Review by Gordon Justesen
Akerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Carla Gugino, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey
Dean Morgan, Patrick Wilson
Director: Zack Snyder
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.40:1
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: See Review
Length: 186 Minutes
Release Date: July 21, 2009
“What the hell happened to us? What happened to the American Dream?”
“What happened to the American Dream? It came true! You’re lookin’ at it!”
I can’t think of a single movie that simultaneously stirred up anticipation and anger the way Watchmen did ever since it was announced that it was officially going into production. It had been 23 years since Alan Moore’s graphic novel was first released, and the film adaptation had been lingering in development hell for the longest time. The fan base for the graphic novel was so heavily devoted that there was no question going to be two sets of people; those who wanted to see it translated to the big screen and those who felt that Moore’s vision was absolutely unfilmable.
But director Zack Snyder rose to the challenge of making the movie many felt couldn’t be made, and thus Watchmen had finally been brought to the screen. Being a devoted fan of the graphic novel, one of the richest pieces of literature ever written, I was praying that Snyder would honor the source material as best as he could in translating it to the screen.
Did he pull it off? You better believe it! In fact, it’s mind blowing to take into account what all Snyder managed to accomplish with the movie.
I can tell you that as long as I’ve lived, I’ve never seen a more faithful film adaptation of not just a comic book/graphic novel, but of any written source in general. Even more so than Sin City or Snyder’s own 300, which were storyboarded directly from the page, Snyder has evoked the complex narrative structure of Moore’s novel to sheer perfection. While it remains true that it’s not always a good idea to be thoroughly faithful to a source, since what works in a book won’t always work in a film, the only way this was going to work as a movie was to be thoroughly faithful.
The other feat Snyder managed to accomplish was a most unexpected one. The Dark Knight set the standard for all future comic book movies to live up to, and I didn’t think we would see one to match it for a very long time. Turns out I was wrong, as Snyder’s film is absolutely equal in so many ways to Christopher Nolan’s vision of Batman.
The story is set in an alternate world in the year 1985, where in which the U.S. is on the brink of a possible nuclear battle with Russia and Nixon, if you can believe this, has been elected to office for a third term. What sets everything into motion is a knockout opening scene where in which retired superhero Eddie Blake aka The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is brutally murdered by a mysterious intruder. It’s truly one of the most intense openings I’ve seen in any film; as Snyder doesn’t hold back an inch on the blood and overall brutality.
This sudden attack brings all the remaining members of the once celebrated group of heroes, known as The Minute Men, out of hiding. Their history of crime fighting, captured brilliantly in an opening title sequence backed up by Bob Dylan’s classic song “The Times They Are A-Changin”, spread through two generations until superheroes were outlawed by the government in 1977. The Comedian was the only one to take part in both generations, making his killing even more peculiar.
Among the remaining Minute Men in existence, the one most determined to uncover the murder plot is Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), a most dangerous masked figure who is the one to contact his former hero cohorts in the wake of The Comedian’s demise. He firmly believes that an attack on one is an attack all of them. There's also the possibility that the murder may somehow be connected to the impending nuclear attack.
We are soon introduced to the other key characters in the story as Rorschach reunites with them individually to warn them of what he suspects. Among them is Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson), whose years away from crime fighting have resulted in a not so heroic physique. Dreiberg passes the news along to Adrian Veidt/Ozymandius (Matthew Goode), who has since capitalized on his former profession and become a most wealthy businessman.
Rorschach then looks up the last two remaining heroes in hiding. Jon Osterman/Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) is a larger-than-life figure and nuclear deterrent that can manipulate all kinds of matter, and whose powers helped to put a swift end to the Vietnam War. He now resides in a military lab, working alongside his lover, Laurie Jupiter/Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman), who has simply been trying to escape her superhero past as it has mirrored a little too close to the legacy of her estranged mother (Carla Gugino), a first generation superhero who had a complicated history with The Comedian.
In fact, we learn a great bit about The Comedian in a series of flashbacks, which accompany the first 45 minutes of the movie and are brilliantly recreated straight from the pages of the novel. During The Comedian’s funeral, we see individual recollections from Dr. Manhattan, Nite Owl and Ozymandius. After seeing these three incidents, what becomes clear is that as the years progressed, so did The Comedian’s insanity.
Two additional story developments are also standout segments of the movie, as they were in the book, and actually end up driving the heart of the story; the resurfacing of the Watchmen. Not only do they serve as huge story turns, but they also provide two amazing origin stories that both play out like their own short film. Again, most movies wouldn’t be able to pull something like this off, but without these segments you lose the true heart of Watchmen.
The first one deals with Dr. Manhattan who, following a tragic discovery during a live television interview, exiles himself to Mars as he is unable to cope with the pain he feels he’s brought to those close to him. We are then given a jaw-dropping and rivetingly crafted flashback sequence that details how Jon Osterman went from normal human scientist to the God-like figure he is now. Snyder’s effective use of a brilliant score from Philip Glass plays a big role in making this segment all the more memorable.
The second one focuses on Rorschach, who lands in prison after being spotted by police at a murder scene. As he is evaluated by a psychologist, we pay witness to the exact moment when a man known as Walter Kovacs became his crime-fighting alter ego. And believe me when I say that this particular origin tale is incredibly chilling, as Rorschach delivers a bloody bit of justice in a way that would even make Heath Ledger’s Joker cringe.
Without giving any more story details away, I should comment on the one big distinctive element between the film and the graphic novel; the ending. Overall, it’s not so much what happens in the end that has been altered, but rather HOW it happens. And I have to say, again as a devoted fan of the graphic novel, I actually prefer the new ending over the one in the book.
What it boils down to is this; if Snyder had stuck to the ending as it was originally written, the result would’ve looked incredibly ridiculous on film. And to me, the major change that was made for the ending simply makes more sense to me. Hardcore fans of the novel will no doubt disagree with me on this matter, but that’s how I feel and I think that Snyder, as faithful as he was to the book in general, should be applauded and not ridiculed for his decision to go with this ending.
And you’ve got to give Snyder credit, because he was in perhaps the toughest position any filmmaker has been in. No matter what type of approach he brought to his film adaptation, he was going to end up taking heat in one of two ways. If he chose not to remain faithful to the graphic novel, devoted fans would indeed slam him for that, and yet if he remained completely faithful, he would get criticized by a whole other set of people.
So for Snyder, who clearly is a fan of the graphic novel, to remain faithful to the source material represents one of the boldest steps any filmmaker has taken. It carries with it a type of narrative structure that completely challenges cinematic storytelling. And as a devoted fan of the graphic novel, I can officially state that Snyder has made the absolute best film interpretation of Watchmen that could ever exist, which wouldn’t be the case had another director been in control.
The cast is also to be applauded immensely. In particular, I think Jackie Earle Haley and Billy Crudup deliver two of the greatest performances to be seen in ANY comic book oriented movie. Though his face is hidden underneath a mask of cloth for about 85 percent of the film, Haley disappears completely into the role of Rorschach and brings a brilliant sense of menace. And Crudup brings an phenomenal level of humanity to a character that is basically one big visual effect, a feat not seen since the likes of Gollum in Lord of the Rings and Sonny in I, Robot. In my honest opinion, Haley and Crudup both deliver Oscar worthy work here.
There is no denying it, dear readers. Watchmen is one of the greatest accomplishments to ever grace the comic book movie genre. Zack Snyder honors the vision and spirit of Alan Moore’s groundbreaking graphic novel in his film’s every frame. For my money, this film and The Dark Knight are achievements that are officially the standards for all future comic book-inspired films to live up to, and in all honesty can never be surpassed.
Zack Snyder’s envisioning of the legendary graphic novel is made even more spectacular through this amazing video presentation from Warner. The anamorphic picture is stunning in how it enhances both the lively color and dark atmosphere of this story. Color is a big factor in this film, as are the phenomenal visual effects. Both elements look nothing short of outstanding. Every bit of scenery in this comic book environment is given tremendous detail, resulting in what is easily the best DVD video presentation of the year, thus far.
But the wow factor is in the audio department. When I saw the film in theaters, I found it to be one of the most flooring sound experiences I’ve ever had in a multiplex. I knew right away it was going to make for a knockout sounding DVD, which it most certainly is. Every possible sound element is given the best treatment possible. The epic soundtrack lineup, in addition to the pulse pounding score from Tyler Bates (who also scored 300), thoroughly rock the sound system to no end. The many action sequences also jolt up channels, as does the overall sound design of the movie, which will simply knock your socks off. In short, a surefire candidate for the best sound presentation of 2009!
For this 2-Disc Director’s Cut release, we are supplied with a most awesome lenticular slipcover (one of the best I’ve ever seen, to be totally honest). The Director’s Cut includes about 25 minutes of new material. As for the extras, which are all on Disc Two, they include a featurette titled “The Phenomenon: The Comic That Changed Comics”, which takes a look at the groundbreaking graphic novel and its impact on our culture. Also included are 11 short Watchmen Video Journals, which cover a number of specific character details and specific sequences, and a music video for “Desolation Row” by My Chemical Romance.
In my mind, readers and devotees of the graphic novel masterpiece have a reason to celebrate. Zack Snyder’s cinematic interpretation of Watchmen is a massive achievement on so many levels, and those who haven’t yet read the book but are open to a much different take on the traditional superhero story should indeed give it a chance. Needless to say, it’s already riding high on my list of the best films of 2009!