as their respective back stories.
All in all, the film is one hard slog to get through, but in can be quite satisfying once you reach the other end. Snyder has created a great film with a good blend of action and a strong script to back it. This will certainly be one of the great films of 2009, but perhaps not the 21st Century. Maybe the DVD will help that become a reality.
VERDICT: The Ulysses of comic book films delivers a big punch. Not quite the knock-out, but one that leaves its opponents very dazed.
4 thoughts on “Movie Review – Watchmen”
I think that Snyder did a great job on this film, but it was simply too long, and a little excessively violent, some bits of which could have been cut from the film, like the cutting of the Prison bars (and other bits) scene as they are trying to get to Rorschach. Also the meat cleaver bit explaning how Rorschach got the way he did, that could have been toned down a little.
Still overall a good film, and while I wouldn't recommend you watch it with your girlfriend, I would recommend people watch it.
Ohh yes, and I like the little quote at the end.
Q. Who watches the watchmen?
A. I did!
I am now officially looking forward to the DVD! I can't wait to revisit this film and, perhaps, revise my earlier thoughts.