Thursday, 19 March 2009
Posted by Dave
I have to confess that I'm not a lifelong Watchmen fan. My comics tastes always veered more towards the big-titted, latex-clad hyperbole of mainstream Marvel or DC. Watchmen and its ilk always seemed a bit... intense. Nevertheless, when the hype machine cranked up in anticipation of the film adaptation a few months ago I dutifully picked up a copy of the graphic novel and dived in. I was, predictably, blown away. There's little wonder that Watchmen is often held up as an example of high art, a pinnacle of graphic storytelling and is even included in Time's Top 100 Books list.
So it was with some trepidation that I approached the film.
Watchmen is a strange story, very much a product of its time. Set in the mid-80s, at the height of the cold war in the middle of a nuclear stand-off between the US and Russia, it tells the tale of a world where costumed superheroes are common-place. The genius of it is that the heroes (the Watchmen of the title) have no powers, they're simply masked vigilantes and villains. All except Dr. Manhattan, a physicist-turned-blue-demigod. Manhattan's limitless control over energy and matter acts as a deterrent, keeping the Soviet union in check.
The presence of Dr. Manhattan has changed the world in many respects - his involvement in Vietnam led to the Vietnamese surrender within days, and his knowledge of materials and energy have given the world new technologies. Meanwhile, world opinion has turned on the costumed heroes and, through an act of government, sent most of them into hiding. Only Rorschach, the iconic black and white masked vigilante, and Comedian, the morally questionable government operative, remain active. Like the book, the film opens with the death of the Comedian...
The first thing to applaud the film for is how it has resisted the temptation to update the setting. I expect a number of Hollywood whoremasters would have pressed very hard to replace Cold War with "War On Terror" and move it forward to the far more aesthetically pleasing 21st century. Kudos then to Zack Snyder for sticking to his guns and insisting on remaining faithful to the source. In fact, Snyder's direction rarely deviates from the storyboard of the original. Many scenes are word-for-word dialogue copies of the comics, with many scenes even shot from the same angle. It's clear that Snyder is a massive fan of the original (similar to his adaptation of Frank Miller's 300).
His slavish devotion to the source is also evident in his casting of the main characters. There isn't a single big name actor in the whole film, nobody you'd recognise, and this has left Snyder free to find perfect matches for each part. I defy anyone to question the casting of Rorschach, an actor seemingly born to play one role only - Walter Kovacs. Similarly, The Comedian, Night Owl and Silk Spectre are very well cast and the combination of actor and CGI make Dr. Manhattan just the right combination of the human and the miraculous.
Aesthetically, the film is a masterpiece - every scene drips with details from the comic book - the newspaper vendor and Black Freighter comic book reader (an excised subplot) appear in one or two panning shots, Snyder reminding the audience that they are there, if not fully realised; the Rorschach interview scene (an entire issue in the original) remains intact and complete and magnificent and Snyder somehow manages to make unpowered, costumed vigilantes seem believable and not ridiculous (more a testament to the original, where the actual costumed parts are sparingly used).
Okay, so some parts of the story have been cut, necessary to retain at least a semblance of brevity: a large part of the Holis Mason subplot is left out (which has impacts on the development of the Night Owl character), the aforementioned Black Freighter doesn't even get a mention, save for brief glances of the comic reader, and the ending deviates massively (in detail if not in spirit) from the original. That said, I think I actually preferred the ending of the film to the ending of the book - it seemed somehow less random, more tightly plotted. I think the giant squid of the original would have simply confused and lengthened the film.
And at 2:45, the film is already long enough for the average movie-goer. But for someone with an interest in the original, 2:45 seemed almost too short. With every scene packing in as much visual detail as reasonably possible, I felt that it could have gone on for another hour and I still would have felt it too short.
Sure, there were flaws - some characters suffered from the removed or shortened storylines - the Silk Spectre/Comedian plot seemed rushed, almost forgotten. And what was happening with Nixon's nose? Overall though, I don't think you could reasonably expect to see a better adaptation of Watchmen. Hopefully a director's cut will see some elements restored, but even without them what is left is a faithful, loving and visually staggering rendition of a classic.