Watchmen: Review’d

March 7, 2009

So, what you want to know is: has Zack Snyder screwed up? Or is Watchmen as intense, exhilarating, mesmerising, and mindblowing an experience as the graphic novel?

The answer to the first question is a resounding “no”! The answer to the second is a qualified “yes”.

watchmen-dr-manhattan

The film exceeded my expectations in so many ways: from the magnificently realised introduction to Watchmen’s alternate universe set to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They are a-Changin'” to the meticulous attention to detail in the backstories of all the characters. The flashbacks to Vietnam are there; the Minutemen; Dr. Manhattan’s genesis; the Comedian’s visit to Moloch; the first meeting of the Watchmen… The list goes on. For a fan, there are so many neat touches, including one or two things that I’d forgotten since my last read-through.

But it’s not all about a frame-for-frame remake of the comic – although there are a lot of scenes that are ported over to the movie pretty much verbatim. Incredibly, the pace doesn’t drag at all. Snyder ensures that the story and characters which are the heart of the novel drive the film too. You can tell there’s soul in this – it’s not just a clinical remake.

Billy Crudup’s performance as Dr. Manhattan is as detached yet troubled as you’d hope. Jeffrey Dean Morgan invests the Comedian with lashings of amoral glee, yet still manages to conjure empathy from the viewer. Some of the casting decisions are less stellar, however: Malin Akerman as Laurie Juspeczyk and, more crucially, Matthew Goode as Adrian Veidt come to mind. But Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach is inspired. He delivers a note-perfect performance, particularly during the jail sequence as Walter Kovacs, when he screams ominously, “You don’t understand: I’m not locked in here with you; you’re locked in here with me!”

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It’s worth mentioning that it’s a brutal experience, both in terms of film length – at 2 hours 45 minutes it’s longer than your average blockbuster – and graphic violence. I remember the novel pulled no punches, and neither does this. Be prepared for severed arms, people on fire, meat cleavers buried in skulls, broken legs… The UK 18-rated certificate isn’t for nothing; Watchmen is not for the faint of heart.

So is it as good as the novel? Well, not quite. I had a couple of issues with the film version of Watchmen which, for me, prevented it from attaining perfection – but, let’s be clear, it came pretty damn close.

The stylised action sequences were a little too, er, comic book for my liking. I felt that the Watchmen came across as a little too strong, too fast, and, most of all, they could take too much punishment. You’ll regularly see heads being used to smash toilets, walls, doors. You name it, during the course of the film one or more of the Watchmen will get thrown through it or against it. And then they’ll get up again to take some more. It’s all a little bit Matrix for me, and it’s here that Watchmen loses some of the grittiness that makes it so compelling.

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The other issue was the ending. Now, I’m of the opinion that screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse made a good call to ditch the giant alien squid ending of the novel. For one, it requires yet more build up and exposition which would have increased the running time even further. It’s also probably – gasp – a little bit surreal for the kind of film that Watchmen is. And maybe a bit unbelievable. The ending that they chose made more sense in the context of the story, but I felt it lacked a little bit of the horror of the original version.

In the graphic novel, Manhattan and Laurie return to earth to be greeted with page upon page of silent devastation – not buildings, but people. Millions of dead bodies with the buildings (mostly) completely intact. In the film, there’s nothing left except a crater and I don’t think it lingers long enough to let the true horror of what’s taken place sink in. It’s a lot less personal than the novel. It’s just: on to the next act – let’s take down Adrian!

Neither the ending nor the stylised fight scenes are enough to prevent me from wholeheartedly recommending this film though. It’s been 20 odd years in development hell, and there are a few missteps here, but it’s been worth it for the near-masterpiece that Snyder has produced. See it.

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