“One of us died tonight. Somebody knows why.”
Director: Zack Snyder
Cast: Patrick Wilson, Malin Akerman, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Matthew Goode, Billy Crudup
Writers: David Hayter, Alex Tse (screenplay) Alan Moore (graphic novel, uncredited)
I like to think of myself as open-minded especially when it comes to film. I try see every movie as a pilgrim, without expectation or cynicism preceeding it. However, it cannot be ignored that this film treads upon sacred ground for me. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ masterpiece The Watchmen holds a very special place in my heart. The bar is high. It has been in development for over twenty years and Directors Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky and Paul Greengrass were all attached to direct at some point. Previous Moore adaptations (League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, V For Vendetta) have been big dissapointments. Alan Moore himself said The Watchmen was unfilmable and refuses to attach his name to film adaptations. My heart beats faster as the lights dim.
Watchmen is, in theory, unfilmable. The story is set in 1985 in New York City where cold war tensions have grown to a fever pitch and the world stands at the brink of nuclear war. Costumed heroes, onced loved by the people have been outlawed by Richard Nixon. A man formerly known as the vigilante The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is thrown to his death. Rorschach, the only active member of the now disbanded Watchmen begins to investigate, and in doing so begins to uncover a plot that ties together not only the heated tensions of the world, but a past that most of the Watchmen would prefer to forget.
The surviving members are familiar superhero archetypes, but are vastly more flawed and human than you have likely seen before. There is Rorscach (Jackie Earle Haley), the brutal vigilante whose face is a constantly shifting black mass, much like his mind. Night Owl II (Patrick Wilson), the bookish Batman-esque hero who has sadly accepted his mild-mannered identity in a world he no longer believes needs him. Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman), the Wonder Woman-like crimefighter with issues towards her mom, (the first Silk Spectre) and a growing resentment towards her more (and less) than human super-powered blue boyfriend. Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) is the idealistic billionaire with a world-dominating corporation at his fingertips, not unlike Iron Man. Finally Superman. Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) is the only one with literal super powers. The product of an obligatory experiment gone wrong, Manhattan can manipulate material with his mind and understands time and space on a higher plane than humans, making him feel less and less attached to our dying humanity.
I can say with some confidence that Watchmen is just about the best movie that could possibly have been made from such a sprawling epic that boasts many dark, evocative themes and subtexts. Snyder does a powerful job of throwing us into this world immediately and without mercy through a masterful opening credit sequence set to Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’, immersing us in a dark and confused world whose pervading unrest is characterized by a dark, yet frankly cartoonish cinematography, set design and wardrobe. It is an impressive and oppressive world these characters inhabit. I had wondered going in, if this film would be a Zack Snyder interpration of The Watchmen or an absolute frame-for-frame adaptation. Unexpectedly, it is both. I saw many shots that matched up perfectly with frames from the novel as well as more trademarked slo-mo stylistic brutality Snyder is known for. I don’t want to shower this film with praise, it has many flaws and is far from reaching many of the heights and depths of the novel, but when it works it really works.
The most noteable facet of the film was the emotional pregnancy in every scene, something very much played down in the graphic novel. Snyder instead chose to take many scenes that were more philosophical in purpose and add an emotional dimension to them, which is present in every scene of the film. This worked and didn’t work. In the scenes where the conflicts were truly emotional this constantly under-the-surface emotional edge added particular poignancy to the action. In particular I must cite a particularly spectacular sex scene where these characters’ issues about crimefighting, identity, purpose and passion all collide in a sublime cinematic orgasm. Leonard Cohen’s Halelujah (the first time I have ever heard this version on film!) and a subtle and beautiful employment of nudity also helps. However the abundance of emotion in Watchmen took away from some of the truly dark philosophical depths of the story. Scenes in which we ourselves are forced to ask whether humanity is worth saving and other serious questions are tempered by the presence of almost cheezy personal conflicts, giving the audience an easy way out of questions we would prefer no to ask. In fact Dr. Manhattan, whose absence of human compassion ostensibly allows him to ask these hard questions is portrayed through a lens of extreme forlorn emotional instead of being devoid of it. That said, the one scene where emotion and philosophy do need to meet works remarkably well.
What also works and doesn’t work is the brutal and often gory violence employed. I recently got a chance to briefly speak with Zack Snyder and ask about his intentions with the violence in Watchmen:
“The reason why the violence is so extreme in the movie is that I wanted the idea of the superhero movie to be broken down at every level psychologically, because as an audience PG-13 homogonized violence has been put in a very clean wrapper and therefore I believe to be irresponsible violence especially in the sense that it’s kind of targeted towards kids. The idea of violence in Watchmen is to smash as hard as I could the idea that violence has no consequences.”
And indeed he achieves this aim. The violence in Watchmen is visceral and intense as opposed to the beautiful and operatic battles in 300. Snyder gives the feeling of pain back to violence on screen that is largely missing in film today. There are moments though when the blood letting is unfit for the scenes it is placed in. Silk Spectre stabbing a knife into a muggers neck or Night Owl busting a dude’s bone through his arm can be a bit much for a back alley dust-up. We’re still supposed to like these characters, right?
What works without fail in Watchmen are solid performances by the ensemble cast, each really working as part of a team. No two characters lack chemistry, especially Dan (Night Owl) and Laurie (Silk Spectre). The music choices fit well, Snyder taking several tips from the novel here. Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and Simon & Garfunkel work to enhance an engaging mood and Phillip Glass’ arrangements in particular add a poetic depth and a more careful pace to this juggernaught of a movie.
And it is a juggernaught. Zack Snyder is an unabashed lover of the graphic novel and as such left in many of fans favourite scenes. It is perhaps my biggest complaint with Watchmen that it moves way too fast in order to fit these all in. Many of these scenes need room to breathe in order to draw you in and I think because of this viewers may get a slight sensory overload if they aren’t familiar with the story already. As I pointed to with the emotion used in Watchmen the eagerness in editing to move on to the next scene or intercut two scenes together too often pushes the viewer back, letting us off the hook of the questions it raises and suffocates it’s best scenes. I believe the Director’s Cut of Watchmen, that will include the famed Black Freighter storyline will truly be something to behold.
Zack Snyder has said that more than anything he wanted to evoke in the viewer the feelings he had upon first reading The Watchmen. And indeed there were some shining moments that brought back those unmistakeable emotions in me. Not every part of Watchmen works, but by the time the movie finished it had amounted to a powerful and engaging experience. I went home and opened up the novel again, unable to shake loose Dave Gibbons’ beautiful images or Alan Moore’s moving tale, once again reminded of power and beauty of it all.
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings! Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” -Percy Blysshe Shelley