Sunday, May 16, 2010

Movie: Watchmen

I was pretty late to the party on this story. When the film came out, it was the first I had ever heard of Watchmen, so I ignored it since I didn't know the background. Then, one day, I needed something to read and while at Fry's, saw the graphic novel for $15. I devoured that, because the story was gripping and the characters were wonderful. Thus, it was time for me to view Zack Snyder's vision of the novel, and I am happy to report that it was done well.

For the uninitiated, Watchmen takes place in an alternate America, where we won Vietnam, Nixon was re-elected (twice!), and vigilante costumed heroes roam the night, but Russia is still a Cold War threat. The threat of nuclear holocaust is more real than ever, and the populace lives in various stages of fear and paranoia. The story revolves around not just the state of the world, but a few of its inhabitants, those who would see justice done to criminals no matter what - the Watchmen. Possessing no super powers, but highly trained and resourceful, they broke rules police had to abide by, until the government shut them down in the late 70s. Now a few still work in the shadows, but even they are not prepared to put a stop to the end of the world.

The plot involves Rorschach's dogged investigation into the death of another former(current?) hero, The Comedian. The murder is dismissed by the police, who know nothing of his "heroic" exploits, but the vigilante with ink spots on his face is not so quick to judge it a simple home invasion. His investigation eventually forces him to cross paths with his old partner, Nite Owl II, as well as Silk Spectre II, Dr. Manhattan, and Ozymandias, as he believes someone may be killing off "masked heroes". This is, as mentioned, set against a world where it seems nuclear weapons may be launched at any time, and indeed our government is preparing for exactly that possibility. There exists a strong undercurrent of distrust and isolation throughout.

The first thing that inevitably comes to mind when a book is made into a movie is, "Does it do the original material justice?" This is one of the major triumphs of the movie, I think. I do not believe that one can come away from watching it in any way upset that it was butchered or done a grave disservice. Equally important is that it has to stand on its own as a film as well as an adaptation, as not everyone who would see this movie know the story already. To that end, it may falter a little in some of the more esoteric points, but not enough to be confusing.

Watchmen the film is primarily about the characters, and secondarily about the world they inhabit. This is a good thing, because these are solid characters, and they are brought to life incredibly well. Patrick Wilson bored me in Little Children, but here he seems to capture the persona of Dan Dreiberg aka Nite Owl faithfully. Dreiberg is out of place as an everyday citizen; when he dons his costume and takes to the streets, he is in his element. He can contribute something. This seems to be the case for most of the heroes, especially Rorschach. I think this had to be one of the most difficult characters to adapt, but it works. Interestingly, the actor who plays him, Jackie Earle Haley, was also in Little Children as a child molester. The shift here from one to the other is remarkable. In the book, Rorschach has signature moments, and important lines, and these are all captured faithfully. I knew what was going to happen, but Haley's performance affected me all the same.

Obviously, a few words must be said about Billy Crudup's naked blue man, Jon Osterman aka Dr. Manhattan. I generally find Crudup to be a more interesting actor when he has a range of emotions to exhibit, but here he is forced to be all but emotionless in keeping with the character. He does a pretty good job of it, but while in the comic I believed that Dr. Manhattan had almost no regard for human life, in the film he is a little bit less stoic about it. He just seems easier to convince, I suppose. Matthew Goode's Ozymandias is the only casting choice I question. I was not familiar with him as an actor, and while I think his dialogue delivery is excellent, the look is just not what I expected of this character. The lithe swimmer look seems to work well in the fight scenes, but at other times he doesn't seem all that intimidating.

I'm not an expert on the source material, but it seemed to be a pretty faithful adaptation with the exception of the end. To be honest, I never really thought the comic ending was that good - luckily, the movie retains the overarching plot point while managing to make a more believable scenario out of it. One thing I didn't understand was why Rorschach's mask constantly shifted from one ink blot to another - a nifty trick, but how exactly did that work? Did he have a magic piece of cloth in the movie?

I was satisfied enough with the movie that I went out and bought it a couple days later on sale, because I'd like to watch it again. Lately, that seems high praise from me.

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