Review: Watchmen (2009)

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Directed by: Zack Snyder | 163 minutes | action, drama, thriller, adventure, crime, science fiction | Actors: Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Haley, Billy Crudup, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Malin Akerman, Matthew Goode, Carla Gugino, Stephen McHattie, Niall Matter, Matt Frewer, Carrie Genzel, Sonya Salomaa, Brett Stimely, Laura Mennell, Danny Woodburn, Leah Gibson, Dan Payne, Apollonia Vanova, Salli Saffioti, Jay Brazeau, Patrick Sabongui, Darren Shahlavi, Rob LaBelle, Marsha Regis, Matthew Harrison, Isabelle Champeau, Jerry Wasserman, Jesse Reid, Manoj Sood, Gary Houston, Bernadeta Wrobel, Stephanie Belding, Greg Travis, Tyler McClendon, Nhi Do, Chris Weber, L. Harvey Gold, John Tench, Parm Soor, Tony Ali, Alexander Mandra, Heidi Iro, Cristina Menz, Mary Ann Burger, Suzanne Clements-Smith, Matt Drake, Colin Lawrence

Allen Moore’s graphic novel “Watchmen” was considered unfilmable for years. The film rights passed through the hands of four to six major film studios and Darren Aronofsky and Paul Greengrass, among others, tried but failed to get the job done. Moore himself had no faith at all. He would prefer not to see the film adaptation at all. But after some wrangling between Fox and Warner Bros. it got there. Director Zack Snyder (of the successful “Dawn of the Dead” and “300”) finally took the film to the silver screen and the high expectations, carefully crafted with a series of media fancies, seem to have been fulfilled. Snyder remains remarkably faithful to the original book. For the initiated; the story-in-story of “Tales of the Black Freighter” has been cut out (it will be released on DVD) and the ending has also been slightly modified. But the book is kept as good as intact in tone as well as storyline. There is not much to complain for the fanboys.

The cold war is on the verge of nuclear leap, masked heroes have been banned due to a series of scandals and the future looks very gray. The group of the Watchmen, who once fought the gang, has disintegrated. Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), transformed into a superhuman in a scientific accident, now works for the government, and Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) and Silk Specter (Malin Akerman) have quit. However, the hardened Rorschach (a particularly strong Jackie Earle Haley) refuses to give up and sees a plot against himself and his old mates with the murder of another former Watchman, the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Time for some old-fashioned action, although it is not so easy anymore. The illustrious past of the Watchmen, including intervention in the Vietnam War, shaking hands with the president and less slick public appearances, is revealed under the guidance of Bob Dylan’s “The times they are a-changin ‘”. Once heroes, they are now banned. Events are effectively interwoven with history. The Doomsclock, which indicates how close a nuclear war is, is now ticking and it soon becomes clear that the Watchmen are not finished here either. It is this interweaving with historical events and the twist that is given to history that makes the story of the Watchmen so interesting. Something else unique about the story is that fairly sober deconstruction of the classic superhero idea. The Watchmen (except for Dr. Manhattan) are not only flesh and blood – and therefore vulnerable, both physically and psychologically – but they are not such outspoken heroes either. The Comedian was a violent bastard and the others also sometimes lost sight of the right.

In short, it is not about black and white contrasts, but about a layered story. Human weaknesses and shortcomings all too often surface. Fortunately, Snyder is aware of the strong story and the film maintains the emphasis on this. The action is of course well portrayed, but nowhere does the visual power become more dominant than in “300”. The scenes in which it is nicely slapped are appropriately “cool” by the way, though. Well-known banging and booming noises do not spoil everything, shall we say. But it all still remains reasonably credible, although it does require the necessary empathy here and there. A character like Dr. Manhattan, for example, or Nite Owl with that futuristic ship and other gadgets. In a way, the typical narrative of the graphic novel is also well preserved. Rorschach’s voice over and various plot lines make for a fascinating and understandable story, although the first hour may be a little prior knowledge.

Stylistically, too, Snyder does not take the easy route, as a result of which the film has become a colorful mix of originality and clichés, of dead serious seriousness and winks and humor. Nixon looks like a caricature, the American warroom looks straight out of Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove ‘cut t and the ever-dark streets are well known to film viewers in their greyness. Snyder plays with the genre and well-known Hollywood conventions and makes a quirky but manageable mix, because he does not get lost. It certainly does justice to the original story, which also always made off with the genre. Snyder got himself into a lot with “Watchmen,” not the first best graphic novel. And although not a suitable film for everyone, he did very well. Some things may have been lost in the translation to the silver screen and some trifles can be called at least somewhat dubious (Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah during a sex scene, that’s really not possible); but nagging about details is simply silenced in this grand approach of “Watchmen”. Recommended.

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