WATCHMEN (2009) ***1/2 review by SEBASTIAN

Posted on March 31st, 2009
Posted on March 31st, 2009

With the massive hype that surrounded this release, a lot of people wound up reading the graphic novel that this film is based upon. That in and of itself is the best thing that comes out of the release of the movie. Alan Moore’s superior book is given about the best treatment that I can imagine any studio letting a director make. When I heard that director Zack Snyder (300) was being given almost full creative control, and that illustrator Dave Gibbons (whose brilliance helped define the graphic novel) was involved with the project, I jumped for joy. What could be better for a Watchmen fan like myself? Well the answer is everything and nothing. Let me try to explain:

The world depicted in the graphic novel and in the film is a alternate reality where super heroes have overstepped the bounds society expects from them, and have been summarily banned from their cape-crusading ways. In the course of the story we come to know several of these washed up superheroes and we examine the complex chain of events that led to their disillusionment with the world, and the world’s hatred for them. Starting with the murder of superhero and vigilante/government agent The Comedian (Jeffery Dean Morgan), fellow vigilante Rorschach (an amazing Jackie Earle Haley) begins an investigation into this suspicious activity, enlisting some old friends along the way. Sounds good, right? Well, it is. But the problem lies not with the adherence to the story’s structure or visual integrity, but rather with the fact that this story is simply too complicated to digest in one sitting. Plain and simple, that’s the movie’s downfall. Nobody ever stopped to ask whether or not they should be adapting this material into a feature film. They have always asked whether or not they COULD adapt it, but not, it seems, whether or not it SHOULD be adapted. You see, with the graphic novel the reader can put down the book and take time to mull things over, come back to it then, or take some time off to think about all the complexities (and there are a lot of them). With the film you are stuck with making your way through a very dense and often overwhelmingly depressing movie.

Looking at the positive side:

The visual aspect of this film is undeniable! There are spectacles contained within that have the power to take your breath away. The score is fantastic. Tyler Bates evokes some really powerful emotions. I was reminded repeatedly of the feeling I get when I watch Blade Runner or A Clockwork Orange. There are great swooning moments of romance and ditches of depravity in which the viewer sometimes feels caught. I think of this as a good thing, since the film is meant to be disturbing. The pacing feels a bit off, but for the most part the script is really an amazing adaptation. The look of the superheroes in the film is absolutely stellar. I could not imagine the masked vigilante Rorschach looking any better, the same goes for Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup). Director Zack Snyder does indeed have vision and a revolutionary feel for cinema that reminds me of the Wachowskis and the Scotts. But he lacks a true feel for subtle detail and character realism; something the book emphasizes much of the time. Being a young director, I think he will pick these things up in the course of what looks to be a most intriguing career.

There is much to love about Watchmen. If you’re a fan of the novel you will undoubtedly be swept away despite these flaws. I know I was. But while you’re adrift on the sea of the Watchmen, you may find yourself wondering if some of what you’re watching was really necessary. I thought that certain subplots should have been developed more than they were. Instead the movie turns out uneven, with Snyder playing favorites it seems with our cast of superheroes. Niteowl (Patrick Wilson) and Silkspectre (Malin Akerman) end up with much more onscreen time than fellow pivotal characters Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) and Dr. Manhattan. Also, Rorschach’s unmasked scenes could have been longer and more involved. Let us see more of Silkspectre and Dr. Manhattan’s relationship. Some of the psychological underpinnings of the novel have been omitted or reduced and this sometimes lessens the characters. It also doesn’t help that Snyder comes off looking like a hypocrite because he glorifies the violence that the story is seeking to demonize. Although the action scenes couldn’t have looked finer. And therein lies a problem; the movie can’t decide whether it likes its characters or not. Sometimes its grandly entertaining and other times deeply thought-provoking, but seldom both at the same time. The exception would have to be Rorschach’s entire story-arc. It is executed with brilliance and nuance. Jackie Earle Haley and the creative team deserve a round of awards for pulling that character off so well.

I heartily recommend this film to fans and those who appreciate the offbeat and weird, but others might want to think first before they plop down their money for just another superhero blockbuster. If you choose to see this, be aware that it runs nearly 3 hours and is very disturbing and challenging.

3 and ½ of 5 stars

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