Watchmen, based on one of the most acclaimed graphic novels ever made, finally makes its way to theaters after decades of development hell with just as much buzz as the most anticipated summer sequel. But it's only March, so Warner Brothers enlisted Dawn of the Dead director Zack Snyder to do a 300 repeat and bring this challenging piece of work to life.
And Snyder, as if there were ever any question, was the perfect choice for doing such a film. His work on 300 was incredible, proving that he has an eye for visuals and special effects that stretch our perception of reality without betraying it. 300 wasn't realistic, but it was also never cheesy; Watchmen, a drama about superheroes in silly costumes who must fight to save the world from nuclear holocaust, pushes the realm of our imagination without sacrificing its human core. Snyder has in 2009 finally done what many directors and studio heads have only dreamed about since the 1980's.
Watchmen is an epic in every sense of the word, not a superhero picture but a visual feast glowing with political and ethical philosophies. There is only one true superhero in the movie, the otherworldly Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) who transcends time and space and yet is anchored to humanity, if only by the thinnest of threads - his love for Laurie Jupiter (Malin Akerman). He alone prevents nuclear war, yet he could also be the world's harbinger of death. The rest of the characters are costumed heroes, fully capable of beating up dozens of bad guys yet lacking any identifiable special powers. These are the Watchmen, or what's left of them; one of their oldest teammates, the morally gray Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), is murdered by an unseen assailant. Only Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) believes that The Comedian's death implies a bigger, more destructive plot; Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) and Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode) range from merely concerned to uninterested.
Watchmen is visually stunning, with incredible special effects and direction that makes love to the scenery with every chance. Snyder guides us through this carefully crafted world, remaining faithful to the source material as best he can – so I hear, having not read the graphic novel myself. His glossy style and use of slow motion would be considered gimmicky if not for his pure mastery of the art; the opening credits alone are enough to take your breath away.
But this review isn't meant to be an ass kissing to Snyder and his film; Watchmen isn't perfect, and it isn't for everyone. It isn't for young children, including that baby that some parent foolishly brought into the theater thinking he or she would remain quiet for the film's three-hour running time. It isn't for those expecting Spider-Man or Fantastic Four or Iron Man or even The Dark Knight; this is a superhero movie, and yet it's not. Watchmen has some good action scenes, but only a couple; the rest is dialogue, mystery, politics, romance and sci-fi. It isn't for those who are squeamish about uncomfortable topics; there is gore, there is a rape scene and there is sex and nudity.
But none of those are faults; they are facts. Not everyone will like Watchmen. The movie is not a blockbuster action movie. It is an epic adaptation of a graphic novel that is more about politics and society than it is about superheroes and excitement. It is three hours long, and Snyder's devotion to keeping close to the source material does seem a little extreme as some scenes drag on a little. It is a talky film, and not everyone likes talky films. I certainly would have liked to see more action, but thankfully I heard that this movie didn't have too much going in so my expectations were tempered. Had I gone into the theater expecting only what I saw in the previews, I may have been disappointed.
The acting ranges from excellent to just good. Crudup delivers a rather monotone and emotionless performance, but his character is meant to be emotionless. One could go either way, but he fits the role well. Wilson is inconsistent, as sometimes his nice-boy, pushover routine works, and other times it doesn't. Goode is just decent, and looks the most out of place of all the actors. Akerman, whom some critics have said comes off as a bit of a bimbo, is actually pretty good, and also looks damn good in yellow tights – or less. But it's Haley (Little Children, alongside Wilson) who dominates, his rugged, fierce performance a standout among the rest.
Some have said that the allusions to communism and the paranoia of commies and nuclear war that persists throughout the novel are missing, and if those items do indeed exist in the story, they certainly are absent from the movie. Perhaps these were removed because much of that threat no longer remains, despite the uncertain times we live in. But if that is the case, then the overall story itself is outdated. Watchmen would have been much more relevant 20 years ago had the technology been available to make a movie such as this. As such, Watchmen feels more like a sci-fi epic than an epic about the world, which was most likely its original intention.
Nonetheless, despite a few minor faults, Watchmen is an epic. It's not the kind of epic that I would watch over and over again, but Snyder's attention to detail pays off if you're willing to subject yourself to a superhero story unlike any other told before. It is not for everyone, but it is a well-made piece of art.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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