Watchmen – A graphic novel once labeled “unfilmable” finally arrives on the big screen. The result is breathtakingly good. It’s not quite another Dark Knight, but it’s easily one of the best films ever produced in the superhero genre.
In 1986-87, DC Comics published a twelve-issue comic book series called Watchmen, written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons. Later collected as a graphic novel, this series was a revolutionary and sophisticated take on superheroes with a heavy dose of social commentary. It also became the only graphic novel to be included on TIME Magazine’s 2005 list of “the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present.” After several attempts to adapt it into a film by directors including Terry Gilliam (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream), and Paul Greengrass (Bloody Sunday) all collapsed, it looked like it would never get produced. It was worth the wait.
After a retired superhero known as the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is murdered, the vigilante Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) believes that there’s a conspiracy to eliminate costumed heroes, and soon the other retired Watchmen–Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman), Doctor Manhattan (Billy Crudup), and Ozymandias (Matthew Goode)–become involved as events begin to spiral out of control, threatening the entire planet.
Director Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead, 300) proves his critics wrong, myself included, by successfully translating difficult source material into such a strong film. He’s always been a talented visual stylist, so it’s no surprise that by using Dave Gibbons’ art as a blueprint, Snyder has quite literally and vividly brought the world of Watchmen to life, allowing fans of the graphic novel to feel like they’ve stepped inside them. He transforms each action scene into a slow motion ballet of carnage, and the opening credits montage that reveals the backstory is brilliantly executed. What’s surprising, at least to me, is that after 300‘s cardboard story and woeful acting, Snyder manages to tell a compelling story with good performances. Perhaps it’s simply a case of rising to the level of the material he’s working with.
The screenplay by David Hayter (X-Men, X2: X-Men United) and Alex Tse (Sucker Free City), with uncredited revisions by the team of Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman (Transformers, Star Trek), is largely faithful to the source material except for certain events at the end, but it’s really only the method by which those events occur that has been changed rather than the events and their repercussions. The story that unfolds on the screen isn’t as deep as in the graphic novel, but the social commentary in Alan Moore’s works have always fared better on the printed page (see the film adaptation of V for Vendetta as another example). Still, the screenwriters deserve much credit for distilling such a complex tale into a two hour and forty-two minute film without losing the essence of the story or its characters, allowing it to be enjoyed by both fans of the graphic novel and a mainstream film audience. A three hour and ten minute director’s cut will eventually be released on DVD.
The contributions of cinematographer Larry Fong (Lost, 300), production designer Alex McDowell (The Crow, Fight Club), and costumer designer Michael Wilkinson (Babel, 300) are very important to realizing the story’s world on the screen. Fong’s bold use of color and lighting achieves the dramatic effect required, McDowell’s sets convey a sense of the real world with a twist in some scenes and a sense of the fantastic in others, and Wilkinson’s costumes, designed with an assist by comic book artists Adam Hughes and John Cassaday, look quite convincing on the screen. The sweeping score by Tyler Bates (The Devil’s Rejects, 300) captures the changing moods of the story, punctuated by several perfect songs (some of which were actually referenced in the graphic novel). The visual effects are outstanding, but rarely drown out the human aspects of the story.
Former child actor Haley (The Bad News Bears) dominates the film with his visceral and frightening performance as Rorschach. Crudup is chillingly aloof as Doctor Manhattan, a man transformed into a cosmic being and who seems to have lost his humanity, conveying so much through body language and subtle facial expressions. Wilson is a very believable Nite Owl, while former model Akerman is respectably solid as Silk Spectre. The Comedian is a nasty piece of work who, like many such people, is also superficially charming, and Morgan captures that perfectly. Although Goode isn’t a match for how Ozymandias was portrayed in the comics, he’s well-suited to the role of an arrogant genius for whom the ends justify the means.
The rest of the cast is solid, including Carla Gugino as the original Silk Spectre, Matt Frewer as retired villain Moloch, Stephen McHattie as the retired original Nite Owl, Robert Wisden as President Nixon, Frank Novak as Henry Kissinger, Danny Woodburn as Big Figure, and Eli Snyder (the director’s son) as a young Rorschach.
Watchmen the film lacks some of the complexity of Watchmen the graphic novel, but I suspect the former comes as close as possible to realizing the latter on screen as one could hope for. As a film, it’s excellent, offering a compelling story, quality acting, incredible visuals, and a visceral experience. Highly recommended. I watched it on an IMAX screen. If you have an opportunity to see it in IMAX, I recommend it.
Note to parents: yes, I know it’s based on a comic book and has costumed heroes, but Watchmen has an R rating for a very good reason. The film has graphic violence, profanity, nudity, extended sex scenes, and a violent attempted rape. Be aware of this before deciding to take your children to see it.
[4.5 stars out of 5]
– Danielle Ni Dhighe