18 March 2009

Movie Review: Watchmen


2009, 162mins, R
Director: Zack Snyder
Writer (s): David Hayter, Alex Tse, Alan Moore (novel)
Cast includes: Jackie Earle Haley, Malin Akerman, Matthew Goode, Patrick Wilson, Carla Gugino, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Billy Crudup
Release Date: 6th March 2009

Despite the undoubtedly highly caliber of the source material, for months now I have approached the idea of Zack Snyder’s take on Alan Moore’s legendary story “Watchmen” with trepidation. Snyder has built a career on taking the ideas of others coating them in gloss and dumbing them down for mass consumption, 2007’s Spartan epic 300 was passable but I still cannot understand the levels of affection his dull and generic revamp of Dawn of the Dead has garnered since 2004. If there is one source in the world of pop culture that this vapid pattern of filmmaking won’t wash with it’s probably Watchmen, touted as the greatest graphic novel of all time and with characters so dark and complex as to make the Joker look like an extra out of Sesame Street. The comic had been proclaimed an impossible cinematic venture as directors such as Terry Gilliam and Paul Greengrass have attempted to bring the multi stranded story to life over the years but due to concerns of all sorts each failed with little to show for the months of labor invested in trying to bring Moore’s dynamic superheroes to life. So one could be forgiven for thinking that after great directors such as the aforementioned had so publically failed to get the project to theaters, Zack Snyder’s attempt was something to hold out doubts over. The surprise is then that Watchman actually equates to one of 2009’s best films so far, Snyder has upped his game in bringing Moore’s world to life. He brings his signature visual pang in abundance but what really shocks is his competent grasp of the complex story and underlying substance in its characters psychological profiles.

The story has been trimmed and slightly modified in a few areas but it still amounts to something epic in scope. Set in a parallel 1985 in which Nixon has been elected five times and the world is on the brink of Nuclear Catastrophe, Watchmen focuses on a group of masked heroes who following the death of one of their number “The Comedian” (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) are being led to suspect that they are as a breed being hunted down. First among those who suspect that “costumed heroes” are in danger is Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), the masked sociopath who takes it upon himself to warn every member of his old superhero “clique” the Watchmen concerning his suspicions. Each has retired from the game following a ban on masked vigilantism and by turns each is doubtful that Rorschach’s theory is logical, but as Nuclear war approaches motions are set in place that seem to indicate that maybe those who once saved the world, have something to fear.

That is in truth only the surface of the story, this sprawling superhero saga boasts so many measured subplots that listing them in itself would be a chore and so I won’t, just know that with Watchmen Synder has created a delightful blockbuster that honors the name of its legendary source. The success is in the skilled writing and assured performances, the screenplay by David Hayter and Alex Tse condenses Moore’s epic story into the most cinematic and structured it could ever have looked. Sacrifices have been made on route but the filmmakers hit all the essential bases clearly and compress the story into a form that even the uninitiated can happily revel in, with as many of the fascinating psychological and political observations left untouched. One cannot debate that even at the best of times the source makes for heavy reading and onscreen it really might have been too much at full blast, what Snyder’s film does so well is to work around this and deliver an experience valuable to both devotees and casual viewers alike.

The performances are rarely less than excellent, as super scientist Dr. Manhattan Billy Crudup is a little irritating and struggles to infuse the character with necessary pathos but most everybody else is great. The pick of the pack is Jackie Earle Haley as the demented Rorschach; the talented actor captures the self loathing of the character beautifully and transfers one of the comic’s best creations into a memorable screen presence. Granted Rorschach is one of the stories meatier and more intriguing parts but when onscreen Haley grips allowing his character the heavy impact he demands. Malin Akerman and Patrick Wilson score high marks in their respective roles and work naturally well, playing out their love story with the energy and efficiency necessary to keep their slower segment up to speed against other more action packed moments. Matthew Goode grows steadily into the role of the world’s smartest man Adrian Veidt as the picture unfurls whilst as the murderous Comedian Jeffrey Dean Morgan impresses as we watch him kill and rape his way through three decades of carnage. The real indication of success from Morgan is that come the end, he’s made the audience feel sympathy for the devil.

The films keen political subtext isn’t quite as dense up on film but it is defiantly present, there is no denying that this faithful adaptation hasn’t efficiently captured the heart of where the original novel held its political convictions. The paranoia that was slathered all over the Graphic novel is on show and the screenplay deftly cranks up the tension as nuclear war seemingly approaches. The tone is also admirably and at times disturbingly dark with Snyder having found no time for compromising the sources gritty feel, the movie is hard R and it should be pointed out to curious parents that the Watchmen plunges to depths of sex and violence which make The Dark Knight look positively child friendly. Snyder at least is a director who in the past has been unafraid of going pretty full throttle with his onscreen carnage and after witnessing the intense nature of this effort I doubt that’s a reputations set to reverse soon. Fanboys at least should be happy with just how hardcore Snyder has kept their holy grail.

Snyder’s feel for expressive and eye popping visual’s isn’t wasted here either, the art from the source demands a vibrant command of color and emotion which as a director Synder doesn’t fail to deliver. Certainly his vision of Watchmen is aesthetically as close to Moore’s as anyone could have hoped and he shoots the action sequences with kinetic camera work and for the most part great success. At times the fight sequences and bombastic moments seem to be overly stuffed with herky-jerky slow motion shots , though he palpable excitement generated and visual rush provided often feels like fair compensation. The cinematography is bleak and the action for the most part engaging and skillfully structured, two assets that help further keep the picture faithful to it’s all consuming source material.

In the end all one can do is recommend Watchmen, at 162 minutes it’s a long show but that in truth is the shortest it could have ever been and still have hoped to work. Alan Moore is notorious for distancing himself from theatrical workings of his graphic novels and this is no exception, all through production he bemoaned the rape of his masterwork and stated simply that in the medium of film it could never work. He was wrong, Watchmen the film isn’t quite as deep and thought provoking as it’s source but it does a credible job and makes a nice companion piece, and as a slice of blockbuster filmmaking it’s simply a splendid experience.

A film review by Daniel Kelly, 2009


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