The Good: Wonderful acting, Interesting characters, Well-conceived plot, Amazing effects (CG, costumes, everything!), Pacing.
The Bad: None that I could find!
The Basics: Gritty, beautiful-to-watch and packed with amazing characters portrayed by surprisingly talented performers, Watchmen tells an elaborate conspiracy story about fallen vigilante heroes at the end of the world.
Some of the tenses in this review might appear off. I screened Watchmen early and was happily part of the hype surrounding the film (my review was even quoted elsewhere!). I opted to change very little in transferring it over to my new blog. Enjoy!
Every year, it seems like there are some films that are hyped so much that one either goes into the film feeling like there is nothing left for them to see of the actual movie or that the movie cannot possibly live up to the hype and greatness the viewer has been sold on. Last year, the film with perhaps the greatest amount of hype that managed to shatter the expectations of viewers and exceed the reputation preceding it was The Dark Knight. In a year when sequels seemed to be the vast majority of what is looming upon the silver screen, there were few truly original or unique pictures for most adult moviegoers to anticipate. Arguably the one I was most eager for was Watchmen. And for those who have not, well, there hardly seems like a better time to get psyched than now. Moreover, there are appropriate parallels between The Dark Knight and Watchmen not the least of which is that the first trailer for Watchmen made its debut before The Dark Knight the year prior. It is worth saying right out:
It was worth the wait.
For those who have been waiting for Watchmen to make a cinematic appearance worthy of the depth and complexity of the graphic novel, ever since the graphic novel was first compiled and published, this film rewards the patience of those readers. For those who have been waiting for a superhero film that is complex, gritty and actually has motifs and is adult more than just for violence or gratuitous nudity, Watchmen has been worth the wait. And for those with fears that the film cannot possibly live up to the publicity surrounding it, that there are no great American movies with stories waiting to be told . . .Watchmen arrives at the perfect moment to puncture such cynicism. As for my usual disclaimer before such films, it is worth noting that this is a review for the film Watchmen, not the graphic novel Watchmen (click here for my review!). For those looking for a literal translation to film of the graphic novel, Zack Snyder's Watchmen is not it, but it comes as close as a movie can for such a densely written comic book story. For those who know nothing of Watchmen, you're in for a cinematic treat unlike anything else!
The Comedian is dead, having been thrown out his apartment window and plunging hundreds of feet to the ground below. His death leads the vigilante, Rorschach, out of the shadows to launch an investigation. In this 1985, Rorschach may be one of the last vigilantes still in action as the Keane Act of the late '70's bans vigilante heroes from operating. With the death of the Comedian, one of Rorschach's associates from a short-lived vigilante group in the 1960s, Rorschach touches base with the other known former-vigilantes. Without Rorschach, a masked vigilante who never gave up his mask, the others, Dr. Manhattan, Adrian Veidt, and Dan Dreiberg put Blake (the Comedian's given name) to rest.
But Blake's murder stirs up conflict for Laurie Jupiter, whose mother - a vigilante in the late thirties - was once sexually assaulted by Blake. Laurie's distress over Blake's murder exacerbates the fissures in her relationship with the indestructible master of time and space, Dr. Manhattan. Confronted with allegations that his existence and nature might be toxic to human life, Dr. Manhattan flees Earth for some peace, abandoning Laurie, whose affections for the more simple Dan begin to blossom.
But with the murder of the Comedian, an attack on Veidt and the abandonment of Earth by Dr. Manhattan, paranoia about war with the Soviet Union begins to mount. When Rorschach is exposed and incarcerated, Dreiberg and Laurie suit up as Nite Owl and Silk Spectre to break him out, prevent war with the Soviet Union and prevent rioting in the streets of the U.S. while finding out who could have arranged all of the events that have put the world into such a sudden state of calamity where the apocalypse appears just moment away!
If it sounds like there is a lot going on in Watchmen, there is. The movie is packed with references to prior generations of (often masked) vigilante heroes whose main purpose has been to stop crime in the United States. Most of the film happens in 1985, though it is not quite the 1985 most people remember. Nixon is still president, serving his fourth term as his popularity skyrocketed after winning the Vietnam War through the use of Dr. Manhattan and warriors like Blake. Nixon's United States in 1985 is at a state of tense detente with the Soviet Union, arguably because of Dr. Manhattan.
Dr. Manhattan, it is worth explaining, is a floating blue man whose existence is the result of a scientific accident. Working on studying particles, physicist Jon Osterman was blown apart when he became trapped within an experimental device. Osterman did not die, though, and over the course of several months, his disparate molecules worked to find their way back to one another guided by his willpower and consciousness. He managed to reassemble himself into a more or less human form and since has been able to manipulate space and understand time, which he appears to see all moments at once, not just what is now. Instead, he knows the outcome of conversations he is having with Laurie before she reacts and he is able to teleport himself to Mars when things get bad for him.
Dr. Manhattan is the most fantastic element that Watchmen asks viewers to accept. Instead, the film is remarkably rooted in reality, albeit an alternate history. But even that makes sense. The Soviet Union feels they cannot attack the United States because they have no way of knowing if Dr. Manhattan can stop all the bombs or destroy them as well. There is an intricate psychology to the concepts portrayed in Watchmen, even surrounding Dr. Manhattan.
As for the rest of the characters, psychology plays a huge part in their decisions, from the abused boy who becomes Rorschach to Laurie feeling pressured by her mother to become a vigilante. Ozymandias (Veidt) seeks to use his staggering intelligence to solve social problems and Dreiberg sees taking up the mantle of the Nite Owl as away to fulfill himself. Even the Comedian, with his arrogance and brutish strength is constructed in a way that makes sense. The ultimate masculine persona, he struts around in a pretty minimal costume for much of his part in the film, as if nothing can harm him.
What separates Watchmen from virtually every other superhero type movie is that the characters are motivated by powerful internal drives and limited by their own psyches. This is not an army of Supermen, it is a collection of Batmen, most of whom are not as well funded. So, they do what they can. Dr. Manhattan might be all-powerful, but Rorschach certainly is not, nor are any of his associates. When Nite Owl and Silk Spectre don their costumes once more to try to save the incarcerated Rorschach, they are stuck using their old equipment.
And they are completely human. Laurie and Dan, in fact, connect because of their humanity as both share a deep loneliness. This is where the title to the movie throws so many people. Watchmen is presented as a title in such a way that it implies that "watch" is a verb and this is a film about those who watch over us. Instead, one interpretation is that "watch" here is more accurately the noun and that watches, traditionally made of tiny, intricate connections of gears that interact to create a whole, working instrument, act as a metaphor for the interactions of society and vigilantes. There are powerful machinations at work in Watchmen and they are the work of those who understand how the big picture fits together.
At this point, one might suspect that Watchmen is a terribly tedious and boring film, whatwith needing to understand an alternate timeline, having histories of characters who are killed so early in the film one wonders why the storyteller bothered and portraying a complex conspiracy that makes one's head hurt just to consider it, but nothing could be further from the truth. Despite the running time of 163 minutes (and just over three hours in the newer Director's Cut!), Watchmen is remarkably tight, providing viewers with information at a decent pace, but not one that is so stifling the viewer cannot keep up. In fact, watching Watchmen becomes fun almost instantaneously.
The reason there is no word to describe Watchmen's look and pacing other than "fun" is because the movie easily reawakens in the viewer a strong sense of the simple joy a great movie can bring to a viewer. Rorschach appears using a grappling gun and he leaps about through the rain and glass and he is just plain cool. When he begins to interrogate suspects, he is instantly dangerous and frightening. Conversely, in the scenes where characters express love, there is a real sense of passion and artistry.
All of the visual aspects come together perfectly as a result of director Zack Snyder. Snyder, perhaps best known for his film 300, utilizes many of the same elements in Watchmen. Fight sequences speed up, people leaping slow down, the moment before a blast goes off there is that imperceptible drag and then all of the fury rips forth. Snyder uses the speed of movement to help tell the story, move the film along and highlight the simple majesty of the motion picture.
However, it is essential to understand that this film is a hard "R." It IS violent, disturbing, and at the same time, complex and horrifying. There are long stretches of conversations broken up by intense fights or scenes literally dripping with gore. Despite the quality of the movie, it is not easy to watch in many spots.
But none of this is gratuitous. The plot progresses with each frame of the film and the reason for this is largely that the characters on screen - and off it! - are moving everything. Despite Rorschach, Laurie and Dan reasoning out the mindset and machinations of the one behind the events that are putting the U.S. and U.S.S.R. on the verge of nuclear war, the movie is not bogged down in excessive exposition. Instead, as relevant details about the past or characters comes to light, flashbacks begin to show the story instead of having a character drone the story. In other words, Watchmen uses the film medium exactly as it ought to; showing the story instead of putting people on screen to tell it.
In this way, director Zack Snyder and the screenwriters (and the writers of the original graphic novel) make a movie smart enough where viewers have to piece the mystery together and figure it out using the plot and character clues given. The true genius of the film Watchmen is that it does not abandon the complex psychology of the original book. Instead, all of the primary characters have their own motivation and that struggle to overcome or accept their pasts is presented in a very real way. So, despite the fact that Rorschach appears to be a crazed fanatic clinging to a life of absolutes, his violence to stop thugs and his inability to give up the mask makes perfect sense. Rorschach was damaged early in life and while Laurie resented being a vigilante and Veidt had plenty of other ways to apply his genius, Rorschach's only coping mechanism was . . . to be Rorschach.
It is a rare thing that a film asks the viewer to consider how important the motivation of the characters and their early development is to who they are in the present, but Watchmen continually does that. Fortunately for viewers, it is unrelenting in that aspect. In other words, as the film goes on, writers David Hayter and Alex Tse do not assume the viewer has been presented with too much information and they continue to present more. The movie never stops being smart and as a result, most viewers will feel the need to see the movie twice.
The advantage of all of the factors working in Watchmen's favor is that it is worth seeing on the big screen twice (I saw it twice on the big screen, once in IMAX and I keep wishing I could see the "Director's Cut" that way now!). In addition to having amazing special effects with great fight sequences and cool devices, a plot that is engaging enough to find more in upon multiple viewings and interesting characters, Watchmen has acting that puts virtually every other superhero movie to shame. There are no big names in Watchmen and the result is that each of the primary and secondary actors carries the same weight on screen. Outside the visual effect of Dr. Manhattan glowing blue and the Silk Spectre's outfit being a classy sexy vinyl number, it is the people who dominate the screen for how they act.
Patrick Wilson, for example, plays Dreiberg and his challenge is to be a nervous man whose best days are arguably behind him while still presenting the concept that this is a man who could reasonably be an armored vigilante willing to take to the skies and streets at night to protect society. Wilson has the former down with his posture and nervous hand movements throughout every early scene he is in as Dreiberg. But Wilson infuses a dignity and strength into the delivery of his lines that insinuates that Dreiberg has what it takes to be a vigilante hero and it is the subtle intelligence with which he delivers his lines that makes Nite Owl not only plausible, but utterly believable.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan is not a Robert Downey Jr. impersonator as Edward Blake (or the Comedian), instantly overcoming any physical resemblance to the well-known actor. Similarly, Billy Crudup overcomes the make-up needed to make him into Dr. Manhattan to genuinely emote and carry all of his scenes in a way that the glowing blue would seem to defy. And Matthew Goode talks like he could be the smartest man on Earth as Veidt.
Still, the movie hinges most on the performances of Jackie Earle Haley and Malin Akerman. Haley plays Rorschach and he captivates the audience with his wonderful sense of fluid movement as he stalks his way through the early scenes in Watchmen. His voice similarly emotes and captivates in a way that he cannot otherwise do, considering he wears a full mask. Haley uses his voice to create the unrelenting and somewhat crazy character who moves much of the film. And when the mask comes off, Haley says more with his eyes in a single frame than most actors do in an entire movie.
But the pleasant surprise is how captivating Malin Akerman is. Akerman has Hollywood beauty that won't quit, but she quickly establishes in her performance that she is the heart of Watchmen. Akerman plays Laurie with the most extreme emotional range, portraying anger when Blake is killed and she has to consider his crimes against her mother, loneliness in dealing with Dr. Manhattan who has evolved to a point he clearly no longer understands her to plaintive when begging him to save Earth. Akerman is brilliant portraying all of those moods (and more) with conviction. She rules every moment she is on the screen and she makes her character's journey from resentful to triumphant real.
More than anything else, that's what Watchmen is; it is real. Watchmen is a chance to escape into an alternate world that is completely convincing and wonderful in ways that too few films take the time to create and then develop. Zack Snyder does with Watchmen and it is the amazing cinematic achievement we have been waiting for . . . since, well, The Dark Knight!
On DVD and Blu-Ray, Watchmen hit the market with a beautiful sound and visual transfer that looks amazing on HD televisions. There are a slew of featurettes included, as well as a full-length commentary track of the film with the director. As well, there is a director's cut which re-inserts deleted scenes back into the feature, making for a more complete film. "The Director's Cut" is just as perfect as the original was and fleshes out the "universe" quite nicely.
For other epic films, please check out my reviews of:
The Empire Strikes Back
For other movie reviews, please check out my index page!
© 2010, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.