Watchmen Review

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by Mark Botwright Jul 30, 2009 at 12:00 AM

  • It is quite hard to gauge how Alan Moore must feel now when he sees another of his seminal graphic novels being preened for a big screen outing. One would assume the prospect was perhaps greeted with enthusiasm, but as the outcome of such marriages have produced either uninspiring works (V for Vendetta), arguably faithful but run of the mill titles (From Hell) and blockbusters that miss the point entirely as was indicated by The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Even when taking something that was initially his creation, such as the lead character from the long running Hellblazer comics, and turning him into a walking joke more akin to a sketch about bad adaptations (Constantine) fails to stop producers attempting to take his penned creations to another medium.

    Watchmen tells the tale of an alternate 1985, where Nixon is still president, the world is on the verge of nuclear war with the USSR and masked vigilantes were once the norm but have since been outlawed. When a former member of one such group is murdered, a still serving vigilante, Rorschach, investigates and uncovers a sinister plot far greater than any of them could have imagined. This is not a sanitized world of “biff” and “kablooey” accompanying every strike, instead the violence is portrayed as all too real, with the consequences frequently bordering on the gruesome. The central premise behind the story is that of the death of one of their kind, namely The Comedian, and the subsequent investigation that draws us down a rabbit's warren of intrigue full of twisted characters and ambiguity. It was this very ambiguity that made Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' original work such a breath of fresh air. Gone were the simplistic notions of good versus evil and right prevailing. They found themselves replaced with an infinite landscape of grey morality.

    Directing duties are handled by Zack Snyder, perhaps best known for his adaptation of another graphic novel with many admirers, 300. Having been a project that has spent many years in the wilderness of pre-production hell, with just about every combination of directors and writers associated with it or rumoured to be working on it at various points, it would have come as a great relief to many to see this hot potato finally land in hands that appear capable of treating the medium from whence the film sprouted with a degree of respect. The likes of Spiderman and the X-Men trilogy have blinded many to the myriad of failed comic book adaptations and the poor form they generally have at the box office. As with 300, Snyder prefers to cast a host of up and coming faces rather than established talent, assuming he's going by the wise rationale that fictional figures already within much of the public's consciousness will need a blank slate as opposed to billboard material that will stretch their visages and detract from a suspension of disbelief - something that is paramount to an experience that hinges on science fiction and heroes in ornate outfits.

    Most of the cast do a fine job of bringing their 2D namesakes to life. The majority will be little known to audiences, with only a select amount of TV appearances and a minority of films smattered amongst the CVs of them, it is Billy Crudup who one would assume to be the most recognisable. That is, if he weren't portraying a man that spends the vast amount of his time on screen being a bright blue demigod-like being whose basic physiology is all that appears human. Malin Akerman as Silk Spectre II does her best given that a healthy portion of the more subtle lines have had to be cut in order to fit Moore's mammoth work into anything other than a ten hour mini-series. Matthew Goode is somewhat less fitting as Ozymandias, having none of the square jawed stature and charisma of Gibbon's artwork, instead leaving me only thinking of how much he looks like the character he played in the remake of Brideshead Revisited, foppish, smarmy and lacking any real aura of power. In contract, Jeffrey Dean Morgan is the perfect Comedian, typifying his nihilistic violent attitude to a tee and Jackie Earle Haley bookends this performance with his own persona of Rorschach. Similarly, Patrick Wilson comes across as the slightly downtrodden and wimpish Nite Owl (II) very well, transforming from accountant to executioner of justice with just the aid of his costume, which brings me to the first of my slight bugbears. There was always a slight quaintness to this character, thanks to his frankly geekish ornithological outfit, complete with wide owl-like head and a less than impressive tapering cape. Whether this would be misunderstood by a modern audience used to the high concept chic of Batman I don't know, but this has been replaced by a more fashionable latex number that evidently seems to have been modelled on the aforementioned comic book heavyweight. The reason I highlight this particular deviation from the original text is that I feel it highlights the key discrepancy of the film as a whole. As a central conundrum to the piece is the question what does it want to be, a superhero action movie or a recreation of Moore's and Gibbons' work?

    The artistic style of Dave Gibbons' original drawing has been well realised by the team behind the film, with the colours never appearing too bright or cartoonish. If anything, they are perhaps a shade too muted and noirish, but that's debateable. What isn't debateable is the amount of flashy fight scenes that have been crowbarred into the piece. I'm not in any way against such things, as they are certainly well executed, but the criticism from fans will surely be that they should not be inserted when there isn't sufficient running time anyway to place many of the intricacies of the story into three hours. Why sacrifice something that was in the book and replace it with something that wasn't? No longer is The Comedian murdered with nary a whimper, a broken man, now he has a protracted battle with his assailant that includes guns and knives. The prison break now has a similarly flashy sequence of high kicks and fast martial arts when previously there were none. What was once a work of supreme subtlety that had care taken over every single inked frame, has essentially been diluted by modern tastes and the prospect of what sells. This seems to have backfired to a certain degree though, as many complained about the experience of seeing Watchmen, believing themselves to be entering into a standard caped punch up affair and walking away from something that's far from it. In short, even this small nod to the action oriented crowd was never likely to be enough so the question remains, why tinker with something that was already proven. The moments of originality from Snyder, such as the choice of music, are decent enough but, one could argue, uninspired. The tracks employed are some of the most over-used in the history of cinema and were it not for the fact that they are all classics, their impact would have been lessened. They are handled as if Snyder were directing a music video for MTV, with all such moments receiving copious amounts of slow motion footage and little other than scene setting visuals. If anything, the music only serves to remind you of times that they have been better utilised in cinema - the inclusion of Ride of the Valkyries and Cavalleria Rusticana - Intermezzo could almost have been homages to Coppola and Scorsese respectively. There are moments when the use of lyrics becomes similar in impact to the quoting of song lyrics in the book but they are few and far between.

    Perhaps I'm being a touch unfair, as the task of bringing such a tome to the big screen cannot be underestimated and I can understand Snyder playing it safe at times. The omission of many minute details can never be levelled as a genuine criticism of an interpretation that has to fit within a relatively small timescale, but it does have a detrimental effect nonetheless. The entire deletion of the side story of The Black Freighter, which punctuated the main tale with a piece of high seas pirate pulp fiction, was necessary as it simply would not have fitted into the edit with any fluidity, but we lose the effect the analogy finally made with one of the key characters and thus their final realisation. What is less understandable though is the final punch line to this nefarious joke. In the novel, it was so outlandish that it pulled the rug out from under the reader, such was its magnitude and implausibility. Here the decision has been made to change this body blow of an idea and switch it to one infinitely more fitting to standard fare of the like, but also somehow very un-Moore like. It aids the director in numerous ways, by removing a key subplot of missing artists and writers but also takes away from other areas which I won't go into. It is tantamount to changing the film Titanic, not by having the ship complete its journey, but instead having it hit rocks as opposed to an iceberg - the end result is the same, so again I ask why change it?

    For fans of the novel, this may be seen as a glass half full. It will certainly split opinions with its deviations from the source material and updating of elements of the script. The shift of emphasis in places works, yet in others merely seems incongruous. The plus side is that we finally get to see these well loved (and hated) characters on a large screen for the first time and they look great. This has had the kind of budget it deserves thrown at it and the effects given to the portrayal of Dr Manhattan and Archie, Nite Owl's futuristic transport, are simply superb. Jeffrey Dean Morgan seems born to play Edward Blake/The Comedian and Jackie Earl Haley is every inch the personification of Rorschach. These two almost make up for the weakness inherent in the casting of Matthew Goode as Ozymandias, but not quite. If you're expecting an experience close to the recent Nolan directed episodes of the Batman franchise then you'll be half satisfied. Similarly, if you're a firm devotee of the graphic novel you'll probably gain a likewise amount of satisfaction from the experience. It does get better with repeated viewings and the soundtrack is immense, but it simply lacks the all out action of a Superhero blockbuster and the interwoven complexities of Moore's original writing to achieve classic status. It is still a decent film and this Director's Cut certainly makes good use of the extra running time afforded it, but given the excellence of its inspiration and basis, it could, and perhaps should have been a whole lot more. Maybe the proposed Ultimate Collector's Edition that's hovering on the horizon as we speak, which should intersperse the central story with that of The Black Freighter, will give a more complete picture. I may not agree with some of the MTV style direction involving copious amounts of slow motion and added violence, but I certainly applaud Snyder for having the courage to attempt such a bold task. The original was a work so completely woven around the eighties and the cold war that it was always going to lose a certain amount of impact in present climes, though there are still many similarities to some circumstances that are reported in the news today. The book doesn't carry the tagline of “One of Time Magazine's 100 best novels” for nothing, and as an adaptation, Snyder almost pulled it off.

    The Rundown

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