Thursday, March 12, 2009

You should be watching the 'Watchmen'

After years of claims of being un-filmable, director Zack Synder (“300”) has found a way to bring Alan Moore’s acclaimed graphic novel “Watchmen” to the screen and retain most of the scope, humor and message.

“Watchmen” is perhaps the most highly regarded graphic novel ever written, so much so it is respected as a piece of literature. It won the Hugo Award and was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 best English language novels since 1923 and has had such heavyweight directors at Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky and Peter Greengrass attached to it.

The film, like the source material, is set in an alternative 1985 in which the
United States won the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon is still president. A group of masked heroes known as the Watchmen were outlawed in 1977, but when one of these retired heroes is brutally murdered the team is reunited and a complex plot involving possible nuclear war is unraveled.

A team of superheroes is hardly an original concept, but those expecting the Fantastic Four or the X-Men are in for a rude awakening. The heroes in “Watchmen” have some serious issues. Moore structured “Watchmen” not only as an indictment of the political environment of the 1980s, but as a satire of comic book heroes.

If you thought Peter Parker and Bruce Wayne had their demons, just wait until you meet Walter Kovacs (Jackie Earle Haley, “Little Children”) and Edward Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, “Grey’s Anatomy”) and their alter-egos Rorschach and The Comedian.

Rorschach and The Comedian are borderline sociopaths that sometimes cross the line. In this world the heroes are a very fine thread away from being villains. “The Dark Knight” played in this playground last year too, but “Watchmen” takes the question of how far do you go to protect humanity from itself much further than "The Dark Knight" did.

The film is often brutally violent. Synder doesn’t shy away from the book's more unsavory visuals, but the violence isn’t without purpose. The disturbing images on display force the audience to ask serious questions about human nature and morality.

The characters are well cast. Patrick Wilson (“Hard Candy”) brings a nice weariness and reluctant heroism to Nite Owl II, perhaps the most normal of the bunch, but even he has his problems that bring a whole new twist to role playing in bed. Matthew Goode (“Match Point”) plays Adrian Veidt, the world’s smartest man, with an appropriate level of arrogance.

The cast’s standouts though are Haley and Billy Crudup (“Almost Famous,” “Big Fish”) as Dr. Manhattan, who after a freak accident becomes a demigod with the power to manipulate matter, space and time. Crudup spends most of the film as a computer-enhanced creation, but he brings a lot of depth to Dr. Manhattan’s struggle with a humanity he is becoming further disconnected from.

Haley is nothing short of fantastic. He delivers the majority of the movie’s film noir-esque narration to sheer perfection. Although his face covered in an ever-shifting inkblot mask for the majority of his screen time, his presence is undeniable.

The only weak link in the cast is Malin Akerman (“The Heartbreak Kid”) as Silk Spectre II. Michael Philips of the Chicago Tribune called her “possibly the worst actress in Hollywood.” I wouldn’t go that far, but there are certainly more talented actresses that could have filled the role. She does look great in a skin-tight outfit as well as her birthday suit. My more cynical side thinks that’s where her audition ended.

Synder has done a good job of distilling the book into a cohesive film. It clocks in at nearly three hours, but Synder keeps the film moving briskly with compelling visuals that effectively recreate the graphic novel. There’s a lot going on here, and the film is just as much several character studies as an action film.

Some of the harsher reviews of the film have claimed the film is incoherent and confusing. Even some fans of the film are claiming those unfamiliar with the graphic novel will get lost. At the time I saw the film I hadn’t read the book and I had no problem following it.

While the film is told in a non-linear fashion with a lot of flashback, I would question the ability of someone to follow any story if they are unable to keep up with “Watchmen” as this is pretty clear storytelling. Yes, it is at times puzzling, but that is to be expected. After all, the film is structured as a mystery. In the end when things are explained, everything clicks in a way that doesn’t feel like a cheat.

No comments: