- Released Internationally on 06/03/09
- Released in Malta by KRS on 06/03/09
In a nutshell
Showered with reverential praise in the comic book world, Watchmen was published as a 12-part graphic novel in the 80s. A multifaceted, dark tale of superheroes in a realistic, present-day world, it has finally made the ambitious jump to be big screen as a single film, albeit just shy of three hours long.
Smells like the 80s
Set in 1985, the film opens with the murder of a certain Edward Blake, later revealed to be the masked superhero ‘The Comedian’. As the back-story unfolds, we learn how masked vigilantes like him have been an essential part of American society for a number of decades, often playing an important role in key historic events. From WW2 to the cold war, superheroes are a daily part of the headlines. It turns out the Vietnam war was in fact won by the Americans, thanks to a healthy dose of heroics, thus helping Nixon get elected to his third term in office. But as these heroes fall out of favour, they become outlawed in 1977.
As the various masked crusaders fade into retirement, descend into madness, or meet an early demise, two continue to work for the government past the ‘77 ban – the now deceased ‘Comedian’, and a rather blue, serene guy of moderate build, Dr. Manhattan. The latter is shown to be the only hero with supernatural powers, as a result of a freak lab accident when younger. The most interesting of the heroes, a lithe, ferocious little guy with Rorschach blots on his mask (and hence known as, you guessed it, Rorschach) continues to operate in the shadows, running from the law and keeping his own agenda. The Comedian’s demise sets him thinking, and he seeks out the other ‘watchmen’ to seek their help with retribution.
By way of introductions
After starting off with the murder, the film has decades of back-story to go through before returning to the present and continuing with the plot. Whilst done by means of different chapters in the novel, this must have been one of the most daunting tasks facing the filmmakers, but they pull it off in style. Ironically, the complex, multi-thread first half of the film was the part I found most enjoyable. The cutting back and forth between the present and the past manages to remain clear, relevant, and most importantly entertaining, despite having to dish out background information on all the superheroes, including a lot of detail about The Comedian himself. Unfortunately, this excellent momentum and editing tapers off in the second half of the film, although the ending manages to be both satisfying and unpredictable.
Watch and listen
As in previous comic book adaptations, the director benefits from having excellent source material, from which, besides the story, he can lift the look of the characters and environment, as well as the action. In fact certain scenes are reproduced exactly from the novel, thus remaining faithful to the author’s vision, and probably pleasing comic book fans. But where this film excels, and stands out as a fresh artwork of its own, is in the sound arena. Boasting a collection of song classics that would make Tarantino proud, the film is punctuated with wonderfully orchestrated scenes that mix music and visuals to perfection. The comedian is brutally murdered to the mellow sounds of Nat King Cole’s ‘Unforgettable’, which is exactly what the scene is, his funeral starts off with Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Sound of Silence’, and a later tender moment is scored with Leonard Cohen’s often covered ‘Hallelujah’. There’s even a nod to Apocalypse Now as Dr. Manhattan cleaves through the Vietnam battlefields to the sound of Wagner. But the most memorable sequence, and in my opinion the highpoint of the film, is the opening credits. Reworking Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are A-changing’ to cover six minutes of flashbacks, the sequence moves through American history, with key events set up as frozen tableaus, showing the impact of superheroes on the past. It is one of the best opening credit sequences I have ever seen. Sadly, the original score by composer Tyler Bates doesn’t rise to the same level as the songs and as in his previous weak efforts is serviceable, but forgettable.
Who’s in it?
The graphic novel was written by Alan Moore, who also wrote V for Vendetta, and illustrated by Dave Gibbons. Much of the film’s credit obviously goes to them. Zack Synder, who successfully adapted another graphic novel, 300, took on the huge task of directing this complex saga, and as mentioned above his efforts in the first act are very effective. Jackie Earle Haley (Little Children) provides narration as well as a vicious performance as Rorschach, and Patrick Wilson (Angels in America, Little Children) is Nite Owl II. Carla Gugino (Sin City) acts her age in flashbacks as Silk Spectre, and also appears in the present as the ageing mother of Silk Spectre II, played by Malin Akerman (The Heartbreak Kid). Billy Crudup (Big Fish, Almost Famous) is the past, face and voice of Dr. Manhattan, whilst the allegedly smartest guy on earth, Ozymandias is portrayed by Matthew Goode (Match Point, last year’s Brideshead Revisited).
In the end
This is definitely not a film for everyone. Comic-book adaptations tend to go down very well with certain viewers, and not so well with many others. Personally, I think they can vary in quality, just like any other genre. This ambitious, complex film benefits from having excellent source material, and therefore a great story, but ultimately suffers due to having so much ground to cover in the space of one film. Still, it starts impressively and manages to end on a high, despite sagging a bit in the middle. The graphic violence, sometimes stylized, but often not, might be hard to stomach, but it remains faithful to the novel, and adds to the dark nature of the world being portrayed. Despite its flaws, this is the first head-turning release of the year, and is a visual and aural feast you should see on the big screen.
http://www.apple.com/trailers/wb/watchmen/ (High-res Quicktime)