Take at least a half star off from this review if you read the 1988 graphic novel. It matters that much.
But whatever emotional ties you have to Alan Moore’s dystopian vision of an alternate New York, director Zack Synder still manages to craft a visually splendid, achingly entertaining film that anyone with a hunger for an action film with a mind behind it needs to see. It’s just a matter of how much your reading experiences make you realize how much better it could have been.
The film follows a band of vigilantes in an alternate New York City when the United States won the Vietnam War, leading to Nixon’s third term and a continued Cold War. The government’s Keene Act had criminalized any masked heroics, but despite their inactivity, one of the crew is killed, which prompts the others to find out why.
The ensemble consists of the six members of the titular Watchmen: Rorschach, a ruthless and unforgiving anti-hero wrapped in an ever-shifting inkblot mask; Nite Owl, his former partner and a man who has since abandoned the lifestyle, losing a sense of purpose because of it; Silk Spectre, following in her mother’s footsteps while running from the past; Dr. Manhattan, a man turned demi-God with the ability to manipulate atomic structures with his thoughts and to see all of history simultaneously; the Comedian, the murdered member in question and a psychotic militant whose murderous apathy became the boon to the government; and Ozymandias, the “smartest man in the world,” quick enough to catch bullets and powerful enough to buy countries. The Comedian’s death digs up old memories and relationships between the crew, as its search for the motive behind it unravels a plan to purge the world through destruction.
“Watchmen” covers a tremendous scope of topics ranging from parodies of comic book ideals to an in-depth examination of the human condition. While the film’s lumping of 12 chapters into two hours and 45 minutes inevitably makes the progression feel contrived, screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse commendably provide a cliff-notes version of the original work’s major events without losing its overall poignancy. The main cast quickly becomes one of the film’s strongest points, each actor recreating the aesthetic looks and deeper psychologies of each vigilante with an unexpected level of expertise.
The best performances can be found with Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorschach and Billy Crudup’s Dr. Manhattan, the former perfectly capturing the shifting dementia of a broken soul and the latter sublimely reflecting the apathy that comes from knowing everything and being able to do anything. “Watchmen,” despite the odds, is a successful translation of its beloved roots; it just doesn’t fare as well on the visual side of things.
A dreadful overuse of slow motion detracts from a lot of the enjoyment inherent in the film and constantly calls attention to the fact that you are very much watching the end result of hours of post-production, which makes it difficult to care about what is happening as opposed to how cool it looks. But the graphic novel’s most brutal moments do look and sound gorgeous on screen. Blood spurts from snapped limbs to delicious effect, while explosions and other grand spectacles are rivetingly gaudy. Rorschach’s mask dances on the character’s face and Dr. Manhattan’s glow immediately gives a sense of radioactive power. While the special effects suffer from the idiotic decision to have things frequently moving at half, one-third, or one-fifth speed, it is still hard to not be taken aback by the cinematic grandeur on display.
However, like many of its characters, the “Watchmen” film holds within it a sin near impossible to forgive: its soundtrack. Never before has there been such a stunning abuse and misuse of licensed songs in a popular film.
“99 Luftballoons” never, repeat, never should have been considered for inclusion in any part of this film. Nearly every appearance of a song with lyrics furiously destroys the build-up of the scene it plays against, ruining – yes, ruining – one of the strongest moments in the film with the placement of a song so contradictory to the previous scene that all of its power is murdered worse than the film’s many extras. Somehow, I doubt any director with a coherent adaptive vision would have approved of a Simon and Garfunkel track either.
Ignorance shall be the audience’s bliss. No previous knowledge of the story’s legendary roots strips away most criticisms, leaving the film as a magnificent blend of mature storytelling, comic book atmosphere and eye-blisteringly good visuals. But even with the lingering thought that many directors could have done it better, the film is a joy to behold —the first true must-see experience of the year. The cast is surprisingly excellent, the storytelling is respectfully retold – if not enhanced in any way in the translation – and the entire package is draped with mind-boggling amazing eye-candy. Just keep Zack Synder away from his iPod for later projects.