Monday, March 09, 2009

Review: Watchmen

A Warner Brothers film 2009

Directed by Zack Snyder

Written by David Hayter & Alex Tse

When an ex-superhero is murdered, a vigilante named Rorschach begins an investigation into the murder, which begins to lead to a much more terrifying conclusion.

Long considered 'unfilmable', Watchmen is one of the most celebrated graphic novels of all time, and often credited for ushering in an era of more serious, cerebral, adult-themed comic books. Hollywood took stabs at bringing Alan Moore & Dave Gibbon's time-altering, mind-bending grit fest to the screen for nearly 3 decades, with everyone from Paul Greengrass to Terry Gilliam to Michael Bay set to direct. Zack Snyder finally succeeded in producing the film, which finally hit theaters this week after much fanboy anticipation.

Fanboys like myself, who fell in the love with the graphic novel's sharp thematic and formal critique of the medium, as well as it's intense philosophical and political exploration, engrossing characters and wonderfully rich universe. Watchmen the novel is as complete a package as one could ever expect or want; a vast and detailed world with no stone unturned tenderly committed to the page.

Which begs the question -- why make it into a movie at all? Particularly one that adheres so faithfully to it's source?

Of course, that's the question I asked myself before the movie was released, and after having seen it, I'm not sure I have a full answer. From a business standpoint, I could understand why the movie was made -- large built-in fan base, a film that paves the way for grittier, more difficult graphic novel adaptations, and lots of fanboy cred for the distributors. But artistically, what are the merits? It seems there are some, but mainly the film exists as a celebration of Moore & Gibbon's work.

To their credit, Warner Brothers and Mr. Snyder have delivered one balls to the walls, full-force, hard R, uncompromising vision of Watchmen. Like the comic's creators, they left no stone unturned in bringing this epic to the big screen, inserting as much possible detail with extra care. For those unfamiliar with Watchmen's source, the film must be a dizzying experience with many WTF? moments, but fanboys rejoice: never has there been such a detailed adaptation in the history of the medium.

Snyder's visual flair and special effects prowess certainly help bring the panels to exacting life. Some sequences, particularly the Dr. Manhattan chapter, the back-peddling opening credits and almost anything involving Rorschach, are undeniably brilliant. Others, such as the Silk Spectre father reveal and the tweaked ending, lack some of the emotional punch delivered in the novel, but are nonetheless visually arresting.

Perhaps my biggest problem with the film is that it could never replicate all that the novel contains. Much of the climate of the Watchmen universe -- the nuclear war paranoia, the aggression towards authority figures, the degrading of social moral -- is reduced to blanket statements and quick set ups. The majority of the second and third tier characters present in the novel, many of which establish and elaborate these themes to flesh out the temporal backdrop, are absent here. Likewise, many details surrounding the characters origins are trimmed down, making their screen counterparts feel somewhat incomplete.

The music, too, felt jarring to me. The film deserves it's own original score, not some smattering of pop songs that vaguely adhere thematically to the action. I think Warner Brothers were a tad afraid of mainstream audience reactions, and figured if they put some huge pop hits behind some of the more audacious sequences it would make them more palatable. Maybe -- but it also severely undermined the tone. I highly doubt Hendrix would be blasting while Rorcshach and Nite Owl scourge Antarctica for Ozymandias's hideaway.

But with that said, it's amazing how much Synder and his team managed to cram into this two and a half hour epic, and it's even more amazing that Warner Brothers was willing to see through on his vision. This is one bloody disgusting, gut-wrenching, depressing, dark as hell film. It's views on humanity and social decency make Dark Knight look like kiddie play time. As does the on-screen sex and violence.

Watching the origins of Dr. Manhattan unfold on screen will remain one of my favorite cinematic moments for a long time. Billy Crudup does an amazing job and really nails the character to the T. But seeing it come alive, watching it unfold in real time -- nothing will ever compare. It's breathtaking. And that alone makes Watchmen worthy of repeat viewings.

And I definitely think I need to see it again, now that the fanboy giddiness is out of my system. It's hard to really critically assess Snyder's formal elements in that malaise. There is too much immediate beauty in the imagery to really look deep into what Snyder uses to shape the story. Regardless, Watchmen remains a unique ride, one that will (probably) never be duplicated.

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