Thursday, 19 March 2009

REVIEW: Watchmen

Watchmen has now stolen the crown from Slumdog… I officially have a new favourite film of 2009!

In short, Watchmen was three hours of pure popcorn-crunching, ass-kicking, thought-provoking, gross-out, gravely-voiceover, slickly-directed, iconic viewing.

You must have heard the stories by now. This is a film that spent two decades in development hell and was declared unfilmable by Paul Greengrass, Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky and – genius creator of the graphic novel itself – Alan Moore. And they had a point. How exactly do you condense the most celebrated graphic novel of all time into a mainstream Hollywood movie?

After all, this is a masterpiece that has multiple story-lines, a huge mythology to establish (one where Nixon is still President), it addresses both rape and erectile dysfunction, whilst the hero is a psychotic masked avenger. Emphasis on psychotic. Forget The Dark Knight and Wolverine. Rorshach is the most anti of anti-heroes committed to the screen since Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle.

But Zack Snyder manages it. In fact, against all odds, the director of the stylish but juvenile Dawn of the Dead and 300, has done more than just manage it. He has produced an absolute cinematic masterpiece. Without losing the gore, effects, thrills and iconic lens of his previous films, he adeptly balances the vast ensemble (back stories included) with the huge themes on offer: War, psychosis, moral ambiguity, the perception of time. But then again, I don’t know why I am surprised. If you re-watch Dawn of the Dead and 300, Snyder seems an obvious candidate for this project. His potential was vast and he just needed to be given an epic to tackle. In short, he was waiting for his Watchmen.

But to quote the film: who watches the Watchmen?

Anyone who has read it know how incredible it is and will certainly flock to the cinema. And they will love it. It is an accurate adaptation, faithful without forsaking bursts of mainstream action, and the very few cuts are logical. The intermingled escapades of the Tales of the Black Freighter comic are thankfully removed (but coming to a DVD extra near you) and that bizarre business of the telepathic monster being transported into New York was replaced with a simpler Dr Manhattan-style explosion. Better.

Snyder has even managed to tell the story of the original Minutemen from the 1940s, the first generation of masked avengers and something I was convinced would be cut. But not only does he tell it through an ingenious opening-credits montage, but it might just be my favourite bit of the film. Told in a beautiful series of slow-motion camera pans, spanning the characters and the history, we see the alternative universe of Watchmen unfurl. We see the triumphs and downfall of the original Minutemen members, in addition to altered versions of world history: Nixon being re-elected, Dr Manhattan beating Neil Armstrong to the moon, soldiers gunning down hippies. And there are some great cameos of Andy Warhol, David Bowie and Fidel Castro. And all of this is to the tune of Bob Dylan singing 'Times Are A-Changing'. The tone is set for the film and it is magnificent.

But what about people who have never even heard of Watchmen? Well, this is where this will be a divide.

Some people will love it. Movie snobbery alert: these will be the people who appreciate good cinema, whether the films be arty or action-packed. A few of my friends have seen it despite never having heard of the Watchmen a month ago and they thought it was quality. Reassuring.

Then again, some people will hate it. These will be the people who expect a short, simple superhero movie like X-Men or Spiderman. Boy, are they in for a shock. This is a heavy movie, in terms of politics, structure and hyper-violence. These are the people who will not ‘get’ Watchmen and will complain that they cannot see what all the fuss is about. Incidentally, these are also the people who would never even consider reading the novel because they would rather watch Big Brother.

Admittedly, some people might just be confused. There is a lot of back story to Watchmen and there are a lot of characters, like all the great novels. To help newbies digest the film a bit easier, I have therefore been pitching the film’s plot like this:


Watchmen is set in an alternate 1985, where the Cold War still rages and Nixon has been re-elected for a third term. The world is dark and corrupt. In the 1940s, a bunch of people decided they would put on masks and fight crime to make the world a better place. This first generation of crime-fighters were called The Minutemen.

Over time, The Minutemen fell apart: some were murdered, some went mad, some went missing. A second generation of crime-fighters was therefore born: known in the film (but not the novel) as The Watchmen. The second generation are the main characters of the story.

A couple of years later, Nixon passes a law to make all masked crime-fighters illegal. Some retire and some go rogue & continue as vigilantes. There are only two exceptions. The first is Dr Manhattan: blue, God-like and the only one with actual superhero powers. He is American and therefore giving America the upper-hand in the Cold War. The second exception is The Comedian: he is a psychopath who works for the government, fighting guerrilla wars in smaller countries.

The film starts with the death of The Comedian, murdered by a mystery assailant. The rest of the crime-fighters try to work out who is behind the attack.


I think that pitch should be enough to get newcomers through the opening fifteen minutes. And by then, they should be hooked.

So regardless of whether you have or haven’t read the graphic novel, just go watch the Watchmen. You will not be disappointed.

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