Saturday, March 21, 2009

Watchmen (Feature Film) Review

Heralded as one of the greatest graphic novels of all time, adapting Watchmen into a feature film would be a monumental undertaking, no matter which way you look at it. Full of political intrigue, mature characters, and dark undertones, there's a lot of ground to cover for a simple two to two and a half hour film.

Which, I suppose, is why the final, theatrical release of Watchmen stretches to just under the three hour mark, and when I left the theatre last Sunday afternoon, the only thing I could think about was how I'd pretty much wasted that time sitting indoors on what was one of the nicest days of 2009. That's not to say that Watchmen is a bad film, I generally enjoyed it, but it really didn't live up to my expectations, and really, how could it?

Watchmen is a twelve-part comic series, and overall, that's just far too much material for a feature film, even one around three hours. So naturally, several key components got cut, and while I generally found that director Zack Snyder of 300 fame stayed true to the graphic novel given the limitations he was forced to handle, I couldn't help but think that Watchmen would have made a significantly better mini-series than a feature film.

Watchmen begins with the murder of the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) by an unknown assailant, and Rorschach's (Jackie Earle Haley) investigation of "the mask killer." The world is poised on the brink of nuclear war, and officially, super heroes have been outlawed since the '70's. Again, while this translation can be viewed as a faithful rendition by some, it has the very negative effect of making the film drag. And drag. And drag. You see, Watchmen is an intelligent graphic novel, more on plot and characters and less on action and battles, but to sit through such a long feature without a healthy spattering of these elements was quite the chore.

To try and spice things up, Snyder took the liberty of altering one very key point, a point that I strongly believed should have been left alone. One central aspect of Watchmen is that all of these heroes, save for Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), aren't super heroes at all, they're simply men and women who've dressed up to fight crime. In the film, however, many of them seem to possess super strength, punching through brick without breaking their hands, tossing people 20 feet, etc. While certainly entertaining, it really crushed that campy "reality" aspect to the heroes of the graphic novel, it removed that identifier that these were just average people who've gone to the extreme.

Another key theme that didn't come across very well was the global fear of nuclear war. Sure, it was mentioned and the heroes expressed their own fears and concerns, just like in the graphic novel, but what was absent was the general person's view on the whole situation. The comments from the news stand guy, the police investigations, everything that really opened up the public paranoia on this huge pending crisis simply weren't there which gave the film a much more limited scope.

At least they managed to capture key characters like Rorschach and the Comedian, minus the added "super" strength, and Night Owl (Patrick Wilson) turned out to be a little more, shall we say, less-suggestible than his comic book counterpart. In fact, I can honestly say that Rorschach and the Comedian are the main reasons to view the film, as their characters retain the real essense that made them so memorable from the graphic novel. Rorschach is as dark, psychotic, and at the same time dedicated has his inked counterpart, and the Comedian is just as bitter, violent, and ultimately tragic as we remember. They also captured Dr. Manhattan well enough, at least in physical form. Like in the graphic novel, he's not too big on clothes, so you spend most of his scenes looking at his glowing blue penis. Honestly, that's something I could have done without.

Watchmen is a mature graphic novel, so there is sex and nudity, however they really took this to the next level in the film. While I didn't have a problem watching some of the characters bump and grind, honestly, I didn't need to watch them do it for several minutes, and the sex of the film seemed more gimmicky to try and spice up the general tedium.

I have no complaints over Watchmen's visual style, which is very well done, but of course, this was to be expected by Zack Snyder. The costumes and art direction were modernized from the mid-80's, and this isn't a bad thing in my eyes and helped to increase the film's visual appeal.

Audio wise, the dialogue is taken straight from the graphic novel, including the excellent narration of Rorschach's journal, and the sound effects have that surreal, comic book feel. The soundtrack is a mixed bag, with passable composed pieces that worked, but I had a problem with several of the songs used that were referenced in the graphic novel. The songs themselves aren't an issue, but the graphic novel used them for their lyrics and the symbolism they represented, which was lost with the scaled down politics in the film, and these tracks just ended up feeling out of place.

So overall, while I found Watchmen to be reasonably entertaining enough, it could have been more, it could have been better, and really, it should have been split up instead of one solid film. While I don't regret seeing it, I could easily have missed it and not lost anything. In hindsight, it took several attempts to properly translate another great literary masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings, so perhaps one day, we'll see an epic realization of Watchmen. That day, however, is not today.

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