Sunday, 22 March 2009
Movie Review: Watching Watchmen...
Starring: Jackie Earle Bailey, Billy Crudup, Malin Akerman
Directed by: Zack Snyder
This one was always going to be a problem. It was always going to be divisive. I consider myself fortunate in that I went in to my local fleapit (it’s actually not a fleapit, of course – cinemas are all very nice and slick and air-conditioned and homogenous these days, obviously) to see the long-awaited feature film adaptation of the legendary landmark graphic novel (comic book) Watchmen with no real preconceptions. Now I’ve seen it (and I saw it the day after it opened, it’s just taken me a while to find the time to put my Stuff review together) I’ve come to the conclusion that the audience which will enjoy it most is the one that hasn’t read the comic book and isn’t, like the hand-wringing comic book crowd, anguishing about how it’s too slavish to the comic/not slavish enough to the comic (delete as applicable).
I don’t really know a lot about the comic book (although a friend loaned me the graphic novel years ago but I was not long out of my decade-long love affair with marvel Comics and I wasn’t in the mood to wander back into the four-colour world so I never got beyond the first half-dozen pages) so I sat in front of the movie with a clear, untroubled mind and just the film unfold. That’s the way to do it. That’s the way you’ll either enjoy the film or loathe it with a passion. However it’s quite unlikely you’ll love Watchmen because it’s just not that sort of movie. It’s dark, it’s edgy, it’s ludicrous and it’s sometimes even a bit uncomfortable; if you like it at all you’ll come away from it impressed by its style and the sheer technical achievement of it and while you’ll probably want to watch it again on DVD you’ll most likely not want to rush back to the Multiplex to revisit it.
That said, I found the movie a tense, bizarre and engrossing experience. I think we’ve probably all become a bit ambivalent about superhero movies and, by and large, what we get from these sorts of films these days is pretty much what we expected. For every dark and angsty (and, in my opinion, monstrously over-rated) Dark Knight there’s a rampantly-confident Iron Man or an underachieving Incredible Hulk, a disappointingly-lifeless Daredevil, a pointless Ghost Rider or a childish (but fun) Fantastic Four. Watchmen, as it should , takes it cues from these sorts of characters, most of whom are rooted in the ‘real’ world (whether it’s a comic book version of New York or some fanciful everyman American city named Gotham or metropolis) and deposits them, perversely enough, in an ‘alternative’ timeline of the mid-1980s. In Watchmen world the nuclear superpowers are at each other’s through and Armageddon looks just about inevitable. The world’s staring at oblivion. Meanwhile superheroes are real (or at least, there’s a tendency for vigilantes, often without any genuine special abilities to tog themselves up in spandex and capes and beat the crap out of bad guys); the only character with any real super-powers is Dr Manhattan (Crudup) who, in the best traditions of all super-heroes, has his origins as a mortal scientist blasted into atoms in a My-God-it’s-gone-wrong experiment who is lately reconstituted as a bald, blue, emotionless and...er...disconcertingly naked God-being who, it seems, may be the key to the future of all Mankind. As the movie opens – with a spectacularly brutal fight sequence which sets the tone for much of the bone-crunching which is to follow – superheroes have been discredited and are being systematically slaughtered by some murderous assassin. The mysterious Rorschach (Bailey) is investigating the murders and ultimately, with the aid of fellow long-retired costumed weirdos Silk Spectre and Night Owl, uncovers a conspiracy which threatens to save the world in the most appalling of ways. And will Dr Manhattan, tired of the vagaries of the human race, really turn his back on his own people for a life of cold solitude on Mars?
Watchmen is a rich and vivid experience. Afficionados may be irritated by the liberties it plays, apparently, with its source material (beardy weirdy writer Alan Moore has long since disowned the movie – and after his previous big screen experiences with disastrous versions of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and V For Vendetta it’s hard not to blame him for being cautious) but the legendarily-unfilmable nature of the graphic novel was always going to be problematic in persuading any audience – particularly an audience which has read the comic book more times than might really be considered healthy – to give the movie version the benefit of the doubt. Being unfamiliar with the original I can’t say what’s been left in and what’s been left out and which of either has been beneficial or damaging to the film.
Judged as a movie, though, there’s much to admire in a film which has so clearly been a labour of love for director Snyder. I don’t have the images of the comic book panels engraved on the inside of the eyelids but even I can imagine which scenes are immaculate reconstructions of cherished comic book frames, which scenes are lovingly-crafted moving picture realisations of iconic Dave Gibbons illustrations. And I’m sure that the hardcore fans, ambivalent as they may be about the film as a whole, must be impressed by the way Snyder has at least tried to bring the unfilmable to the screen in as respectful a way as possible.
So ignoring those difficult comic book vs movie version issues, Watchmen the movie is gritty and unforgiving experience. There are no concessions here to the traditional ‘kid appeal’ of the genre. The Watchmen are real people with all the very real fears and foibles that comic books are always struggling to portray accurately. They want - or rather, wanted - to be superheroes without the benefit of radioactive spider-bites or gamma ray accidents to imbue them with superhuman abilities (although most of them seem to have extraordinary agility and reflexes). When they fight the bad guys they quite literally tear them apart; blood flies, bones are torn from flesh, necks are graphically snapped. There’s no ‘sock, pow’ Batman punch-ups here. The characters are full of foibles and insecurities and whilst there’s much that’s unexplained – how does Rorschach’s mask do that ink-blot thing anyway? – none of it seems to matter because the visual style of the story-telling is so strong and the narrative, whilst a bit fractured and episodic, so compelling, it’s hard not to get swept up in the unsettling atmosphere of the whole thing. It’s a movie that’s not afraid to shock; the Comedian’s callous murdering of a pregnant woman is unbearably-cruel, the prison riot which sees Rorschach sprung from jail (and his casual dispatching of his tormentors) is stomach-churning and the devastation wreaked on a major city by a nuclear explosion is frankly terrifying.
What’s it all about, at the end of the day? What, exactly, is the point of Watchmen? It may be that Moore and Gibbons’ vision has been dulled a bit by the passage of time – certainly its Cold War/nuclear annihilation backdrop dates it as much as its disorientating – and distancing – setting of the action in an alternative 1980s world which doesn’t actually exist. Maybe it’s hard to care about characters from a world like or own but not actually our own. Because I found that I didn’t actually care about the characters much. Rorschach’s determination and callousness make him a character to find fascinating if not likable whereas Dr Manhattan, wandering about with his bits hanging out, is just a bit too larger-than-life and emotionally-detached to be engaging. So it’s left to Night Owl and Silk Spectre to display some humanity and, despite an indifferent performance from Akerman as the latter, their burgeoning, fumbling romance gives the film an emotional angle it would otherwise be struggling to find – even though their eventual coupling in the big-eyed Owlship (I want one!) to the strains of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ elicits more sniggers from the audience than might have been anticipated.
So make of Watchmen what you will – and what you make of it really will depend on whether you come at it from the position of fan or casual film-goer. As a movie it’s a tough one to quantify and it’s a tough one to describe. It’s always spectacular – the visual effects are genuinely breath-taking – there’s always something interesting to look at on the screen, the story really does make sense within the confines of the world it’s being told in – and it has all the sensibilities of the modern superheroes movie without being anything like any of them. As a film it’s probably fair to say that Watchmen is ultimately more to be admired than adored. It may not be the best superhero ever made, but it’s almost certainly the most extraordinary.