james debate
james debate

Sunday 8 March 2009

Directed by Zack Snyder
Written by David Hayter (screenplay), Alan Moore (comic)
Starring Malin Åkerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Carla Gugino, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Patrick Wilson
Release date(s) 6th March 2009
Running time 163 minutes

Well it is finally here. After 25 years and so much hype, a lot of it coming from me (and I previously listed Watchmen on the 'hot tips' for 2009 post), Watchmen finally hit the cinemas yesterday amid a frenzied media blitz. Indeed unless you've been living locked up in your bedroom for the past few weeks you will have seen this film being mentioned, and hyped up, everywhere you look. I can't even walk out of my flat without seeing billboards plastered everywhere and commercials on tv and newspapers everywhere.

This degree of hype can be dangerous for a film, particularly when the source material is as revered as the original graphic novel in this case. I could prattle on for hours about how the book redefined the genre and the legacy it created, but frankly it would distract from the real focus of this article, the film in question.

Similarly I'm not going to go down the road many of the hackier reviewers have gone down in spending most of the review comparing this film to the Dark Knight. It's simply not relevant and the two are very different prospects. The Dark Knight was an original film idea with comic book characters, but it would have worked just as well as a crime drama with regular people. Watchmen on the other hand is a direct adaption of a comic book, and it has to be, in keeping with the main focus of the graphic novel, a psychological and sociological deconstruction of superhero archetypes and the genre in general.


Now there are two ways to evaluate the success of this film. First we look at how well they manage to adapt the book to the screen, no easy feat considering the depth of some of the darker themes in the graphic novel. Secondly one has to look at how well it works, simply as a cinematic experience in its own right.

First, how faithful of an adaption is it? It is pleasing for anyone who has read the comic to see that Snyder has treated his source material with complete reverence, almost to the extent where the film feels as much a tribute to the comic as an adaption of it, filled with nods to the original's fans. Now this is really neither a good thing nor a bad thing, just a risky thing. Fortunately while the film is full of this fan service, it never starts forcing it down the audience's throats, and so manages to avoid alienating first time viewers and those who have never read the book.

However, it is clear that a fair bit of the book is lost in the translation. The characters in this film simply are not developed to the extent that they are in the book. You don't get enough of an impression on how much of a pathetic loser nite owl is, and why he needs to be a hero so bad. In this film he is presented more as a standard everyman type. You don't get a good feel of the relentless idealism of Rorschach, making his principled stance in the film's finale, even in the face of certain death, seem almost out of character, just because his character has not been as fully established as in the novel.

Most crucially however, the comedian is not fully developed here. For me, the real highlight of the book is the comedian. He does some seriously horrendous and abhorrent things, but in the book you get more insight into his tortured mind, overwhelmed by the absurdity of the world around him. As the comedian puts it in the book, "once you realize what a joke everything is, being the comedian is the only thing that makes sense". You simply don't get this in the film, where the comedian comes off to first time viewers simply as a villain, a bad guy.

A 12 book series full of deep character development and complex themes was always going to be impossible to make a 100% translation to cinema, as with most book to film adaptions, and so this is to be expected. As a result it is hard for me to hold this against the film, but it is worth mentioning when considering why one of the most complex and deep comics of all time might not be so revolutionary on screen.

At the end of the day, Snyder has done a simply amazing job of getting as much of the book as possible into a film, so while it might be missing some of the depth of the book, it's a film so it's really all that could have been expected.

However, as a film in its own right, Watchmen is truly excellent. This film is a feast for the senses. The visuals, the direction, the cinematography, all are nothing short of breathtaking for the full duration of the movie. The soundtrack is stellar, and works perfectly (aside from Hallelujah during the sex scene) and Snyder does a miraculous job of telling a good deal of story in the time allowed, particularly in the inventive opening credits sequence set to the backdrop of Bob Dylan's 'The times they are a-changing".

The performances are generally very good too, and bring the beloved characters to life. Jackie Earle Haley is simply perfect as Rorschach and is rightly earning high acclaim for his performance, with many comparing it to Ledger's immortal Joker. I won't go that far, but his is still an amazing performance, truly Haley IS Rorschach. Patrick Wilson and Jeffrey Dean Morgan are also nuanced and exemplary as Nite Owl II and the Comedian respectively, but for me it is Billy Crudup's Dr. Manhattan that is the most impressive performance. Understated yet powerful, the computer graphics in this film mean Crudup is robbed of his eyes, which as any actor knows is a tall order for conveying emotion without. That he manages such an affecting performance without them is pretty special.

Really the only performance I was not so keen on was that of Ozymandias, who to me just didn't look right for the part, looked far too weazly and sinister, and the german accent didn't help, it all just made it seem to me a little too obvious that he was a bad guy, although admittedly it's hard to judge since I already knew the end of the story going in to this movie.

Now undoubtedly a lot will be said about the modified ending, however I have to say I did not like it. Don't get me wrong, I DON'T like the squid, and I think the idea behind this ending is a lot better, but I just don't think it was very well done. Considering how brutal and uncompromising the rest of the film is, the final scenes of destruction and chaos seemed a little flat and scaled back. They simply don't convey the magnitude and horror of it all, in the comics you literally see a gruesome sea of dead bodies, in this one you don't get any of that, it just looks like any old sci-fi movie sequence of destroying a city. It's Snyder's only real miss in this movie, but it is a shame nonetheless.

All in all, it is hard to dislike this movie, despite its flaws. As a film it only contains such minor flaws, and the only real complaints I can level at it regard the loss of depth from the novel, but quite frankly if you expected perfect transition of all that detail then you clearly know little about films, and so it is hard to hold that against this film.

This is simply, about as perfect a film as could ever have been made for Watchmen, and Snyder has pulled off something very impressive indeed, just don't expect it to equal the achievement of the graphic novel.

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