Cast: Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Patrick Wilson
Director: Zack Snyder
Runtime: 163 mins
Release Date: 6 March 2009
It’s taken me a little while to get my thoughts down but I needed a second viewing of Zack Synder’s adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s seminal tome to really wrap my head around what I’d seen, and in certain respects, to allow myself to separate the movie experience from reading the book (I re-read it about a month ago after not giving it a proper look in about a decade). It was the right move because, while I was sure I liked it following my initial viewing - just not sure to what degree due to the almost overwhelming surrealistic jolt of hearing Moore’s words and seeing Gibbons’ images as though they’d been pulled straight out of the pages - second time around I could absorb the film as its own entity. Having done so I’m now confident that I’ve nailed down my opinion, and while there are a smattering of flaws, Watchmen is an astonishing adaptation of the classic comic: faithful to the source, uncompromising in its translation, and successful as a piece of contemporary cinema. Synder has taken what many deemed an unfilmable novel and turned it into an intelligent, gripping, enthralling and discomforting motion picture.
If you’re reading this review I’m guessing I don’t need to summarise the plot here as most fans of the medium are intimately familiar with the contents of the comic and, by extension, the film, and will know – more or less – how it plays out (if they’ve not seen it already). Suffice to say, it’s a deconstruction of the superhero genre that postulates what the world would be like if masked vigilantes existed and how the course of history would change should a genuine super-powered being appear on American soil. Obviously there’s far more to it than that but essentially that’s the foundation, and Synder has transformed it into a film that’s incredibly faithful to the source material. So faithful in fact that some have suggested because it sticks so doggedly to the comic it doesn’t ever stand a chance of developing an identity of its own. Bullshit, I say. Synder patently understands the difference between the two mediums and is fully aware of what each is capable of and how they both differ. Comics can do things film is unable to replicate, and Moore and Gibbons pushed the boundaries of the medium in ways never seen before. But Synder understands film, knows what translates to the screen and, more to the point, knows what cinema can do that can’t be achieved on the printed page. Movement. Performance. The combination of music and imagery. It’s reason enough to adapt any piece of literature, but Synder’s obvious love of the material has guided his choices to create something that warrants consideration as a piece of art in its own right. He may have had to strip away some of the layers and subtext from the book to make it more manageable in the time-constrained movie format, but by and large he's picked the right things to jettison and the right things to retain.
The casting was obviously going to be something that could completely derail the project if the wrong decisions were made but Snyder avoided big names and went for people who not only looked the part but had the acting chops to ensure the fantasy world their character’s existed in seemed real enough to hook an audience. Jeffrey Dean Morgan as The Comedian: immoral but magnetic. Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach: psychotic but strangely persuasive. Billy Crudup as Dr Manhattan: whispering detachment hiding genuine humanity. Matthew Goode as Ozymandias: arrogant and misguided. Patrick Wilson as Nite Owl: honest but naive. All these characters are brought to vivid life. Only Malin Ackerman as Silk Spectre provides a weak link – serviceable in the role but straying too close to daytime soap opera performance on occasion. It’s distracting but is easily overlooked as part of the ensemble cast that also includes numerous supporting players who manage to make solid impressions though their appearances may be brief. On top of that is some strikingly accurate set design, evocative cinematography, some bold musical choices (not including the rather misjudged sex scene!) and of course, Snyder’s assured direction. There were worries that he would rely heavily on slo-mo as he did in 300, but here it’s used sparingly to punctuate action scenes in a way that nods to the source material; a momentary freeze frame creating a single image that brings to mind a comic book panel. It’s an aesthetic choice, and for me, it works. The only thing he gets wrong is the amping up of the violence in certain scenes to somewhat ridiculous levels, lessening their impact rather than increasing it, but again, it’s not something that hampers the overall impressiveness of the film.
At the time of writing the movie is being written off as a flop due its failure to break any box office records and it’s noise dive during successive weekends. It was strange to see some of the critical opinions too, many coming across as somewhat kneejerk reactions to something that, because of the subject matter, was never going to have an easy time with mainstream audiences. We held out hope that it would somehow crossover, but with it’s relatively unconventional narrative, it’s regularly bleak view of humanity, it’s ugly brutality, and lack of starpower, it was always going to be a hard sell, in even a post-Dark Knight world. But, having said that, I firmly believe that the journey for this movie has just begun. We know Synder has planned not only an extended edition (possibly up to half and hour of extra footage) but also a super-extended edition that slots the Tales Of The Black Freighter animation into the film. Clearly he’s not messing about here, and clearly, with a little hindsight, it’s a near miracle that he managed to get the film to the cinemas in this form. With the amount of money involved (estimated between $150 - $200 million) I’m left with nothing but total admiration for the man; he stuck to his guns, brought Moore and Gibbons’ vision to the screen without any drastic, catastrophic changes. The altered ending works in this context, and if you hear some of the suggestions Synder had to bat back from the Warner execs (a Rorschach and Nite Owl buddy movie; no Manhattan on Mars), you wonder how it’s possible he managed it at all.
So, it may not have raked in the cash at first, but I can see this film seeping into popular culture in the same way the comic did, starting with the core fanbase at first and then flowing outwards to snare others with its power. It will find its legs on DVD/Blu-ray and grow in popularity – I’ve heard comparisons to the likes of Blade Runner and Fight Club thrown around, movies considered flops originally but that are now regarded as classics. Watchmen, the film, will be with us for a long time to come. Just like the book it has so brilliantly adapted, it will endure. 9/10