STARRING: Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Haley, Matthew Goode, Billy Crudup, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Malin Akerman, Carla Gugino, Stephen McHattie, Matt Frewer

2009, 163 Minutes, Directed by: Zack Snyder

“It’s refreshing that there’s no compromise,” director Zack Snyder said in an interview about his Watchmen movie adaptation.

And he’s right. The keyword when describing this full-length live action movie version of the superhero graphic novel of the same name is “verisimilitude.” The film-makers have gone to extraordinary lengths to bring a faithful adaptation of this tale about embittered middle-aged superheroes uncovering a plot to kill off supers to the big screen. They have done a more than admirable job at condensing the 416 or so pages of the densely plotted comic book into a two-and-a-half hours long motion picture. More than that they have maintained the graphic novel’s violent and gritty aesthetic, resulting in it getting a well-earned R rating.

Make no mistake: this is not a superhero movie for kiddies. It’s more Scorsese than Superman – the Movie! Parents should do well to heed its age restriction. It is violent and bloody and doesn’t shy away from any nudity (both male and female) either. Like in the comics the god-like – and well-endowed - Doctor Manhattan can’t be arsed to wear so much as a stitch of clothing. And don’t expect any distracting Austin Powers-like “hide the schlong” type of parlour games either. There is also a very violent attempted rape scene that audiences will find disturbing. This ain’t the Fantastic Four you know! It’s even more “adult” than The Dark Knight . . .

Sure, out of necessity the screenwriters have shed a lot of largely extraneous bit characters and minor subplots as well as condensed some events. But the result is 100% Watchmen. As fans of the original graphic novel will know, the plot is both complicated and yet simplistic at the same time. Many of its pages are spent on back-story, slowly immersing the reader in its alternate history world in which not only superheroes really exist, but America has won the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon was elected U.S. President for three times. The movie takes as much care as the book to richly detail this alternate universe and retains much of the back-story and the graphic novel’s flashback narrative structure. For audience members unfamiliar with the science fiction tradition of alternate time lines, Watchmen may represent a serious disconnect but sci-fi fans will feel right at home. (This is probably the first major Hollywood movie to represent the concept of parallel realities in such depth and detail.)

"A darker and much more philosophical version of The Dark Knight . . ."

If you had any qualms about the film’s casting: have no fear. I have rarely seen such spot-on casting for any film. Despite the updating of the book’s corny spandex costumes, every character is practically an exact replica of their print doppelganger. All of the actors acquit themselves admirably in their roles. The makeup used to age characters is also unobtrusive. It may have taken more than twenty frustrating years for this adaptation to be made, but comics fans should be grateful: making Doctor Manhattan a super buff CGI creation was a brilliant decision. Can you imagine a pre-CGI Manhattan? Some actor with his skin painted blue like an extra in an old ‘Sixties Star Trek episode! Only problem is the voice talent used for Doctor Manhattan. Instead of sounding ethereal he ends up sounding effeminate. It frankly takes a while getting used to the actor’s voice. Incidentally, if you can manipulate all matter – including your body – at a whim, you would also chose to come back as a well-hung, super buff light-blue skinned bald dude, wouldn’t you?

This is a movie adaptation that will appease even the most rabid Watchmen comics geek out there. Heck, it might even appease Alan Moore himself! Or okay, maybe not. (Comic book legend Alan Moore who wrote Watchmen has a reputation for being wildly cantankerous and antisocial. He has out of principal disavowed all movie adaptations of his comic books without even having seen them. Movie adaptations of his work include League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – who can blame him on this one? - and V for Vendetta, which was actually pretty darned good under the circumstances. Moore has publicly stated that he will not bother, er, watching the Watchmen movie. His name also isn’t even featured on the credits of the movie poster; only artist and co-creator Dave Gibbons who has been much more supportive of the movie version, has been listed.)

Having read the book several times throughout the years since its publication back in 1986 I probably count amongst those rabid geeks to be honest. Not only does the film closely follow the graphic novel’s plot, but it also takes shots straight from the comic panels and repeat whole chunks of dialogue verbatim. Watching the film I felt like one of those cult heads who can recite dialogue before the onscreen actors can utter them!

Watchmen is however more than a slavish adaptation of the graphic novel. Along the way it also takes some unexpected creative routes. There is for instance a fun opening credit sequence set to Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’ documenting the history of this alternate 1986 universe on the brink of nuclear destruction, showing costumed superheroes hanging out with Andy Warhol and one of them shooting JFK. Mixing arresting visuals with surprising music choices of some well-known pieces (Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Philip Glass, Mozart, Leonard Cohen!) results in some startling scenes even though one or two of them serve as a serious disconnect and can only be judged as creative missteps. Do we really need yet another Wagner’s Rider of the Walkure Apocalypse Now homage?

But does all this unquestioning devotion pay off? After all, comics and movies are two very different mediums . . .

Watchmen crams a lot of plot into its brief running time. I say “brief” because for such an epic tale it is only about 10 minutes longer than the recent Dark Knight, which admittedly dealt with far fewer events and characters. Fans of the comic will be delighted: this is the movie adaptation which Watchmen deserves. Fans can’t hope for any better. (Although there is talk of a much longer director’s cut for DVD.) But what about newbies who have never so much as heard of Watchmen? Does it offer them anything?

Newbies will see a darker and much more philosophical version of The Dark Knight with touches of 300-like stylized violence thrown into the mix. The alternate history aspect which plays a big role in the movie may strike them as “weird”, but Watchmen (the movie) is sure to win converts. It is violent, yes, but it isn’t a continuous gore fest like the recent Punisher War Zone. As soon as the viewer starts getting slightly restless Snyder throws in some gut-wrenching action scene that packs quite some punch. The two-and-half-hours running time represents no problem because it is so crammed with incident. At times it feels as if huge chunks of plot exposition are being thrown into the audiences’ laps like a Reader’s Digest précis of the novel, but director Snyder will soon enliven onscreen events with a crackerjack action sequence or some eye-popping visual effect.

Make no mistake: Watchmen is the first real blockbuster of this year’s summer season. However despite the precedent set by the likes of 300 and Dark Knight it is also everything your average brain-dead Hollywood special effects blockbuster isn’t: thought-provoking and genuinely visceral. It’ll have you thinking afterwards as it doesn’t merely deal with somewhat abstract superhero notions of vigilantism and justice like Dark Knight, but rather, ahem, the “human condition” itself. (Newbies will also see plot elements from The Incredibles, but should do well to remind themselves that Watchmen’s source material actually predates the Pixar movie by more than a decade.) Its images will stick in your head and you will want to see it again – take my word for it!




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