Thursday 2 April 2009

Watchmen (2009)

Thursday 2 April 2009
You're damned if you do, and you're damned if you don't. I don't envy Zack Snyder in bringing "the most celebrated graphic novel of all time" to the big screen. It's nigh impossible to satisfy everyone after two decades of speculation, astronomical expectation, months of marketing hyperbole, and the dismissive insistence of co-creator/writer Alan Moore that Watchmen, his 1986 superhero comic-book critique, is inherently and intentionally "unfilmable"...

But, filmed it has been, having slipped through the fingers of luminaries like Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky and Paul Greengrass, to be grasped by relative upstart Zack Snyder. Wisely refusing to contemporize the novel as a 9/11 allegory, Snyder's perhaps foolishly refused to take the spirit of the page and run with it on film (something Peter Jackson did with J.R.R Tolkien's Lord Of The Rings.) Instead, this is a faithful visual offering, with the unavoidable nips and tucks of the storyline, topped off with a tweaked finale that improves on the original, courtesy of screenwriter David Hayter.

For the uninitiated, Watchmen posits a world where superheroes (well, "masked adventurers") are woven into the historical fabric of the 20th-century. A nifty credits sequence shows a tableaux of world events if superheroes had been present, most notably with Edward Blake/The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) cast as JFK's assassin on that grassy knoll. In a parallel 1985 -- where President Nixon's serving a third term and "masks" have been outlawed -- the aged Comedian is thrown out of his high-rise apartment window to his death. A masked vigilante named Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) suspects someone has started killing costumed heroes, although his former compatriots aren't convinced, or willing to be dragged into the mess...

Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson) has become a flabby, impotent man stuck in middle-age malaise; Laurie Jupiter/Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman) has issues with her aging mother/predecessor, having always felt uncomfortable with her call to heroism; billionaire genius Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) has come clean about his vigilante past, and is now working on a source of inexhaustible clean energy; and Jon Osterman/Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) is slowly withdrawing from humanity, having been transformed into a near-omniscient blue-skinned deity after a freak lab accident. Manhattan's the only character with super-abilities, and his insuperable powers of matter manipulation ended the Vietnam War with a US victory. Since then, he's kept the Cold War on ice as a walking deterrent -- although the symbolic Doomsday Clock for nuclear armageddon has recently clicked closer to midnight...

As a fan of the source material, it was impossible to separate myself from the book while watching the movie. In many ways a grounding in Alan Moore's opus helps the experience (your memory fills narrative gaps and embellishes curtailed subplots), but it's difficult to see what fresh minds will make of Watchmen. Groundbreaking stuff in the mid-'80s, most of the comic's ideas have been plundered or repackaged for late-'00s audiences (The Incredibles, Heroes), or its themes tackled in a more populist way (Superman Returns, The Dark Knight) -- resulting in a movie that lacks the revolutionary streak of its source. Time's a cruel mistress.

Visually, it's the expected treat of great costumes, detailed scenery and lush CGI. Snyder used the graphic novel as his visual Bible, and many of artist Dave Gibbons' panels have been brought to life with great veneration. Fans will get a kick from seeing iconic sequences and compositions transplanted from page to screen. The film is less artificial-looking than Snyder's previous comic adaptation of Frank Miller's 300 (ignoring some laughable make-up for an elderly Nixon), and largely faithful to Gibbons' designs.

The tone isn't quite as cold and nihilistic as I remember the book being -- possibly the result of having an eager young Yank direct, whereas a middle-aged Brit would have been better placed to find the pessimism. The costumed heroes in Watchmen are more exalted with an American's eye, despite the fact the book paints them as rather sad, dangerous fuck-ups. Breathe easy that Snyder reigns in his signature camera-cranking technique to oscillate time (although there's perhaps too much slo-mo at times), but raise a quizzical eyebrow at the eclectic soundtrack; an explicit sex-scene to the strains of "Hallelujah", a funeral to "The Sound Of Silence"? Incongruous at best, plain distracting at worst.

The casting is generally very good, though. Haley makes for a perfect Rorschach, even though the character is treated as a clear-cut anti-hero, instead of a deplorable psychopath; Crudup is excellent as the ethereal Dr. Manhattan (an effective performance, considering he was on-set in reflective pajamas); Wilson is believable as a past-his-prime superhero who's retained his base skills, although Dan's impotence plot didn't quite scan; the strikingly leggy Akerman was a decent Laurie (certainly not as appalling as I'd heard) and her nude scenes appreciated; Morgan was another sublime casting choice as the reprehensible Comedian; and Goode was much better than I expected as blonde egomaniac Ozymandias, if not quite an ideal translation of the comic's character.

Overall, Watchmen is a dignified failure that audiences fresh to the material will struggle to enjoy (despite its epic aspirations and immersive visuals), because the story is so fractured and you're only seeing the tip of the book's narrative iceberg here. It's faithful enough to earn a certain admiration from less-demanding fans, and I'm not even sure how Snyder could have improved matters, given the complexity of the task -- but, the fact remains this translation doesn't deliver the goods as a celluloid construct. Rest assured it doesn't spit on Alan Moore's award-winning masterpiece, but I'm a little sad that the global consciousness will forever associate "Watchmen" with this frustrating, muddled mélange of ideologies.

Not so super, man.

Warner Brothers
Budget: $120 million
162 minutes

Director: Zack Snyder
Writers: David Hayter & Alex Tse (based on the graphic novel co-created by Dave Gibbons)

Cast: Patrick Wilson (Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl II), Malin Akerman (Laurie Jupiter/Silk Spectre II), Jackie Earle Haley (Walter Kovacs/Rorschach), Billy Crudup (Dr. Jon Osterman/Dr. Manhattan), Matthew Goode (Adrian Veidt/Ozymandius), Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Edward Blake/The Comedian), Carla Gugino (Sally Jupiter/Silk Spectre), Matt Frewer (Edgar Jacobi/Morlock), Stephen McHattie (Hollis Mason/Nite Owl), Danny Woodburn (Big Figure), Niall Matter (Byron Lewis/Mothman), Dan Payne (Bill Brady/Dollar Bill), Appollonia Vanova (Ursula Zandt/Silhouette), Glenn Ennis (Rolf Muller/Hooded Justice) & Doug Chapman (Roy Chess)