Watchmen (2009) – movie review

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Movie Review by Neil Sadler

Starring: Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Carla Gugino

Director: Zack Snyder

When I came out of Zak Snyder’s last film, 300 – I was really unsure how I felt. I found the beauty of the violence in the film somewhat disturbing. It suited the Frank Miller story well – this after all is the man that gave us SIN CITY and THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS – the inspiration for the new dark take on the Batman films.

WATCHMEN is a very different story. Widely regarded as the best comic book series ever written it has had a long journey to the screen. Alan Moore, the writer, hasn’t had good track record of seeing his comics filmed and it isn’t that glowing a recommendation to say that WATCHMEN is by far the best when compared with the likes of FROM HELL and THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN.

Set in a world like ours but askew – where Nixon is still president and the US won the Vietnam War – we enter the lives of a group of vigilante superheroes – most of whom have retired after the Keene act made them illegal.

When one of their number, The Comedian, is brutally murdered – vicious vigilante Rorschach sets out to solve his murder. His investigations bring him in contact with other retired “heroes.” Only one of them is a real superhero, Dr Manhattan (Billy Crudup) and he is so detached from reality that he has little to do with humans.

I love the source material and went to the film with a mixture of excitement and fear. I left in much the same way because although the film is thrilling to watch, beautifully designed and almost solidly exciting – it isn’t going to please everyone.

For the most part, Snyder and writer David Hayter stick closely to the comic. The world they create is as scary and beautiful as BLADE RUNNER and indeed many elements of WATCHMEN seem to relate back to that film. The voiceover and the very Vangelis like soundtrack.

The CGI never intrudes on the story and often you are not sure what is digital and what is an actual set. The askew world of the Watchmen has all the beauty and all the grime and dirt that Moore and Gibbons created.

Where it deviates from the story is in the violence. The story as was written and drawn has violence but it never glorified it and you sense that Snyder does. They are certainly the most vibrant bits of the film. The fight sequences, much like in 300, are vividly painted and extremely exciting to watch as well as very, very brutal. Bones break, teeth tear and bodies burn and explode. I don’t think that Moore would be too happy that the biggest cheer in my screening was for an act of callous violence.

The main problems though lie in its reverence to its source. Telling a story in a 12-part comic is very different to telling it in a film. It is a long film and it packs a lot of story in it but the episodic nature of the early part of the film tests an audience’s patience and may alienate many viewers, which is a shame because there is a lot to love in the film. The acting especially from Crudup, Matthew Goode and Jackie Earle Haley is excellent. The look and feel burn the retinas and there are some stunning shots and set pieces. The production design is faultless and reverential to the source whilst still anchored in reality.

There are some fanboys that will complain about the changed ending but I felt it was much better in a film context than the original. In fact, I wish that the filmmakers had taken a few more risks with the story. As we have learned from the previous efforts of turning Moore works into films – although both visual storytelling mediums, there is a vast difference between film and graphic novel.

But ultimately this is a film I would gladly see again and again and I suspect it will find a good audience both on the big screen and on DVD (or especially Blu-ray). Like BLADE RUNNER it might not make an immediate impact but I hope it will stand the test of time.

5 out of 6 stars