‘Watchmen’ *** Movie Review 030809

  Graphic Novel: Art from the movie: Blu-ray of the graphic novel: DVD of the graphic novel: Blu-ray of animated Watchmen short stories: DVD of animated Watchmen short stories:

The Work = ***
'Watchmen' is nothing, if not ambitious. I won't lie to you, I could not wait to watch the film. Now, having just seen 'Watchmen', I sit and try to piece together my reaction. 'Watchmen' is a beautiful film that looks like a teenagers wet dream brought to life on the big screen. The film is rated-R and does not shy away from violence and nudity. 'Watchmen' is a long, visual ride, into a world inhabited by super heroes that are as flawed as the people they defend. I enjoyed much of what I saw and many of the ideas and story threads throughout but I felt a sort of letdown at the conclusion. At the same time, I cannot deny that there is a lot to admire in 'Watchmen'. I suspect if you have read the graphic novel you will enjoy the film adaptation and if you are interested in seeing a graphic, downbeat take on the super hero genre give it a try. Otherwise you may want to wait for a rental.

The opening of 'Watchmen' is one of the more bizarre beginnings that I have seen in awhile. Essentially, the start of 'Watchmen' retells America's recent history. Starting in the late 40s/ early 50s 'Watchmen' shows a world forever altered by the presence of real superheros. Most of the film takes place in the mid 80s. Nixon stayed in office for a long time and America and Russia have escalated their nuclear armaments to dreadful proportions. The destruction of the planet at the hands of a joint nuclear strike by both countries seems more and more likely.

The once headline grabbing superheros have been pushed out of the limelight after a lot of death and bad press. They no longer protect the weak and the innocent and instead lament the glory days when the crusaders were riding high fighting crime. The remaining superheros have either gone into hiding or gone public as the country struggles to avoid nuclear destruction. Then, maybe as an omen of what will come, someone starts killing the superheros one by one.

This is more or less the setup for 'Watchmen' which unravels its story in a zig-zagging fashion that shows some of the past exploits of the Watchmen intercut with the new found threat. As the flashbacks increase, we learn that glory days were maybe not so wonderful. The superheros were not always so heroic after all and the ones that went to work for the government became puppets used to win wars and kill opposition. With power comes responsibility and just as some people are not fit to drive a car, some of the heroes are not fit to control their abilities.

'Watchmen' is based on a graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. (Moore is not credited in the film, I am guessing at his request.) There have been many attempts over the years to make a film version of the 'Watchman' graphic novel, going back to the 80s when the comic was first released. Some had said the material was simply unfilmable'. Director Zack Snyder and writers David Hayter and Alex Tse have constructed a feature with a limitless scope. No scale is too big, no location too far and exotic, no effect is too spectacular. People have been telling me forever to read the graphic novel and I am embarrassed to say I still have not (even after a friend let me borrow it, thanks Matt.) I cannot speak to how accurate an adaptation this is but I will say it does not look like anything was held back due to any sort of limitation other than the movie length. Snyder seems tremendously comfortable with special effects and the 'Watchmen' are brought to the screen in all their sci-fi glory.

However, one curiosity that hurts the film right from the outset is an odd use of make up on actors portraying real figures from history. Richard Nixon is a prime example. Instead of just hiring an actor to impersonate the former president, actor Robert Wisden is covered with a lot of heavy make up (and I'm guessing prosthetics.) The result is that Wisden doesn't look like Nixon, instead he looks like someone wearing a Halloween costume. The effect is less than convincing and was downright distracting at times during the film.

That being said, the make up and effects for the superheros is incredible. Two of the most impressive examples are also two of the most memorable characters in the film. One is the god-like Dr. Manhattan (played by the so often underused Billy Crudup) and the other is the menacing Rorschach (played with unflinching commitment by Jackie Earle Haley.) Dr. Manhattan is a blue, glowing, spirit-like scientist, who sometimes shimmers and hovers above the ground. He has the physique of a body builder and can manipulate matter. His god-like existence is pulling the good doctor farther and farther away from reality. (Oh and as if all that wasn't enough, he is also nude most of the time so ladies (and some men) get to see the good doctor's package several times onscreen.) Rorschach, on the other hand, is dressed in the getup of a 1950s private detective but wears a mask that covers his whole face with a sort of living Rorschach-test drawing (a surprisingly effective look.) Rorschach is the one member of the Watchmen that doggedly wants to solve the mystery behind the murders of fellow members.

If Dr. Manhattan and Rorschach are the most memorable characters in 'Watchmen' then the Comedian (played with a certain maniacal aggressiveness by Jeffery Dean Morgan) is easily the runner up.The Comedian was one of the good guys back in the 60s and 70s but he did plenty of work for the government that was not the work of a hero. Only late in life does he reflect and show any remorse for the murder and mayhem he caused. His actions are so vile at times that it makes it difficult to imagine how anyone could ever think of him as being a hero.

The intersecting stories of the 'Watchmen' and their past is what forms the structure of the 'Watchmen' film. As we are shown more and more of their world and their history, the film starts to build towards a climax. Yet, somehow all the parts don't quite come together for me. Instead of building towards something, 'Watchman' seems disjointed, particularly towards the end. Some of the problems may be that when compared to the three previously mentioned Watchmen, other members like Nite Owl (played by Patrick Wilson) and Silk Spectre (played by Malin Akerman) seemed kind of flat. I was never really drawn into their story and consequently I was often waiting for Rorschach to show up whenever they were onscreen.

Snyder clearly loves the material but the graphic novel may just be too much to cram into a single film. I suspect that had the film been spread into 2-3 features or a miniseries it may have been stronger. After the film, I realized that I really knew very little about the heroes and some of what I knew was actually from what my friend had told me about the graphic novel. If Snyder had the time to flesh things out more and follow through on more of the ideas in the film, it may have been a more satisfying feature.

Whatever reservations I had about the film may have diminished had the conclusion grabbed me. The trouble is, the final section of 'Watchmen' was downright frustrating and disappointing. I am writing this as a viewer that was looking forward to the film and no matter how much I wanted to the love film, I can't help but admit I was disappointed. To discuss the ending further I will be giving away a lot of what occurs. Consider this your SPOILER WARNING, SKIP TO THE LAST PARAGRAPH OR STOP READING THE REVIEW HERE TO AVOID LEARNING THE ENDING.

The death of The Comedian is what sends the events in 'Watchmen' into motion. I think Rorschach's unflinching pursuit of answers hidden behind the murder mystery is the driving force of 'Watchmen' (after all his journal entries narrate parts of the movie.) The final section reveals the villain behind the murder is one of their own; a member of the Watchmen. Ozymandias (played by the versatile Mathew Goode,) the so-called smartest man alive, is killing Watchmen to prevent them from stopping him as he plans to launch a series of explosions made to look like Dr. Manhattan's handiwork. Why? To give mankind a villain to unite against. His plan is to kill millions to save a billion. Now, I don't know about you but if that is the plan the smartest man on earth comes up with, clearly he needs to be retested. Rorschach, Nite Owl, and Silk Spectre all call foul but Dr. Manhattan thinks the plan makes sense and there you have it.

Nite Owl and Silk Spectre concede defeat but Rorschach cannot and his failure to compromise seals his fate. That Dr. Manhattan goes along with the plan seems odd and frustrating. Even worse, Silk Spectre and Nite Owl bend to Ozymandias's will because they would be killed otherwise. Rorschach wants to tell the world of the Watchmen's betrayal and Dr. Manhattan kills him for it. Then the film shows Nite Owl and Silk Spectre living happily ever after... yeah right. Given everyone's dim view of humanity in 'Watchmen', I find it hard to believe that they would think this plan would do anything but delay an inevitable conflict. The conclusion just felt like a letdown (although the final beat of Rorschach's journal helps a bit.) Perhaps, had I cared about the other characters more, or understood them better, the ending would not have seemed so frustrating. Maybe if what had transpired had been presented differently or if I had felt more attachment to Nite Owl and Silk Spectre, I would not have felt so let down. In one way of thinking, the evil genius won at the end and if I empathized with him more I may not have been bothered so much by the conclusion. END OF SPOILERS.

I mean no disrespect, Snyder and company clearly love the material and cram their film with as much as they can. In so doing, 'Watchmen' became disjointed for me and the last act left me disappointed. Snyder is a talented filmmaker, maybe more so than he will get credit for and I respect that he tried to tackle the story and not water it down. I suspect that there was just too much here for one film to hold. I also wouldn't be surprised if some would feel the glamorous, stylized action contradicts some of the ideas and tone of the graphic novel. Sill, the 'Watchmen' film is nothing if not ambitious and stands out all the more when compared with some of the more mindless films in theaters. I enjoyed much of 'Watchmen' and I am still mulling over passages in my head. I downright loved parts of the film but cannot get past the problematic last section. With 'Watchmen' Snyder aimed high and I suppose if he didn't succeed that is not really for me to say. Is it a bad film? Certainly not but 'Watchmen' will not be for everyone and the long runtime compounds the weaknesses of the feature. I can only recommend it to those that will have a high tolerance for this sort of thing or those who are a fan of the material already and want to see a new interpretation. If you haven't drank the 'Watchmen' cool-aid you may want to wait for the home release or check out the graphic novel first.


‘Watchmen’ Links:


My review of director Zack Snyder's previous film '300'.


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