Watchmen (film, 2009)


This review comes from Death Ray #21. It is of the DVD release of the time.

2009/£19.99/156mins/18

Film FOUR STARS Extras: TWO STARS

Director: Zack Snyder

Writer: David Hayter & Alex Tse, Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons (graphic novel)

Starring: Billy Crudup, Maliln Ackerman, Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan

Alan Moore’s masterpiece makes it onto DVD, via cinema.

Watchmen is the quintessential divisive film. Slavishly faithful to the comic upon which it is based, this is not your fluid, modern day capture-characters-essence-on-screen-and-go-its-own-way adaptation. This is not just any comic, of course, but the comic which, supposedly, heralded the maturity of the form. To many reared on the four-colour milk of comics-dom Watchmen is the Pride and Prejudice or the Moby Dick of the strips. According to such fans, to not be faithful to it (and director Zack Snyder definitely falls into this camp) would miss the point of filming it at all. But this is cinema, the fields provided by the big screen are smaller than those the comic book allows the imagination, and compromises have been made.

Like 300, The Spirit and Sin City, Watchmen is a genuine comic book/ movie hybrid. Snyder used the paper version as a storyboard for the film, as he did with 300, and though much more of what we see on screen is ‘real’, each frame is almost painted in muted colours contrasted with gaudy effects which, through a certain flatness, mimics the Euro-comic colouring John Higgins chose for the book and its grubby, ’80s-comic cheapo printing. There’s a static feel to the film, reinforced by Snyder’s use of slow-motion action scenes and stationary cameras, while various musical interludes, popular hits from the era played over montages, themselves comprised of fairly static scenes, hammers it home. It episodic, as fragmented as if it were actually made up of parts supposed to be bought on a monthly basis. ‘You are watching a comic,’ shouts Snyder, ‘read my film’.

And that’s what divides the critics. Some found the film horribly ossified. Personally, I loved its self-conscious stylisation. It is mannered and stuffy, but it is telling a mannered and stuffy story. It’s a conscious attempt to mimic the level of control artist Dave Gibbons imposed on himself with the comic’s nine-panel grid layout (even in the ’80s, somewhat old fashioned), a deliberately adopted restriction, bent to fit Snyder’s cinematic purposes. It is perhaps distancing, but the story as presented in the film is about the distancing effects of power.

The film suffers most because of its story. There’s no denying Alan Moore’s genius in crafting intriguing worlds and weaving echoes of his story’s core themes right through their fabric. The ancillary documentation, newspaper reports, Tales of the Black Freighter comic-within-a-comic he wrote, as well as Gibbons’ incredible, detail-stuffed draughtsmanship, brought to Watchmen‘s parallel 1985 a level of depth unseen in comics, a vat of idea where satire and character could ferment to perfection. The production design team attempt to recreate this, but simply cannot. The plot has always been weak, but this was not a problem in the comic, where there is much detail and cunning musing on the human condition to hide its shortcomings, but the movie pares all this right back, and reveals just how jury rigged and patchy its sub-pulp investigative tale is (slightly altered to eliminate space squid, to no real ill effect) as ex-hero Ozymandias, aka businessman Adrian Veidt, tries to prevent the world from embarking on nuclear war by engineering a preventative atrocity of his own. Veidt’s plan is so ludicrously overly-complex as to defy belief, focussed obsessively on a bunch of past-it heroes, and patently see-through.

Ditto this for the characters and their interrelationships, Rorschach, who comes across as a bad pastiche of a ’30s detective hero, is a nutter, yet his ex-partner Nite Owl doesn’t seem to notice (this leads to an unintentionally ridiculous scene where Rorschach murders a dwarf in the toilet while Nite Owl and Silk Spectre impatiently wait outside). Nite Owl/Dan Dreiberg (Wilson) is particularly under-sketched – Dreiberg appears simply as a really nice guy. He’s the only character we get no real frame of reference for. The comic played up his own dependency on his superhero alter-ego, here he comes across as two-dimensionally rootless. He has no real motivation for being a vigilante. Likewise, it is abundantly clear the Comedian (Morgan) is a dangerous, treacherous lunatic, It’s hard to see why these people hang around with him at all. In the comic these characters were designed to highlight the ambivalent morals of so-called heroes (they’re themselves breaking the law to pursue their own need for violent thrills), film running times and familiarity with the source render their film counterparts as nihilistic caricatures or patsys. However, the characterisation of Doctor Manhattan is brilliant. Billy Crudup’s hypnotic recitation of the blue demigod’s lines beautifully conveys Manhattan’s sense of isolation from humanity. Mathew Goode does similar for his character, the super-intelligent Veidt.

If the comic was a triumph of detail and theme over story, the film struggles to push its style to do the same. It does not redefine the superhero on screen as the comic did capes in print. But it is an arresting film nonetheless, a stylish, cinematically interesting take on the genre that, like its parent, reveals the darkness concealed by the masks and capes in a way that Batman, in every film outing, singularly fails to do. Flawed, but worthy.

Extras: A documentary with the film’s science adviser about the veracity of the movie’s physics, great stuff, but it’s a little stingy. There are more extras on the two-disc limited edition set. We suspect hold-backs for the rumoured Ultimate Edition.

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