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Watchmen

Film Five Stars
The Watchmen has been described as the un-filmable graphic novel/comic book. It's been through a number of failed attempts with Terry Gilliam and Paul Greengrass coming ridiculously close to getting it made.

Now though comic fans are rejoicing because the man who brought 300 (Filmstalker review) so successfully to the big screen is the man who has finally done the unthinkable, filmed the Watchmen.

Watchmen_Poster.jpgThis immediately presents Zack Snyder with a big problem, he's up against comic book panels with the space between filled with imagination. How can you beat a person's own imagination? They are imagining the perfect moment for them, and since it's their imagination it's perfect.

Then there's the other dilemma, and this is something that is obvious in one scene in the film which I'll come to later, it's how to adapt the film.

There are really two broad ways that anything is adapted, or rather the approach is taken to the adaptation, within the film there are millions of options from scene to scene. Broadly speaking though you adapt being faithful to the original, or you interpret the story and make your own version. If I were a betting man the latter is what Terry Gilliam would have done, with Paul Greengrass probably doing closer to the original novel.

However Snyder has gone for the faithful adaptation and to the nth degree of detail. If there ever was an award for adaptations over all of time for any material, this is perhaps the one that would win outright. This could be deemed as the pinnacle, the benchmark of adapting a piece of work for the screen. Forget about what the source material was, this shows clearly the devotion and respect for the source material.

Now don't get me wrong and think that this means it's scene for scene, by and large it is, but the ending is not. Ah yes, that much disputed ending which I'll also talk about later, Snyder has had the guts to alter the ending from the graphic novel, and it carries the same feel and heart as the rest of the story. It's clear that he's paid the utmost respect to the characters and story when coming up with this ending. Whether he's succeeded or not you'll have to read on to find out.

So Snyder went down the complete adaptation route, yes he's changed some things, but the adaptation is literal and full of respect.

He could have gone the other route of course and decided to interpret the comic and create his own world. Updating it for a different time, adding in different events, changing characters and costumes to fit with our world a bit more, lot's and lot's of changes were possible in Hollywood, and he's made none of those. Yet he could have.

Imagine that situation, an interpreted adaptation of Watchmen by the scriptwriters and director, the fans would have been up in arms and shouting from day one.

Then imagine the difficulty he faces now, a literal adaptation trying to compete with the imagination of each reader projecting exactly the right images and ideas that the reader expects and wants to see.

He faced an impossible task, an almost no win situation. Twisting that Field of Dreams quote for a moment, people will hate it, oh yes Zack, people will.


Plot.pngHowever before I really do start delving into the film let's do a quick run down of the plot. In an alternative reality of Earth in 1985 the Government has cracked down on the work of costumed superheroes, once active throughout America they were normal men and women who took up their own call to arms to protect their neighbourhoods, cities and country. An Act of Government stops them from donning their costumes and going out in public.

However one costumed hero remains roaming the streets and protecting the city, his name is Rorschach, and when one of the most famous costumed heroes, once belonging to a group called Watchmen, is murdered he begins to believe that someone out there is trying to kill them all.

The Watchmen were a group of costumed heroes with no powers, apart from one who possesses an ultimate power. Yet under his nose someone is killing them and trying to hide a wide reaching and catastrophic conspiracy.


TheFilm.pngThe first thing that hits you about Watchmen is the similarity to the comic book. As the titles fade we're left with a screen of yellow from which the camera begins pulling back from to reveal a smiley face badge, on a dressing gown, worn by a man, watching television in his apartment. He relaxes surfs and watches a little television, and a shadow moving at the door catches his attention. Then the action begins.

These opening scenes look just like the comic book almost panel by panel and what's even better is that its not just individual moments or snapshots, the scene really does bring to life each panel and portrays it in moving images. I had feared that we would end up with glimpses of the comic book rather than complete scenes, fading in and out of the look and feel of the moment and the characters, but not so, and that’s clear from the opening moments.

We also get to see the excellent way that Zack Snyder captures fight sequences on screen. Like he did in 300 (Filmstalker review) the fighting is fluid and almost ballet-like. The characters take somewhat more punishment than the average human though, being pounded through a solid stone top and still managing to get up, but they are far from superheroes, the break, they bleed, they hurt, and they die.

The opening sequence before the titles is an excellent one to pull the comic book audience into the film as they can make the direct comparisons with the printed page, and the fresh audience see a stylised and exciting introduction filled with mystery.

It’s then the turn of the titles, and they had a job and a half to do. Snyder has chosen to use these moments to fill in the audience with the history of the Watchmen, leading us through their first incarnation and onto the second, as well as leading us through some important moments in this alternative world’s history.

This is one hell of a tall order, but it does it well and adds in some excellent stylised shots, as one of the first almost still shots shows. The action is slowed down to almost being frozen in time and adds a depth to it that almost looks three dimensional without all the paraphernalia.

It is a great title sequence and manages to give a huge amount of background to the story. If you're a Watchman reader this acts much like the clippings sections in the graphic novel, if you're new to the whole story then you should really pay careful attention during this section otherwise you might miss a moment or not make a connection later on. Not that missing the connections will spoil anything, just that they could well add extra depth to the characters and the story. For instance we hear later about one early costumed hero who was shot when his cape got stuck in a revolving door, and it's during this title sequence that we see the after effects of this event.

After the title sequence the story continues again, picking up from the unfortunate events of the opening and turning to Rorschach's voice over.

The film does feel as though it gives more depth and personality to the character of Rorschach than any others with Dr. Manhattan and Nite Owl being the characters who are given the next amount of development. It's obvious that in source material such as Watchmen, where so much back story and development is given to the characters and story, that something has to give before it makes it to the screen, even with such a long running time you can see that happening here, and the hardest hit it feels are the female characters and Ozymandias.

It is a shame, but at the same time I feel I have to give another warning, although these characters have been trimmed, and we're already hearing some complain about the female characters being reduced in impact and importance, it isn't a huge impact on the story and enjoyment.

Yes, some characters have been reduced in their back story, but it's not the big issue that they would have you believe. Again, considering the limitations of film compared to the drawn comics, pages of text, and imagination, this is perhaps the closest we could ever expect from a film version. I would also argue with those that are claiming the female superheroes are reduced to the standard female characters who are little more than sexual housewives or partners to superheroes. Looking at Silk Spectre and the involvement in some of the more action orientated scenes, indeed her instigation of these scenes and of Nite Owl's return to the public eye means she is much, much more than an ancillary, standard female character.

So with all that said, I don't really think that the story is compromised. Yes there are some cutbacks made, but they are in areas where cutbacks can be made, and when seen on screen I believe it works really well. However that acceptance of the trimming could be down to the fact that I've read the comic book a number of times and already know these characters and understand their back story – believe me I did try and view it from the point of view of knowing nothing about them.

However, I will stick by that statement, no real compromise in the story, but perhaps the new audience may find that a few of the characters appear flatter and less rich as they do in the comic. It would be interesting to hear from someone who watched the film and then read the story.

There are changes though, and many made for the better. These range from small moments to big moments such as the ending. One small example is when we see the assassination of John F. Kennedy to make way for Richard Nixon, and as the camera pulls back from the point of view of the grassy knoll we see something rather surprising. This type of moment is added completely in the same spirit as the original story, and it's done superbly, and the JFK moment in particular is inspired.

As for the bigger moments, well there's only really one that has been grabbing the headlines, and that's the ending. Now straight up I'm going to say something about it that fans of the Watchmen may upset them a little, I loved the ending and it felt much better than the one in the comic book.

I'm not going to go into great depth about it in the review because I don't want to spoil anything for the audience, but the ending felt more relevant, and skilfully tied in the characters more instead of heading out to something more ridiculous and fantastical which I'm sure Dr. Manhattan could have easily dealt with or explained once the commotion was passed.

Snyder has actually improved on the ending of the story with this new version, the comic book version just wouldn't have worked on screen, and wouldn't hold up to some logical scrutiny of the plot and of Manhattan.

There was one more issue I felt with the story and that was the pivotal moment where Dr. Manhattan discusses with Lori the importance of humanity. In the comic it felt like this moment had more of a punch than it did in the film, and that in itself highlights another hurdle that Watchmen the film faces from an audience who are so well read in the source material.

In a film that is so well adapted from the comic, almost perfectly I would say, there are no surprises to be had apart from any alterations on the way. The Watchmen comic fan may have re-read the comic a number of times and may be so familiar with the story that unless the story is changed radically they won't have any surprises on screen. The alternative was to have changed the story enough to deliver those surprises, but then they would be up in arms. Again an almost no win situation.

The actors chosen have done a great job in bringing their characters to life and giving them some heart, out of the ensemble cast it has to be said that Jackie Earle Haley is clearly the best actor in the piece, and I really mean that for his scenes outside the mask. Matthew Goode provides a calculating performance for Ozymandias and still inject a little wryness.

I had hoped for a little more from Malin Akerman and Patrick Wilson, especially as Nite Owl is one of my favourite characters in the film, and in the comic he really is a stronger centre point in the film. They are very good, but I just didn't get the strength of their struggles with themselves and their superhero characters. Of course this does come across in the film, but just not as strong as I felt it when I first read it.

Billy Crudup was, of course and through great help from the CGI, superb. However I think Jeffrey Dean Morgan just leapt up in my estimation with his performance as the Comedian, an excellent character and one you really do want to like. He does seem to inhabit that performance and I had begun the film thinking he was perhaps overplaying it and too young for the character. I was very wrong.

The visuals were superb throughout, from where the camera was placed and moved, and comic panel recreations to the cinematography and lighting to the CGI, and of course the Snyder signature use of slowing the speed down, particularly during the fight scenes. Everything about Watchmen looks realistic and tangible, everything makes the comic look like it has been made real and the action between the panels brought to life, and in the process cleaned and polished. There are very few moments that don't work.

Mainly this is down to the excellent use of production design which really brings you into the world of Watchmen, and also to the wonderful CGI during the more fantastical elements. Even Dr. Manhattan, whom I did expect to look rubbery and fake, felt ethereal and real in another world type of way, possibly down to that dynamic lighting suit that Crudup was wearing throughout.

Some scenes were particularly impressive for me, there was the first fight scene in the alley which, although influenced of 300's fighting style, worked superbly well in Watchmen and allowed the characters to show that they were a little more than just your average character.

Then there was the prison riot scene which was superbly put together using CGI and small practical sets. One of the moments during this section that did show off Snyder's cinematic eye was when Rorschach had recovered his mask and was looking for revenge from the criminal leader who had been after him. As he entered the toilets the door swung back and forth, opening a smaller and smaller distance with each swing, and revealing a little less of the image each time. That was a great shot and I loved the growing feeling of what was to come to the character each time the door swung open.

With the mix of CGI, production design and superb cinematography, the film made me believe in it all from street to character, without any great hurdle. It might be an overused cliché, but Snyder really does bring the comic to life.

He also brought the darker side of the story to the screen too, that hasn't been left behind in the comic in order to get a favourable rating. During some of the fight scenes there are some pretty graphic moments of breaking bones and crunching body parts shown in stylised but graphic ways, and this is something that continues through the film, probably seen best in the prison sequence with the metal cutters. I shall say no more.

However the darkest scenes are the ones that don't show the blood and gore. One is the brutal attack of the first Silk Spectre, that caused me to wince and squirm in my seat, and then the moment that Rorschach visits his past and recounts the story of discovering what has happened to the missing child. That was probably one of the darkest and hardest moments of the film, and it really affected the audience.

What also has to be mentioned is the soundtrack which is as iconic as the film itself and some of the images used – just wait for the moment of Ozymandias sitting in front of the television screens in his hideaway, that brought such a broad smile to my face as my eye caught some of the changing images – and the musical tracks chosen for the film often matched those used for quotes from the graphic novel itself, and some are entirely new.

We're treated to the iconic end sequence track of All Along the Watchtower by Jimi Hendrix, something that was more than expected, but then earlier in the film we hear 99 Red Balloons playing, a song that has some great lyrics and connotations but initially seemed a rather odd and brash choice.

These are some great moments and references to popular culture, of which there are a fair few and not just in the music choice but in images and historical references, some of which are very clever and may well give you a wry smile.

Snyder has tried to pack this film full of detail and references as the comic book itself has, and while it may take a few viewings to appreciate, it makes it all the more richer and unique for them.

After the film there were two comments I heard from fans that I really feel the need to pick up on.

The first was regarding the second sex scene we see between two of the lead characters. Taking place in the flying ship the couple make love in a scene that is surprisingly graphic, although not for the Watchmen story. Over the background of the slow sounds of Hallelujah we see the two characters make love, their passion reignited by finding their heroic side once again, and just at the critical moment the music and singer hit the crescendo lines while one of the characters hits a control panel button and flames shoot from the front of the ship. Symbolic, obviously. Comic, definitely.

It's a very funny moment, and one which was filmed very flatteringly and surprisingly realistically, and with the music and the flame thrower moment it is definitely corny, perhaps almost too much. Outside the film the fans complained. Wait a moment though, that scene is in the original comic, was that too corny too?

The other comment I heard was that the film was too much like the comic, that goes back to my previous point of how Snyder was on a no win situation for some hardened fans – either he changed too much or he was too faithful. The question really is what did they want? What could possibly have appeased them? If the direct adaptation wasn't right, would they have preferred a complete reinvention?


Overall.pngPutting aside the opinions of those who could just never be happy about Watchmen being adapted, this is perhaps the best adaptation of a comic that we've ever witnessed, bringing the comic to life on the big screen. Not reinventing or reimaging the story and altering it for the new medium, but capturing the spirit and the story and making those panels come to life before our eyes, capturing what our imagination filled in between them.

What's more is that Zack Snyder has updated the more fantastical and plot holed ending from the comic and given us a much more relevant one, and one that pulls the characters closer together than they were at the end of the original.

He's captured the spirit and the heart of the story and made it real, given it life, and as much as some will complain, this is the best Watchmen film that anyone could ever hope for. In fact it's better than that, it's the best Watchmen film we could ever have, and one that improves on the comic.

Watchmen is a fantastic film, perhaps made better if you've read the comic book beforehand and become a fan, perhaps made worse, it depends what type of person you are and how you view cinema. However if you can walk into that room with expectations and baggage set to the side, you may just marvel at the wonder that Zack Snyder has created. He has created the Watchmen on screen and in some places made it even better.

Buy or rent on DVD or Blu-ray from LOVEFiLM
Buy the graphic novel, DVD or Blu-ray from Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com
UK IMDB Film Details





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Comments

Excellent in depth review... for an excellent film.
Am so glad they didn't cock this up!!
cheers
Matt

Thanks Matt, really appreciate that.

I'm also glad you liked it, there's a lot of knee-jerk dislike to the film.

I really liked it, and I'm a huge fan of the graphic novel. My wife absolutely hated it, and she's never read it. I rather suspect this may be a common theme, and I think it'll do well to keep up it's numbers after the opening weekend :(

It's funny, I'm mostly hearing that people either love it or hate it, there aren't that many in between comments.

Good lord it's hard to write about this film and be brief isn't it? I've just written up my thoughts and hit 2500 words!

Good review, even if I don't agree with the verdict! You're right, this seems to be one of those Marmite style love it or hate it movies.

Wonderful film, just wonderful.

I think Snyder himself proved that it's difficult to be brief about the film!

It is turning out to polarise views for everyone and it is a love it or hate it, although I do think that the "hates" are often down to the issue I bring up about nothing being able to meet the personal imagination between panels. Must read your review Dan to see.

Hey Mark, did you read the comic book before hand?

Yup. Read it when it first came out. The Watchmen movie thrilled me in exactly the same way as the Hitch-Hikers movie didn't.

Excellent review, Richard. I am in near full agreement with your assesment. Snyder did have a no win situation on his hands, but I am glad he went the faithful route and treated the comic with respect. I've seen the film twice and I can feel the love put into the making of the film.

Much like after I read the comic I have thought on the movie over the following days. I've dicussed it online, with friends and today in the market with my cashier. The two times I went to the theater my companions were vaguely familiar with the story, they were my brother and my daughter. My brother really enjoyed the movie and felt sucked in the entire time. My daughter appreciated the movie, enjoyed the action and film, but felt it was a little long. I know part of reason is she is astill young, so some of it was over her head, especially for a one time viewing. I know in the next couple of years she will find a new appreciation for the film.

Must read your review Dan to see.
Posted by: Richard Brunton

I posted it last night. I've attempted to be rational about the whole thing. See what you think: http://www.istherefood.com/2009/03/12/thoughts-on-watchmen/

Meli, many thanks for those comments, much appreciated. Do you think that if he had gone the non-faithful route there would be many, many more people upset with the film?

I'm amazed that your daughter did manage to sit through it all, wait until she's taken to the director's cut!

Dan - I'll take a look at that tomorrow. Cheers for posting it.

A really good detailed review Richard.

Whilst I do agree with you generally about the changed ending, I do still feel that a few important details were missing that meant that it lacked the impact of the original ending.

I've posted my own (much smaller) review on my own blog which covers this and other issues if you're interested.

I kept thinking that the guy who played the Comedian was Javier Bardem (I found out later that it's actually Jeffrey Dean Morgan), but the two actors definitely look alike

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