Monday, March 16, 2009

4 Color Cinema: The Ubiquitous Watchmen Review

Dating back to last year at SDCC, there's been one piece of 4 Color Cinema which has been on the lips and on the minds of comic book fans: Watchmen.  The long-sufferubg adaption of the "unfilmable" series was actually, really, and honestly coming soon to a theater near you.  those first images were tantalizing -- could it really be pulled off?  As we got closer and closer to the release date, various streams of opinions began to flow.  Some thought that Zach Snyder's work in adapting 300 would result in an equally amazing piece of work.  Others fretted that changes and omissions would make the comic's story unrecognizable. And still others worried that the public (the "norms," if you will) would simply "not get it" and the property met with derision.

So now the day has come and gone, and the mass populace now (mostly) knows the story of Watchmen.  What is the cumulative result of all the hype and hope, fear and loathing?  In the opinion of this blogger, a pretty darn good movie.  

First off, let's run down the plot.  It's 1985, but not was we know it -- Richard Nixon is still the President, for one thing.  For another, costumed adventurers -- that is, superheroes -- fought crime and defended the public, until being outlawed in the late 70s.  Now, only those who work for the government are allowed to operate -- including the godlike being of living atomic energy Dr. Manhattan, and assassian and all-around tough guy The Comedian.  But when The Comedian is found dead after being thrown through a window of his high rise apartment, the rogue vigilante Rorschach begins an investigation, bringing him in contact with other retired heroes Nite-Owl, Silk Spectre, and Ozymandias.  But the world itself seems to be spinning out of control, with nuclear war with the Soviets seemingly imminent.  What does the murder of a man in a mask mean in that context, and how are these events connected?

As anyone who has read Watchmen knows, that rally just scratched the surface of the pic which Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons created.  But the basics are enough to understand that Watchmen was unlike anything else published at the time -- so it is appropriate that Watchmen, as a film, is unlike any other superhero movie which has ever been produced.  Much in the same way that the series serves as a generic deconstruction-cum-satire of superhero comics, the film follows a similar approrach to superhero film.  All of the generic vocabulary which the superhero film has built up (especially in the modern period) gets turned on its ear in Watchmen, all the while striving to deliver, on the surface, an exciting, interesting story of mystery and heroics (so to speak).

The film succeeds on both of these levels, admittedly to varying degrees.  Taken purely as a film about dark heroes in a dark world, Snyder delivers a thoroughly modern (modernist?) adventure, with enough plot twists, fight scenes, and neat-o effects to satisfy today's jaded audiences.  As an allegory, some of it works well, and some of it is probably a little to subtle for it's own good, to the point that I imagine most viewers wouldn't even see it as satirical.  Ozymandias's costume is a good example of such an element, as it clearly pokes fun at the muscled vinyl super-suit we've all become accustomed to, but one can't help but think that casual viewers will simply accept this as par for the course superhero costuming.  Whether this is a pro or a con I leave up to the reader.

The cast does a fine job pretty much across the board.  Malin Akerman is probably a little too young, and Patrick Wilson a little too in shape, but otherwise they each do well in bringing their characters to life.  Jackie Earle Haley does a fantastic turn as Rorschach (helped out immensely) by the excellently rendered mask), making us alternately rally behind him and be repulsed by his insanity.  The same goes for Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan, who's ethereal voice works perfectly with the aloof and distant CG model, giving the character the substance and depth he deserves.  And Wilson brings everything together as both sad-sack Dan Dreiberg and the gadget-laden Nite-Owl, humanizing the preceedings and giving the audience someone they can identify with, if not exactly relate to.

The film does have it's drawbacks.  The hyper-violence and over-the-top sex serve as more of a distraction to the narrative than as part of it.  I think Snyder was attempting to portray the realistic impact of the typically bloodless superhero brawl, but the effect is off-putting, calling attention to it's presence openly.  The sex is handled similarly -- as if Snyder is trying to convince everyone that, yes, see, we really deserve that R.  The musical selections also standout, being composed mostly of period pop and rock hits.  It's a hit or miss tactic -- Dylan's "The Times They Are-A Changin'" and Hendrix's "All Along The Watchtower" work beautifully, "99 Luftballoons" is ridiculous (anod not in a good way), and "Hallelujah" is embarassing -- but my bigger complaint is the in the use of the technique in general.  It's a shortcut which I have never been a fan ofm abd nothing on display here changes my opinion.

Still, these are relatively minor complaints, and I suppose they are not unexpected considering the source material.  The quality of the filmmaking cannot be denied, and the story remains as intriguing and engrossing as it did in the comic, and overall it is a superior effort.  It remains downbeat and depressing, as it is supposed to be, but it is still enjoyable viewing.  The film has lots of strong visuals, mostly taken straight from Gibbons' pages, which even a few years ago would have been impossible.  It's not a film I will throw into the DVD player like Iron Man, but I would definitely call it a success.  I can't imagine a better way to film such an "unfilmable" epic.