Saturday, March 7, 2009

Review: Watchmen (****)

Directed by Zack Snyder
Cast: Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Haley, Billy Crudup, Malin Akerman, Matthew Goode, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Matt Frewer, Carla Gugino, Laura Mennell, Stephen McHattie, Rob LaBelle, Stephanie Belding, James Michael Connor, Gary Houston, John Shaw, Mary Ann Burger, Robert Wisden.
2009--163 minutes
Rated R (graphic violence, sexuality, nudity, language)

In 1986, novelist Alan Moore wrote lightning. His 12-part series, entitled "The Watchmen," revolutionized and reformed the ideas behind the comic book superhero. More graphic, both in its violence and sexual themes, and more adult than any other of its kind, "The Watchmen" influenced the coinage of the term "graphic novel" as we know it. If there's one thing that cannot be denied, it is that Moore's work is a masterpiece, epic without losing sight of the very flawed characters, as well as psychologically disturbing and emotionally draining without losing the inherent excitement of the genre it is undoubtedly in. Moore also influenced with his books, in a major way, fellow graphic novelist Frank Miller, responsible for such works as "The Dark Knight Returns" (whose depiction of The Joker in turn influenced Heath Ledger in his historic portrayal), "Sin City," and "300."

It was thought, understandably, that the series was unfilmable, too much for one director to handle. Darren Aronofsky, David Fincher, David Lynch, Paul Greengrass, even Steven Spielberg--all took their own shots at adapting the series and found it too difficult. Thus, it is surprising to say that 33-year-old director Zack Snyder and screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse have masterfully consolidated all twelve parts into one film. Despite mildly changing the ending for audience-pleasing purposes, all three new talents have remained truthful, uncompromisingly so, to the psychedelic and paranoid tone and Cold War-themed story of Moore's work.

Much has been made of the muddled plotting and slow-moving nature of the proceedings. Ignore them. Set in a completely alternate version of 1985 where Richard Nixon has been elected for a fifth term, "Watchmen" deals with themes never dealt with before in the superhero genre. The United States is in deep with Russia-based plots of nuclear war, pushing President Nixon to give free rein to the Watchmen to run amok, fighting crime (and come to think of it, everyone else, as well). The Watchmen is a group of anti-superheroes, flawed and ruthless Joker-type good guys who are hated by the public and needed by them at the same time. Rorshach is a masked vigilante--a more brutal version of Batman with an even darker past--whose mask changes shape, constantly and enigmatically. Dr. Manhattan was a scientist, given extraordinary powers and a blue electroskeleton instead of a body. Silk Spectre II is a woman borne of her mother's (and predecessor's) rape by fellow Watchman, The Comedian. Speaking of, The Comedian is seen through flashbacks after his brutal murder at the start of the film. He is seen as a "hero" who is as bad as Nazis. Nite Owl is really a lonely man whose only human connection seemingly is his affair with Silk Spectre II. Finally, Ozymandias is the smartest man in the world; that's all I'll say.

"Watchmen" is a revelatory motion picture experience, monumentally innovative on a visual level, profoundly moving at times, and exceptionally fascinating in its procedural aspects. What people may mistake this for--a preconceived notion proved incorrect upon viewing it--is that, as a superhero movie, the film must be fast-paced, brisk, and exciting. Otherwise the impatient ones in the audience may get bored. This is an ignorance that most undeniably hold (and that is not an insult). The truth is that "Watchmen" is most definitely not a superhero movie, at least in the normal sense. Like last year's "The Dark Knight," which was an Scorsesean crime drama that just so happened to have a bat as its hero and a clown as its villain, Snyder's masterpiece is a brooding murder mystery and a psychological character study with superheroes at its center. But, as I've already said, even the superheroes are not normal. They are ugly, flawed, cold-blooded sociopaths that you can't help but care about. They are doing good, after all.

In this day and age of empty action and cardboard caricatures, "Watchmen" (and "The Dark Knight" and "Spider-Man 2" before it) is a complex, emotionally resounding, abnormally innovative war cry to the cinematic heavens. Have no fear that what you see you will never forget. Is the film bloody? Yes, extremely. The R-rating is warranted and the film not for the kids. One scene pits Rorshach against a man who murdered and chopped up a small girl. This scene is exceptionally disturbing, the darkest in a very dark film, but it's also one of the most starkly and accurately portrayed visions of how cruel (yet undoubtedly fair) so-called heroes can be. It also asks the audience how they would respond to the beggings of a man who did something as awful as what he did. So, "Watchmen" is thinking-man's cinema as well.

The performances are all solid (though the film has no Heath Ledger, that is, a standout performance that is Oscarworthy), but there are two I want to discuss. About the others (Malin Akerman, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Matthew Goode, and Patrick Wilson), let's just say that they sell their roles and play them very well. The real performances, though, are by Jackie Earle Haley and Billy Crudup.

Rorshach is not the most likeable of characters, but what Haley does with this role is just astonishing. He gives Rorshach a compassion while never compromising the character. Haley's growling voice works wonders (as well or even better than Christian Bale's did last year), and he narrates with a fascinating, matter-of-fact tone. Crudup meanwhile gives the film's best performance as Dr. Manhattan. Even while under a blanket of CGI, Dr. Manhattan's soul is bare for all to see. He barely emotes throughout the film, but it's plainly obvious that he is a tortured soul without a substantial body. It's a brilliant performance, low-key and reserved.

I've mentioned the style many times already. The visual effects, the digital cinematography, the slow-mo filmmaking--all are brilliantly incorporated into the story instead of the other way around. The effects are practically flawless, especially in the scene where Dr. Manhattan travels to Mars and thinks back on his life. The cinematography is beguiling, capturing perfectly well both Mars's barren landscape, the nighttime wonders of the deep underbelly of the city, the arctic desert of the film's final act. The slow motion that Snyder incorporates works wonders for the proceedings, especially the fight scenes, whose pacing matches that of "The Dark Knight."

Despite my one quibble (that the two sequences involving President Richard Nixon himself are marred even further by hideously distracting makeup), "Watchmen" is impressive through and through, both exactly what fans want--I should know, as I'm one of them--and what might get non-fans interested in reading the series, which is now available as one large copy. Slow-boiling but never meandering, fascinatingly textural in its plotting while never once seeming muddled, "Watchmen" lives up to the hype surrounding its masterfully executed trailers and then some. Oh, and did I mentioned the brilliant soundtrack, consisting of songs by Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan (most memorably used in what is quite possibly the greatest opening credits montage ever made), and Nena? No? Well, it's just as effective as everything else. What a knockout "Watchmen" was.


Joshua said...

Fantastic review bro. Nailed it.

J. Pierce Warne said...

Completely agree. This is one of those rare movies I'm going to pay to see twice in theaters.

Actionman said...

Really well written, Joel. I am already looking forward to my second viewing. I posted some "first impressions" over at my blog so check it when you can!