Saturday, August 15, 2009

Home Video: Watchmen

Directed by Zack Snyder
Released March 6, 2009

The combination of an alternate reality and superheroes sounds like a fascinating idea, but there are many ways it can go wrong. The new universe can be too far-fetched, the superheroes can be unoriginal, and the villains and conflict can be entirely unexciting. When the film is a highly anticipated adaptation of a popular graphic novel, there’s even more at risk. Incredibly, “Watchmen” manages to excel in all areas and present a fantastically compelling story with vivid imagery and sterling characters.

“Watchmen” isn’t a typical superhero story, and its gritty setup is far more reminiscent of “V for Vendetta” than the brightly-colored adventures of a friendly neighborhood spider in “Spider-Man.” The characters aren’t wholly heroic, and many even resort to physical and sexual violence without giving much thought to how it will impact the public’s perception of them. And that’s the key to “Watchmen” – society doesn’t fully embrace the Watchmen, but they’re nonetheless determined to better the world, even if that doesn’t initially appear to be the case.

In a stunningly impressive montage that begins after the opening catalyst scene, the history of the Watchmen is recounted to the tune of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changing.” The opening credits sequence is a masterfully powerful introduction to a society where superheroes emerged in 1940 and were seen as emblems of patriotism. The group is very much akin to the spirit of Captain America, but it’s clear from the brief moments shown that not all of the heroes were destined for glory, and that the Watchmen program was gradually dismantled as its members were institutionalized or killed. That beginning parade of clips is so crucial to setting up the tone of “Watchmen,” and it does a marvelous job.

“Watchmen” has all the ingredients of a great film, and it mixes together all its elements in a wonderfully effective manner. There’s spooky voiceover narration, exciting action scenes, explicit realizations of unexpressed passion, and a level of violence that’s hard to match (except perhaps in Snyder’s previous film, the preposterously gory “300”). “Watchmen” is a dark tale of heroes far more conflicted than the Dark Knight, and an extensive focus on the characters’ histories and motivations doesn’t detract from the film being a thrilling action vehicle.

I haven’t read the “Watchmen” comic, but I was simply amazed by the visual proficiency of the film. The superheroes and their world are brought to life in a dazzling three-dimensional way, yet the haunted grayscale backdrop of the alternate 1985 remains intact. The bug-eyed space pod the superheroes travel in has a perfect retro feel to it, and all of the costumes hark back to the original outfits donned by pop culture icons like Superman and the X-Men. But the great thing about the Watchmen is that they don’t stand by and make sure civilians don’t get hurt. They’re not above charging down a hallway headfirst and letting heads roll, all in the service of, well, being heroic.

The special effects are simply magnificent, and I’m particularly awed by the depiction of the blue superhero Dr. Manhattan, and his expedition to the incredible vastness that’s supposed to represent Mars. It’s a tremendously well-filmed movie that draws out the starkest and most expressive qualities in each of its shots, and it’s impossible to look away from the screen. That dedication to powerful, intoxicating scenes also involves a refusal to cut away when most other films might, choosing to show a butcher knife slicing through someone’s head and the devastation it wreaks upon the previously peaceful murderer instead of cutting to his hardened face twenty years later.

“Watchmen” is extraordinarily well-cast, pairing actors who play off each other perfectly. Billy Crudup brings a shocking sedated and quiet tone to the omnipotent Dr. Manhattan (his delivery of the line “I wasn’t told” is particularly stellar). Jackie Earle Haley is unbelievably creepy in the role of mad hatter Rorschach, and the sight of him and his cold eyes is even more haunting than when the character wears his blotted mask. Matthew Goode captures the true image of a hero catapulted to elitism by his celebrity. Patrick Wilson channels the geek in him to portray the “Watchmen” version of Cyclops – a do-gooder who seems like he’s entirely impotent but ultimately comes through. Jeffrey Dean Morgan ditches his nice-guy-dying typecasting to portray a decidedly not nice guy. And (relatively) fresh face Malin Akerman brngs a certain optimistic ingénue quality to her leading female role. It’s an extremely strong cast with no weak links.

The final element of “Watchmen” that really sows it up as a fantastic film is its soundtrack. Classic songs like “Unforgettable” by Nat King Cole, “The Sounds of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel, and “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen all contribute to the very definitive feel of this film, and that introductory sequence accompanied by “The Times They Are A-Changing” completely got me into the mood of the film. The most impressive music selection, however, comes courtesy of Philip Glass’ score for the dialogue-free film "Koyaanisqatsi", and is hauntingly paired with images of Dr. Manhattan’s disassociation from humankind. It’s simply brilliant and highly intoxicating. This superhero film, which wasn’t terribly well-received by critics, is far better than it ever needed to be and it’s a fully terrific experience.


1 comment:

G1000 said...

Read the graphic novel. It's fantastic (I haven't seen the film).