Friday, March 6, 2009

Watchmen (***1/2)

Directed by Zack Snyder


I believe what we have in Watchmen is the first "superhero film" that truly transcends the genre. At one time a fascinating visual experience, and at other times a mind-bending metaphor for the self-destructive gene of human nature, it holds much more "story" than your average Hollywood action film, yet never extends its reach so far as to seem standoffish. If this is the only good film Zack Snyder ever directs, than its not a bad one to top out on.

Based on what many consider to be the greatest graphic novel of all time--written by Alan Moore--the depths of Watchmen seems almost untranslatable to cinema, but this film certainly takes a good shot at it. The story takes place in 1985, Richard Nixon is still the president, and the world is seemingly days away from nuclear Holocaust. Former superheros such as The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino) are now aging sideshows, barred by Nixon's law which prohibits crime fighters in the country.

When The Comedian is brutally murdered and thrown out of his two-hundred story apartment window, another former hero named Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) starts to think something is up. He informs his crime-fighting friends, including Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman) and Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), about his suspicions, but there doesn't seem to be much merit to it. Rorschach also approaches the mercurial Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), a large, glowing blue specie that lives outside of space and time. Manhattan can see the future, but now his vision is blocked--perhaps the nuclear Holocaust will be sooner than perceived.

As more and more begin to pass on, Rorschach, Nite Owl, and Silk Spectre II decide that it will help the safety of humanity if they strapped on their outfits once again in order to find out who's gunning down masked men. Not to make the film sound one-dimensional: there are numerous subplots, including the generational connections between the older heroes and the younger ones; there is the romantic relationship Silk Spectre II has with Dr. Manhattan; and also a mysterious connection dealing with another former hero, now famed scientist, Ozymandias (Matthew Goode).

Only a story with this many roots can make its 163 minute running time seem breezy. Director Zack Snyder comes a long way from his previous film 300, which was not only melodramatically shallow, but embarrassingly homoerotic. In this film, Snyder does a knockout job of creating the fantabulous world. It is almost brilliant how this film balances the wondrous details of the story's breathtaking society, but is still able to document the nostalgia of the period (yeah, movies that take place in the 80's are now considered period pieces).

The most impressive aspect I found within Watchmen was its seamless connection of numerous narratives. Every character gets his or her due, his or her moment of the spotlight, and because of that, it can afford to be ambitious in its storytelling technique, unlike most other comic book films. It can afford it because the film puts a whole lot more stock in its characters than it does in its action sequences. Themes including the darkness of humanity, the danger of romantic love, and the greed of the superego all make there ways in and out of the film, in perfect transition.

What has made comic book films so much more entertaining as of late is the attention paid toward acting. Films like Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight displayed that there can be deep, sometimes Oscar-winning performances within a film about superheros. Watchmen is no exception, capitalizing off a stellar cast which fits each distinct character like a glove. Jackie Earle Haley's grumbling Rorscach is film's main voice, and what a haunting voice it is; Malin Akerman has a true star turn in this film, expressing the emotion of Silk Spectre II so transparently--truly the best female performance in the comic book genre; and probably most impressive is Billy Crudup's collected Dr. Manhattan, who expresses a whole lot more in his expressionless gaze than most can (*cough* Benjamin Button *cough*).

Watchmen is not a perfect film; I could have done without the obvious, self-aware soundtrack choices, and a good twenty minutes could have been shaved off just by cutting out the stop-motion action sequences alone. I still don't know if Zack Snyder was the best choice in an adaptation this faithful to the literary source, but what he has crafted is a truly remarkable film, evoking emotions more organically than most Hollywood action fare.

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