Watchmen (9/10)

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Originally, I was going to write a review based on Watchmen purely as a movie, unrelated to the graphic novel. That was before I actually read the graphic novel, and having done that, and been more able to appropriately grasp the spirit of the book, it’s impossible to look at Watchmen the movie as entirely separate from its origins. As I read through the graphic novel, I began to comprehend the immense scope of the whole thing – it’s much more than a graphic novel, incorporating elements of poetry, art, novels, newspapers, comics, and more into a seamless whole that traces the development of this superhero world from basically its beginnings to its present. It’s engrossing and impossibly well executed, and the very thought of trying to write a script for this beast almost makes the brain explode. The fact that someone *did* do it, or even tried, is daunting at best and horrifying at worst. So does the movie succeed, as I always say, on a movie’s own terms, while keeping the spirit of the book? The answer is a sigh-of-relief yes, although it is not an across-the-board one, for in several areas Watchmen falters, missing the point on some of the book’s themes and trying to jam too much “cool” into the mix.

For the un-geekified, Watchmen takes place in 1985, with the US and Russia on the brink of nuclear war. In this atmosphere of paranoia and suspicion, Edward Blake, having led a double life as the costumed vigilante The Comedian, is murdered, and Rorschach, a ruthless vigilante who wears a piece of cloth on his face that reflects his changing moods, like a Rorschach Blot (one of the niftier effects of the movie), takes up the investigation and, paranoid, assumes that someone is “picking off costumed heroes.” The movie follows mainly Rorschach as he bounces around the city, meeting up with old heroes and warning them that they could be next, flashbacks intercut as we see these characters and learn more about the life they led and the hand they had in the costumed vigilante “fad.” None of these people have superpowers, except for one Dr. Manhattan, a victim of the token “science experiment gone wrong” scenario, who has near limitless powers in bending matter to his will, and is on the US’s side, being one of the main reasons the world is on the brink of war. To Dr. Manhattan, there are same amount of particles in a dead body as in a living one, and time exists all at once, so it is all inevitable, and he doesn’t see much point in stopping nuclear war.
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*Takes a deep breath.* This just scratches the surface of what is an elaborately deep, complex maze of interlocking stories and backstories, flashbacks and narrations. The movie obviously can’t include everything from the book, but for things they cut out there are visual hints peppered throughout the movie for the observant. For the most part, what they cut out isn’t completely necessary to the movie version of the plot, and the few changes from the original don’t really glare out that much, but there are a couple of changes that should be taken issue with – one of them Rorschach. Jackie Earle Haley gives him the perfect, scarred, hollowed out voice, imbuing him with a frightening insanity – however, the script of the movie ends up making Rorschach out to be some sort of hero – whereas his psychopathic nature is never in question in the book (they cut out a scene where he ties a man up and lights the building on fire and watches it burn for an hour), several times in the movie it almost seems as if we’re asked to cheer for Rorschach, with an extended camera focus on Rorshach breaking the glass in someone’s hand, or a meat cleaver diving into brain tissue.

And that’s another problem with Snyder’s direction here – what he chooses to focus on. Good, solid, intense action scenes are entirely necessary, as they’re a frequent part of the book and breathtakingly illustrated, sometimes entirely without dialog for two or three pages. But when Snyder goes into an action scene, he seems to milk it for all its worth – like the fight between the Comedian and his murderer at the beginning of movie, unnecessarily long. Other unnecessities bug the mind, too – like the soundtrack, where in nearly every case it’s some 80’s tune that heavy-handedly is smashed onto the scene and removes you from the conflict rather than escalating it. Not every song is bad, I mean they’re all good songs, it’s just questionable that a movie like this would need it. The images, script, and score all speak enough – do we really need more piled on there?

Trimmings such as these, here and there, would have made for a more streamlined movie, and even would have allowed more character development for other sub-explored characters like Nite Owl II, played with easygoing goofball charm by Patrick Wilson, or Adrian Veidt, who retired two years before US law forbade masks and now runs a super successful toy line based on the heroes and villains he worked with and fought, respectively. He’s played by Matthew Goode with a self-assured confidence that radiates outward from him, appropriate as he’s the only other man on the planet who has been called a superhero besides Dr. Manhattan.

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And now we get into the characters and actors who are portrayed amazingly well, so let’s start with perhaps one of the most fascinating characters in graphic novel history, and certainly one of the more daring and visually gorgeous ones in cinematic history, Dr. Manhattan, who used to be Dr. Jon Osterman, re-creating his entire body from scratch after it was obliterated in a science experiment, and, through this, having gained a knowledge of how everything in the world fits together. The scene where we observe the creation of Dr. Manhattan is a chaotic yet quietly haunting, chilling scene, simple orchestral score soaring over the whole thing, intertwining with the images flashing by, a picture worth a thousand words at least every five seconds. Most impressive about Manhattan, though, is Billy Cruddup’s performance, who has to put into every word, every facial expression, every tic, the voice of a being with knowledge that wouldn’t fit inside any human’s head, and is unavoidably saddened and detached because of it. He’s not a character without emotion – but he speaks in a monotone voice, and his emotions have to be conveyed through that voice. It’s a brilliant, searing, intense performance and puts Cruddup on a level with such Oscar winning actors as Daniel Day Lewis and Javier Bardem. Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the Comedian is rough, gruff, and completely accepting of humanity’s unavoidable savagery. And Laurie Jupiter, who is Dr. Manhattan’s gilrfriend/Nite Owl’s love interest, has an intricate backstory that ties into most of the threads in the movie, and she’s played with a sad, mournful reality by Malin Akerman, a woman who is brokenhearted that her lover can never truly feel the same way about him, a woman who also terribly misses the good old days of going out and kicking ass as a superhero, but who knows it can never be as it once was.

Perhaps one of the most controversial things about the movie has been Snyder’s change from the book’s ending. While slavish devotion is evident all across the rest of the movie (and for once, this devotion doesn’t seem inappopriate, but rather, necessry and part of the reverence we should give this material), Snyder decided specifically to change the ending, which, actually, ends up working better than what the book did, given what came before in the movie. Truth be told, it’s actually debatable whether the book’s way of doing it was particularly necessary at all – the way the movie wraps it all up together just seems like the natural way to go. It changes it without changing the spirit, and that’s what’s most important, and what Snyder seems to have an excellent grasp of here. If you’re one of those people who scrutinize the script line by line and criticize every single instance where the movie dared to change something from the book, well, why exactly are you watching a freaking movie then? A completely, 100% true Watchmen would have been unwatchable – because this graphic novel was never meant to be a movie, staying true to its spirit while also being fairly devoted to keeping the look and feel of it is the way to go, and this end result is explosive, shocking, superhero filmmaking at its best. Watchmen is not a masterpiece, but it’s very satisfying and an astonishingly well-pulled off big screen adaptation of the supposedly un-filmable novel. Whatever the case, it’s probably the best we’re ever going to get.

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