Monday, March 09, 2009

The Warlock's Review: "Watchmen"

Anticipation is a funny thing. While the high expectations it creates often lead to heartache, the lead-up and hype for a movie often lend it even more weight once it hits the box office.

Watchmen has been among my most anticipated movies since it was announced nearly two years ago. When its release was nearly held up by 20th Century Fox, I was aghast. When the first trailer aired, pulsing along to a Smashing Pumpkins anti-ballad, I was in awe. And now, having seen it...'s honestly hard to breathe. As a fan, it's utterly mind-blowing.

In all honesty, never before has a "comic-book movie" been as faithful to its source as Watchmen. To be honest, I cannot envision another movie challenging it on this front. Scenes directly from the book are placed on screen one after another. Director Zack Snyder is flawless in this respect--his adoration for the book itself is phenomenal.

Several other critics have criticised this, both on the front that he has "embalmed" the movie (i.e. staying too close to the source material), or that his changes, made for time (the movie is nearly 3 hours, without the cuts!) were not faithful to his overall vision. Considering both arguments, as well as my own opinion, I dare say that he managed to walk a fine line in this respect. While changes to the book are present, they're dealt with smoothly and without hassle. However, scene after scene are pulled directly from the book.

I'm jumping ahead of myself. If you haven't read the book, or have much familiarity with the universe at this point, here's the basic summary. In 1977, the Keene Act is passed, banning acts of "masked vigilantism" following a massive police strike. Vigilantes have been active since WWII, impacting history in various ways, including the accidental creation of the first actual superhero, known as Dr. Manhattan (and played in a perfectly stoic manner by Billy Crudup). It's now 1985, and someone has started killing former vigilantes, starting with the fascistic gun-nut The Comedian (Jeffery Dean Morgan). Rorschach, a sociopathic (and still active) vigilante played by Jackie Earle Haley, begins to investigate.

As I said, the scenes are literally pulled straight from the graphic novel, and thus have a grim, edgy tone suited to this alternate history tale. Haley's gravelly tone narrates us through the world via Rorschach's journal, as he attempts to warn his fellow heroes. At the top of the list is Dan Dreiberg, better known as Nite-Owl (Patrick Wilson), who has fallen into despondancy and impotency.

By and large, the portrayals in this movie are near flawless. Haley's Rorschach oozes with loathing and menace, while Nite-Owl's near-fetishistic obsession with the costumed lifestyle display him as torn between his desire for a normal life and his primal need for the adrenaline rush of adventuring.

Opposite Nite-Owl is Malin Ackerman's Silk Spectre II, forced into the costumed lifestyle by her mother (Carla Gugino), now aging in a rest home. While Ackerman's portrayal is adequate, it does not carry the emotional weight of Haley's narration, Morgan's psychopathic violence, or Wilson's despondancy. The only truly poor performance I would assess for this film is Gugino's, which centers primarily around her age. The elder Silk Spectre simply does not look the part, particularly in the 1985 sections, where she looks just as old as her daughter, instead of 40 years older. Her delivery--too energetic and youthful--only exacerbates this feeling.

One of the few flaws I can find with this movie is with the sheer level of graphic violence in Watchmen. I had gone in knowing much about the violence, having read the book numerous times, but I was not quite prepared for the sheer intensity of the gore in this film. Fight scenes are choreographed with no punches pulled, and no strength unused. During a fight with some street thugs, Nite-Owl breaks a foe's elbow, cracking it in a hideous compound fracture. When invading a mob speakeasy, a gesture from Dr. Manhattan splatters gun-toting mobsters across the room. If you are weak of heart or faint of stomach, even the first scene--wherein the aging Comedian fights for his life and falls to an unseen assailant in his apartment--will sit ill with you.

Snyder pulled no punches with his violence, and I can respect that, but I do question the necessity of it. Whereas the book is just as violent, many of the actions are 'between panels', where it is understood what happens--a typical Shakespearean motion. On screen, the actions overshoot their visceral intent and roam into the unnecessary. The same can be said of the sex scene between Ackerman and Wilson, high above New York aboard the OwlShip. Were the scene half as long, it would have had the same impact--the sheer length and graphicness of it overshoots its intent.

Much has further been made of Watchmen's soundtrack, which brings together an ecletic series of tunes from across the late 20th century. However, I was more impressed by the score itself, penned by Tyler Bates. The background music was more subtle than expected, yet held a great deal of menace, particularly throughout Rorschach's theme, as well as that of Ozymandias, the adventurer-turned-businessman played adequately by Matthew Goode. While I own most of the soundtrack's songs as it is now--yay for being a classic rock junkie--I fully intend to go find the score itself as soon as I'm done here.

All in all, Watchmen is a difficult movie not to recommend. It is utterly faithful to its source material, and the experience of watching it is much like watching a horrifying accident. The story itself is midnight-black, which makes it hard to watch, when shown in all its glory on the screen. If you can stomach through the intensity of the violence, the movie will leave you stunned, with your jaw on the floor. It is, quite literally, the best (and most likely) fulfillment of the comic book lovers' dream.

1 comment:

  1. I'm glad that someone else felt the same way about the gore. It was... superfluous, I thought.