Watchmen (2009) dir. Zack Snyder
Starring: Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Patrick Wilson
In terms of conceptual grandeur “Watchmen” is like the “Magnolia” is comic-book films - bold strokes of cinematic genius layered with complex yet loose socio-political metaphors which don't quite link together with complete satisfaction. Zack Snyder gives us as faithful an adaptation of Alan Moore's celebrated comic as is cinematically possible, at times overly reverent to the often obtuse material but on the whole a surprisingly coherent rendering of the complex story.
The setting and environment of Moore and Snyder's revisionist world is difficult to penetrate. Put yourself in a world where masked superhero vigilantes exist with a keen self-awareness of the silliness of such a concept. It's the mid 80's, Richard Nixon is still President and the Soviet nuclear threat against the U.S. has resulted in ticking clock Cuban Missile Crisis-like standoff to world annihilation. The man who holds the ability to deter this event is a blue superhero named Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) who has the ability to change the molecular structure of his body and other objects around him.
When one of his compatriots 'The Comedian' (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is murdered, the masked vigilante Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) comes out of hiding to reunite his former league of heroes - the Watchmen - to investigate. Rorschach finds all his old buddies, Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), Silk Spectre (Malin Ackerman), Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) have all gone straight, leading regular civilian unmasked lives in retirement. When Rorschach's gumshoeing connects the Comedian's murderer with the current political crisis the stakes are raised enough to reinvigorate the Watchmen with the same idealistic fervour they once had.
The opening is a bravura title credit sequence showing the involvement of masked superheroes in many of the pop culturally significant events of the past century. The scene compresses much of the generational backstory of the first half of the book neatly into one package and establishes the story's throughline theme of pop cultural awareness. Snyder compliments the mash-up with a soundtrack of poignant rock tunes including Jimi Hendrix, Simon and Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, and even some less memorable like the 80’s topper “99 Red Ballons” by Nena. Watch for other fun pop culture references, like the Dr. Strangelove War Room set recreation, all of which add to the self-reflexive cultural complexities.
Perhaps the most astonishing surprise is Snyder's ability to make the obtuse 'unfilmable' elements work. The treatment of Dr. Manhattan as a transformed Jesus Christ-like resurrected God, specifically his trippy journey to Mars which made no sense to me on the page, provides with one of the more elegent detours in the story. His lengthy backstory is aided by cleverly borrowing Philip Glass' great music cue from the final scene of "Koyaanisqatsi".
At this point in the film Zack Snyder reaches an enormously high creative peak. In fact, the entire second act sustains this high through Rorschach's backstory, Silk Spectre/Nite Owl's passionate love affair to Rorschach's breakout from prison.
Like Robert Rodriguez's "Sin City", "The Watchmen" is not a comic book film for kids. Snyder embraces all the naughtiness of the book - Malin Ackerman's Silk Spectre is red hot and her steamy love scenes with Nite Owl retain all the thrusting carnality from Moore's pages. Snyder also has fun showing us all the bone breaks and blood gushing missing from all other super hero films. It's far from hardcore exploitation though, using the hyper slo-mo cine language from his previous graphic novel film "300", the Rated R scenes are graceful and dreamlike.
The film just misses out on greatness. The dialogue, most of which is lifted right off the page, suffers in the translation to screen. What sounds like punchy words designed for each frame comes off as overly-familiar Raymond Chandler noir dialogue. And after two acts of inspired unconventionality, unfortunately the third act resorts to a lazy recycling of the worst conventions of the genre. Snyder wraps up the plotthreads with rudimentary confessionary speeches, revelatory flashbacks and James Bond-like world domination plotting. The same type of ‘Hardy Boys’/Scooby Doo moments I despise in investigative mysteries. It’s a shame that despite the innovative methods of storytelling no one could get around the elementary and rushed plot resolution.
Though not everything Snyder throws at us sticks, "Watchmen" is still a supremely 'watchable' film. The muddied metaphors never distract us from the awesome muscular bravura which will titillate all the senses of your body.