Review: Watchmen

I remember how nervous fans were when the first Harry Potter movie arrived in theaters in 2001. Could it possibly live up to the novel? Most people would agree that the first movie did not, although the movies seemed to improve as time went by. The first Harry Potter movie though tried hard to ensure fidelity to the book, perhaps obsessively so. It was thought that extreme fidelity was needed for the franchise to succeed, even at the cost of making a better movie.

Fidelity to the source also seems to be the approach taken by the producer and director of Watchmen. As a graphic novel, Watchmen developed something of a cult status among connoisseurs of the genre. Framed in an alternative reality, the graphic novel written by Alan Moore was groundbreaking when it was published as a limited-edition series in 1986 and 1987: adult, violent (perhaps obsessively so), and full of really interesting characters. In this alternative universe, starting around 1940, costumed vigilantes began appearing in America’s cities to address the lawlessness of the time. These included The Comedian, Doctor Manhattan, Ozymandias, the Silk Spectre (a woman) and a creepy hooded figure named Rorschach. Eventually they formed a loose federation.

The only genuine superhero among them was Doctor Manhattan who got his status from a bizarre nuclear accident. He became transformed into a true superman who among other things used his superpowers to win the Vietnam War, thus inalterably changing the timeline we know. Because of his success, President Richard Nixon becomes something amounting to a dictator who is seemingly bent on a nuclear war course with the Soviet Union.

Apparently, America eventually got tired of these hooded vigilantes. In 1977, President Nixon signed into law the Keene Act, which sent all but two of The Watchmen into retirement. Doctor Manhattan cannot undo his nuclear accident, and the U.S. national security depends on his hanging around. The ultra-creepy vigilante Rorschach simply refuses to stop. Ozymandias reveals himself as Adrian Veidt and becomes the world’s most successful billionaire. Veidt is seemingly bent on freeing the world from industrial oligarchies by providing cheap and abundant power available to all. Doctor Manhattan meanwhile inhabits a weird quantum world where he is increasingly unable to relate to ordinary human beings, although he has something like a love relationship with the daughter of Silk Spectre, Laurie.

Got all that? Fortunately, it is not hard to follow. The film begins with the grisly death of The Comedian, memorably played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan. With his death, Rorschach (brilliantly played by Jackie Earle Haley) suspects that someone is out to kill all the Watchmen and in his own often lethal style goes out in search of answers. The year is 1985.

Like Harry Potter director Chris Columbus, Watchmen director Zack Snyder figures that closely adhering to the source material is good. Those who have the graphic novel can enjoy scenes that are copied frame-by-frame from the graphic novel. Snyder does deviate from the graphic novel in a few ways, primarily toward the end of the film. Overall, the film can be considered a faithful interpretation of the graphic novel.

Director Snyder hits it out of the ballpark with some characters but completely strikes out with others. Jackie Earle Haley’s portrayal of Rorschach is every bit as good Heath Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker in The Dark Knight and serves as the movie’s central character. If you need a reason to see this often-grisly movie, make it to see Haley’s performance. Yet it is often hard to pay attention to Rorschach because the mask he wears, made to look like the famous inkblot test, is always in motion across his face. (The same problem occurred in the movie V for Vendetta.) Billy Crudup’s portrayal of the effervescent blue Dr. Manhattan is also well done. However there is so much CGI between the actor and his realization on screen that the acting is very filtered. Patrick Wilson as Nite Owl II/Dan Drieberg does a good job playing the role of the true gentleman among this boisterous crowd. Others, like Malin Akerman (Laurie Jupiter, a.k.a. Silk Spectre II) are obviously miscast.

Overall, the movie is well realized, but certain actors tend to throw it out of balance at times. Watchmen is also perhaps too grandiose in scope. Are we flawed and violent humans worthy of being saved? Don’t we deserve mutual nuclear annihilation? Do we really need one more movie where superheroes have to save the world from utter calamity? In some ways, the movie feels like a battle between gods from Greek mythology, in this case between Dr. Manhattan and Adrian Veidt over who is the more powerful, wise and clever. We humans seem to be pawns on their chessboard.

Frankly, the movie works better when it is down and gritty instead of high minded and cerebral. One cannot get enough of Rorschach, even though he is hard to stomach, because he is utterly riveting with every violent act he undertakes. Similarly, the Clark Kent-ish Night Owl and the perverse Comedian cannot help but draw your attention and fascination. I was much more engaged in flashbacks between Laurie’s mother and her husband than I was on Doctor Manhattan’s or Veidt’s philosophical ponderings. Moreover, although I had to squint through certain scenes because of the excessive violence, and I am no fan of violence in movies in general, the violent scenes at least made me feel alive and more engaged than scenes on Mars where Doctor Manhattan and Laurie ponder a world without the complexity of human relationships.

Overall, Watchmen is worth seeing for the memorable characters, but you may find yourself wanting to fast forward when it strays into the ethereal. If superheroes or alternative reality movies aren’t your thing, you can better invest your time elsewhere. Except for a few clunkers in the casting department, this faithful film noir is engaging and well executed. It will hold your attention.

3.3 on my 4.0 scale.

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