Monday, 9 March 2009

Review: Watchmen


Okay, if you've read a few of the many reviews of Zack Snyder's Watchmen adap, then you probably won't find much in this review that differs from what you already know. As a fan of the comic, I knew all too well how difficult it would be to distill Alan Moore's dense, politically-charged, brutally violent epic into two-and-a-half hours-plus of screen time. After all, there's a lot that anyone taking this on has to get right: they have fans to appease and newbies to convert, whilst still making a stand-alone film that works whether you're a fan or you aren't. Plus, adapting a comic is even more problematic than adapting a novel; comics have a completely different rhythm than that of film, doubly so with Watchmen and its original 12-issue run. There's a rising/falling, episodic nature to a comics run that has to hit beats at certain points that films do not. There's a problem transposing a comic too faithfully to the screen then, that it may come over a little too fractured and awkward.

There's also a look and a feel that you get from a good comic or graphic novel that may seem a bit gimmicky in the multiplex. So really, you need a director who has as canny a grasp of dramatic structure as they do stunning visuals. So, was Snyder up to the job? Yes and no, would be the easy answer. There are things that Snyder gets as right as he possibly could, but there are times when he drops the ball completely.

Gripes first then. The casting could have been better; Malin Akerman is way too lightweight to play a character as scarred and complex as Laurie Juspeczyk/Silk Spectre II. Spectre's an emotional fuck-up in the comic with mummy and daddy issues, who seems on the verge of a nervous breakdown at any point where she's not cathartically kicking arse, vigilante-style. Akerman looks pretty perfect but there's no depth at any point, which leads to Spectre coming off a bit prissy and hard to root for.

Matthew Goode does the best with what he's given as Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias but I don't think Snyder and screenwriters, David Hayter and Alex Tse really got what makes Veidt such a compelling character in the comic. Not to be too spoilery but Veidt has to be charismatic and altruistic from the get-go to make the ending work, but he was pretty much a sneering prick from start to finish. That said, the reading of Ozymandias serviced the film pretty well.

Snyder fluffs the action occasionally too. His tendency to be a little heavy-handed and overly-stylised means that some of the set-pieces lose a bit of the comic's brutal realism. Specifically, a scene where Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson) and Silk Spectre II beat a gang of muggers to death in an alley. In the comic, they're obviously shaken by the reawakening of their bloodlust, but here it's exacted so nonchalantly that it just falls flat.

Snyder's edit function is a little off too. There are things excised from the comic that would have worked so brilliantly on the big screen (Rorschach systematically turning a happy-go-lucky psychoanalyst into a suicidal depressive; the obvious money shot that would have been New York strewn with corpses) and conversely, Snyder needlessly keeps other things in that just don't make sense (without the genetic engineering angle, Bubastis' inclusion is pointless; dropping Ozymandias' punchline from the bullet catching scene).

However, Snyder should be praised from the heavens for what he's done here. This is, essentially, Watchmen on film. He's a little too faithful to the source material perhaps and this means that those going in without any foreknowledge may have to work a little to follow it and invest in the characters emotionally. There's an argument that, dramatically, Snyder's a hack but due to his love of the comic, a lot of its heart makes its way to the screen. Even the tweaked ending has pretty much the same outcome as that of the comic.

During the film's torturous development, there've been so many disrespectful story changes mooted (an ending where Ozymandias and Dr Manhattan die for example) and supposed casting gaffes (Arnie as Manhattan ) that the fact Snyder has made something so close to the comic is nothing short of miraculous. Perhaps he was the right man at the right time, having made megabucks with his last film, also a comic adaptation and, while its tempting to wonder what kind of film a better director with just as much freedom and fanboy love for the material (Chris Nolan, maybe, or Paul Greengrass) would have made, let's just praise the movie gods for the film we now have.

Let's just have a look at what Snyder hits out of the park. Jackie Earle Haley is perfect as Rorschach, nailing the human side of this unremitting psychopath with unerring precision and Jeffrey Dean Morgan as The Comedian and Patrick Wilson as Nite Owl II both deserve tons of praise also, the former being the right combination of venality and charm, whilst the latter pinpoints the nerdish shyness of Dan Dreiberg and the derring-do of his alter ego brilliantly. Billy Crudup is also fantastic as Dr Manhattan, the Watchmen's only real superman, perfectly essaying the big blue guy's detachment and aloofness, distracting blue cock aside.

A lot of internet whining has been directed at the soundtrack choices and while some of them are jarringly anomalous - 'Sound Of Silence' during The Comedian's funeral - most of the time, they're in keeping with the comic's merciless skewering of pop cultural mores and, in the main, are meant to raise laughs.

Even the outrageous sex scene between Nite Owl and Silk Spectre feels about right. The choice of song - Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah - is a bit odd, but it makes sense that these two, who are vulnerable as Dan and Laurie should fuck like tigers when indulging their alter egos. Nite Owl and Silk Spectre are a way for Dan and Laurie to act out their extremest desires after all, so their sex should be porny and athletic. I'm just saying what you're all thinking!

The nerds will carp and bitch and moan til the cows come home, but fuck it, Snyder has made quite possibly the best Watchmen film that any of us could dream of. It has its faults, but hell, just think how much worse it could have been.

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