Friday, 6 March 2009

Review - Watchmen

Well, it's the fitting way to round off a week of comics themed postings leading up to the release of Watchmen, isn't it? Earlier this afternoon, thanks to the wonder of "having a day off because I worked last Sunday", I toddled down the road to my local IMAX cinema*, parked my carcass down in front of the ridiculously large screen and settled down to watch the Watchmen (you have to say that, it's the law). Here's what I done thunked about it.

In a nutshell:- One of the most celebrated graphic novels makes it to the big screen. Will it be any good?

The Basics:- This 24-year-old graphic novel has been kicking around in development hell for almost as long as it's been in existence. Directors such as Terry Gilliam and Darren Aronofsky have tried and failed to make a celluloid version out of it. It's been labelled as unfilmable being that it's a story about the twilight of superheroes in an alternate America where Nixon never left office and that it's both a study of Eighties Cold War anxieties as well a deconstruction of decades of superhero comics. Not necessarily something which would translate easily to film - especially as this requires condensing the book's storyline to fit a suitable running time. So has director Zack Snyder manged to pull it off against the odds? Yes and no...

The Good:- Snyder's visual flair and attention to detail cannot be denied. He has lovingly created the look and feel of the comic exactly up on screen and a lot of the visuals he's created are pretty stunning. The opening title sequence set to Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changing" is fantastic and sets up the alternate 1985 that the movie takes place in. It's no wonder that artist and co-creator Dave Gibbons heartily endorsed it - his work has been very much used as a storyboard to bring the visuals to life (in much the same fashion as Snyder did for 300 and Robert Ropdriguez / Frank Miller did for Sin City). In terms of the cast, Jeffrey Dean Morgan as The Comedian and Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach steal the show. They're the most fascinating characters in the story and the two actors vividly bring them to life (there's a strong hint of Robert Downey Jr. about Jeffrey Dean Morgan**). Billy Crudup has the unenviable task of playing a man divorced from human emotion in Dr Manhattan while Patrick Wilson provides able support as the retiring Nite Owl who rediscovers a little of his inner hero. The only disappointment is Malin Akerman in the acting stakes who comes across as fairly wooden a lot of the time (this could be down to some of the material she has to work with, however). On the plus side, she's very pretty and wears a PVC outfit. Mmmmmm. It also moves at a reasonable pace. It certainly didn't feel like I'd just sat through a two hour and forty five minute film (although I did have to shift about in the seat a bit - they're not overly comfortable for that length of time).

The Bad:- The fact that it's such a direct translation (albeit with some omissions and a sensible and satisfying alteration to the ending to make it work better as a film***) actually works against it to an extent. Some of the dialogue feels oddly stilted as it's lifted directly form the comic and there are a lot of exposition heavy moments to try and fit in as much as the material from the comic as possible yet still try and make sense out of it. Being very familiar with the source material, it's difficult to know if it will make complete sense to someone who's coming to this fresh. Also, because the film is following the story structure of a printed work, it feels quite disjointed and it could be difficult to follow the main narrative thrust due to the various tangents it goes off on. The fact that Snyder is very much a visual director also works against him to an extent as his characterisation falls a little flat in some cases. He seems so concern
ed with accurately reproducing what's on page that development of characters seems to have been left out or, worse still, just not considered important. Having read interviews where he seems to mostly discuss how "cool" it looks, I sadly suspect the latter.

The Verdict:- All in all, though, I'd have to say that is probably as successful an adaptation you're going to get of something which really isn't intended to be made into a film. It's not perfect and it certainly has its flaws but it's still a fascinating take on the superhero film and definitely a visual treat. I would say, though, that while it may be more adult than something like The Dark Knight in terms of onscreen violence****, nudity and sexual situations, The Dark Knight still has the edge in terms of character. If you've become tired of the standard superhero fare that clogs up the multiplexes these days, though, give this a try. It's definitely something different to the norm. Well worth a watch(men). Sorry, I couldn't resist.

* Yep, it turns out that the cinema which is 15 minutes walk away now has an IMAX as well. When did that happen? Was it always there and I'd never noticed? Must pay more attention...

** All these people have names that are much too long.

*** The intent and impact of the ending hasn't been changed but the specifics of what that ending is have (if that makes any sense - you basically get to the same ending but with a slightly different cause)

**** And there is some stomach churning violence in there but, then again, there is in the original book.