Saturday, March 7, 2009

Who watches the "Watchmen"? I do...

It can't be easy to adapt a graphic novel that has repeatedly been described as "unfilmable", especially when that graphic novel is "Watchmen". With its constantly shifting narrative, intricate plot lines, and characters with an hour's worth of back story each, there are going to be sacrifices and/or changes. That said, director Zack Snyder (300) surprisingly makes enough of the right choices to ensure that his adaptation is a success. Just like the graphic novel, Snyder's film opens with the murder of ex-masked vigilante Edward Blake aka The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). The news reaches the last "active" vigilante, the borderline psychopath Rorshach (Jackie Earle Hayley). Convinced that a plot has been unhatched to kill off former masked heroes, Rorshach alerts those ex-masks who he still knows: Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson), Silk Spectre II (Malin Ackerman), and Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), an ex-nuclear physicist who was transformed into a blue, god-like figure after an accident. In the background, it's 1985, America has won the Vietnam War (thanks entirely to Manhattan), Nixon is in his 5th term in office, and the metaphorical Doomsday Clock has just been set to 4 minutes until Midnight. It's a dark, twisted, and strange world that, in spite of its wild differences, still captures (albeit in a less forward way) the paranoia of the Cold War tensions between America and Russia, and it makes for a stellar backdrop for a story like the one in "Watchmen" (on page and screen). So, where exactly does Snyder go right with his adaptation? Quite a few places as it turns out. First of all, there's the impeccable casting; Alan Moore and David Gibbons' rich characters are beautifully preserved and generally well acted. Carla Gugino and Morgan perfectly capture the aged bitterness and corruption of their characters respectively, Wilson does a nice job as out-of-shape Dan/Nite Owl, and even scrawny Matthew Goode as hulking Adrian Veidt pulls off the role, even with a faltering American accent. Billy Crudup, who's in the film primarily as a voice, is surprisingly successful as the increasingly detached Dr. Manhattan, and of course there's Hayley's Rorshach, in perhaps the most inspired performance of the whole ensemble. The way Snyder and Co. handle the massive narrative is particularly impressive, and special credit has to go to the segment of the film that reveals Dr. Manhattan's full background (mixed perfectly with Philip Glass' score from Koyaanisqatsi). And despite clocking in at close to 3 hours, there's never a dull moment, even if the moment isn't a great one (we'll get to this later). Production values, costumes, and cinematography are all first class, and Snyder does an impeccable job of preserving exact frames from the graphic novel. Music succeeds thanks to Tyler Bates' ambient score and a brilliant soundtrack. Most surprisingly though, is that Snyder's love of using slow-motion-speed-up tricks in action scenes actually doesn't wear thin like it did in parts of 300. *Whew* That's a lot of good where does the film fall short? Well, first of all, I've read the graphic I can't exactly relate to someone who hasn't, so I have no idea if my enthrallment with the movie was due to the movie, or my foreknowledge of the material. But it's not just that; in just about every area where it succeeds there's always one little piece that doesn't want to work. In the acting, it's Malin Ackerman, who sucks the dramatic heft out of a few scenes with high-school-level line delivery, which is a shame because she looks exactly like the character she's playing. In the story/writing department, it's harder to pin down. Amidst great scenes, there are little narrative hiccups (a scene with Ackerman and Crudup on Mars crosses the line between 'moving' and 'cheesy'; some of the alterations to the ending, and others). In the visual department it's harder to complain save for one obvious screw up: Bubastis, aka Veidt's genetically altered pet linx; when it walks on screen it's distractingly bad. Even the music department isn't faultless. Did Snyder really have to place a truly awful rendition of "Hallelujah" in the middle of an overly thrust-filled sex scene? That scene wasn't exactly supposed to be comedic material. Yet in the end, the flaws don't do nearly enough damage to keep the film from being captivating, complex, and surprisingly faithful. For die hard purists it may be an "abomination", but for those looking for the next best thing to "The Dark Knight", "Watchmen" might just be the movie for you.

Grade: B+

Number fo 2009 films seen: 4

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