Review: Watchmen

The world will look up and shout, “Save us!”… and I’ll whisper, “No.”

About four years ago, I was informed of the existence of a graphic novel called Watchmen. I did not probe at the time, as I was not a huge comic book reader. The novel kept appearing in strange places, however, with names like Terry Gilliam and Christopher Nolan somehow related. My curiosity eventually grew to a point where I could not ignore it. I did some reading, and the next day bought a copy in a local bookstore. Ever since then, I have eagerly anticipated this film’s release. However – this was four years ago, keep in mind – a hard R such as this film would not be the best thing for a 13 year old. So I had to wait. And wait. And wait. This year in March I turned 17, and unfortunately the film had slipped from my thoughts until very recently when I snatched it back up. Four years of anticipation. Four years of hearing mixed reactions from fans and non-fans alike. I was afraid I would be disappointed.
I was not.
Watchmen is not for those who did not read the novel. I imagine for those poor souls (the novel is fantastic, after all) the film is slow, drab, bleak, and cliched (even though most of the cliches are ones that graphic novel started or codified). Too much time is spent developing these characters before the audience is given reason to bother caring about them – there is plenty of psychological realism to them, but there are no stakes, no dangers until about halfway through the film. It’s very intricately plotted and easy to get lost within. It’s very violent, very dark, very disturbing. But it is one of the most beautiful films of 2009.
For those who read the novel, it is a near-perfect adaptation, often with the exact same lines preserved in the film version. Snyder has well preserved each character’s brooding philosophies, with Rorschach’s journals keeping the same solemnity and gruffness that made us all love him, and Dr. Manhattan’s trip through time almost perfect as a self-contained short film in itself.
Which brings me to another point: like the novel was divided into chapters, the film almost works as a series of short films. The first half hour or so features the investigation of Rorschach into the Comedian’s death and subsequent warning of the other masks. The second half hour details the Comedian’s funeral, an absolutely wonderful segment of a film that – again – works as its own short film, with each mourner having different memories of Edward Blake. Blake’s interactions with the various masked mourners is very intriguing and is perhaps the most novel way to depict a funeral on screen. The third is an excellent sequence where Dr. Manhattan recalls his life as a human in a time-jumping retrospective. Each of these three sequences works as a separate entity – like chapters of a comic book. It feels like a graphic novel.
And that is what the Watchmen film SHOULD be. Watchmen the graphic novel was always called “unfilmable”, and had been tried numerous times by numerous geniuses (Terry Gilliam was once attached), but had not coalesced. What made the graphic novel so special was that, in the words of its creators, it did things that only comic books could do. The fully symmetrical chapter. The small details with the newspaper and the overlapping plot of the Tales of the Black Freighter comic book. These are things that do not translate to film. So, how should a film adaptation approach an unfilmable comic book? By making a film that feels like a comic book. In this, Watchmen succeeds.
Watchmen has an awesome Cold War mise-en-scene that I absolutely adore – drab blues, vibrant reds, propaganda and political posters everywhere, graffiti, riots – it’s beautiful and wonderful to simply look at. As a setting for both fear of nuclear war and ruminations on the savagery of human nature (screw you Conrad, Moore has you cornered), it works very well. Rampant crime and promiscuity make Rorschach’s frequent grievances over the state of the world believable and organic. Snyder creates the world and then makes us hate it for being depraved and disgusting.
Acting on the whole is pretty decent – Jackie Earle Haley is fantastic and perfectly deranged as Rorschach. Billy Crudup is chillingly detached as Dr. Manhattan. Patrick Wilson is pitiful as Nite Owl. Jeffery Dean Morgan is at the same time despicable and immensely amusing as the Comedian. The only major misfire is Malin Akerman, who is rather wooden (“Mother this is gross”) and does not do a very good job as the Silk Spectre II.
I’m sure there is more I could say about this wonderful film, but I’ll reserve that for another day. There is probably a full post about how Watchmen the film is faithful to Watchmen the novel.
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