Friday, March 13, 2009

A movie review: Watchmen (2009)

Watchmen (2009)
Director - Zack Snyder
Tagline - Justice is coming to all of us. No matter what we do.
Rated R

Malin Akerman - Laurie Jupiter / Silk Spectre II
Billy Crudup - Dr. Manhattan / Jon Osterman
Matthew Goode - Adrian Veidt / Ozymandias
Jackie Earle Haley - Walter Kovacs / Rorschach
Jeffrey Dean Morgan - Edward Blake / The Comedian
Patrick Wilson - Dan Dreiberg / Nite Owl II

My experience with the new film Watchmen can be summed up by saying this: I found it thought-provoking, visually appealing, long but not exactly too long, musically pleasing, and just a touch too under-developed. Having described that in order of importance, my overall reaction is positive.

Director Zack Snyder took on the challenge to put to film what many have called ‘un-filmable’ when he decided to direct a movie based on the graphic novel Watchmen, written by Alan Moore in the mid-80s. The book itself was a huge deal, in many ways changing an entire industry and leading to its eventual placement on such esteemed lists as Time magazine’s Top 100 novels. And though it may have very well been read by a larger sample of society, it is still a niche piece fitting into a smaller segment of people who, more than likely, are drawn to the comic book world as a whole.

So what does this mean for the movie? Well, quite a bit. To start, how do you take a piece of literature that is very dense with character and theme development, coupled with extraordinarily difficult physical aspects such as scenes taking place on another planet, and cram it all into a reasonable length of time on screen, and then market it to the general public, many of whom will have never even read the original piece of work, let alone heard of it? The answer for Snyder was selective adaptation and cinematic trickery. Without giving into spoilers, some items were changed in the development of the film, and in some places, not just minor changes were made. Die-hard fans will certainly find fault in more than a few places. Casual fans will not know the difference. The use of carefully chosen flashback scenes was the answer to getting character and theme development in place without running even longer than the current 2 hours and 45 minutes.

The story of the Watchmen is told to us through a series of events in the past that lead us to a present day 1985. The only thing is, it is not exactly a 1985 that we all know existed. This is an on-going theme with this work, that this is a world which closely resembles what we know to be true, but altered in ways that can only have come from some extra-normal events having taken place over time. It is in this world of 1985, where Richard Nixon is President and the United States has victoriously won in Vietnam, that we come to learn the identities of a group of former super heroes who existed with basically no super powers, yet held a great importance in defining moments of everyday life.

The world is in a state of fear as the Soviets and Americans are on the brink of nuclear war, and flashes of headlines throughout the movie keep us updated on happenings. Through a series of public outcries, a law to ban super heroes from doing their job is enacted, and they are now mostly retired or operating outside the law. The real question is what did they get out of their job? They don’t seem to care about helping people so much; they simply seem to do what they need to do, like a job, nothing more, nothing less, in an effort (?) to keep humanity moving forward. What ultimately brings them back together is the murder of The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and the belief that someone might be out to get the rest of them. It is a murder mystery movie, at its heart, but much more so it is a character development piece asking the question of who cares if these people are out to help us or not? Does it even matter?

So what is the movie about? The characters are not Superman, flying around shooting beams from their eyes. They aren’t Spiderman, climbing walls and shooting webs from their hands. They don’t generally save people for the sake of saving them. Most of them wear costumes that have no special abilities, and they seemingly use their own fight training techniques to take on all comers. We have Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) who, after retiring, is known as the smartest person in the world, and a top business leader; Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson) who spends his days living in a fairly normal apartment; Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman) the lone female following in her mother’s footsteps; and Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) who works as a vigilantly and is the only member who has a not-so-realistic get-up, his mask a constantly shifting ink blot of patterns.

So what else is there to go on?

The answer is Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup). Played in an electric blue hue for most of the film, the doctor is the lone member of the group who possesses extraordinary powers, stemming from a lab disaster years ago which turned him from a normal, human doctor, into something of a “quantum-man” – a man who exists and does not exist as we understand the laws of the universe, and the one thing that the United States has that the Soviets fear. It is Dr. Manhattan’s role that glues this film together, radiating all other roles like spokes on a wheel, if indirectly, from his presence and what he represents. By the end of the film, if you have been actively participating in determining what is happening, you will hopefully draw your own conclusions about the ultimate message from this piece of work based on this role, and I will not venture to put my own thoughts here for fear of tainting your experience.

I had not read the graphic novel before viewing the film, but I had done enough research to know what I was to expect, in general, and I believe strongly that this added to my enjoyment of the movie overall. For those people who go to this film based on the trailer, well, I am sorry to say I would guess that 75% will leave feeling somehow cheated. This movie is not The Dark Knight in action nor is it Ironman in casualness, yet the trailer alone makes it feel like you are going to get more literal bang for your buck. It seems obvious to me that a lot of money and effort was put into this film, only for the marketing team to realize that getting the general public to watch a ‘superhero’ film that is mainly about non-superhero action would be a disaster, thus the trailer and the hype. In the end this is a thinking man’s movie filled in with decent action and visuals, but ultimately it is a film that tackles the question of what makes us human, on both a very large, and yet, just as equally, a very small scale.

8.5/10 (although I will see it again and may bump it to a 9)

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