To borrow a phrase from The Sunday Times’ review of The Lord of the Rings, the English-speaking world is divided into those who have read Alan Moore’s seminal comic, Watchmen, and those who look at you blankly when you mention it. Like Tolkien’s epic, it was considered unfilmable, and also attracted considerable speculation online, with the filmmakers going out of their way to placate anxious fans. And now it’s here. So is it any good?
Firstly, I’m not going to judge it in relation to the source; like any adaptation it must live or die in its new medium. (Though it is very faithful to the source; pleasing to some but not all.) Watchmen is set in an alternative 1985, where America won the Vietnam War and Nixon has essentially declared himself President for life. Superheroes are commonplace, and have been outlawed; America holds the balance of power in the form of the ultimate nuclear deterrent, Dr Manhattan (Crudup), a godlike being who can manipulate matter and sees past, present and future simultaneously. Rorschach (Haley), a masked vigilante, discovers what he believes to be a plot to assassinate the former ‘Watchmen’, and sets out to reconnect with his former crime fighting colleagues, many of whom are struggling to cope with normal civilian life, discovering a disturbing conspiracy along the way.
Without giving away too much of the plot here – either you know the story or you don’t – what is good about Watchmen includes: Casting. Pleasingly avoiding big stars and household names, director Zack (300) Snyder has peopled the film with character actors of the calibre of Crudup and Haley; the cast includes Little Children’s Patrick Wilson as Night Owl, Jeffrey Dean Morgan as The Comedian, and Matthew Goode as Ozymandius. The cast, with a couple of exceptions, fully inhabit their roles and seem to be having a blast. The set design is fantastic, and the script lifts whole chunks of Moore’s original, scabrous prose, as well as his left-wing, anti-nuclear bias; the energy sub-plot is surprisingly topical. The violence is not cartoon – the film has an 18 certificate – and there are several scenes which are uncomfortable to watch. This is not a kid’s film, that’s for sure. And the soundtrack is ace.
The point of Watchmen is that every character is compromised in some way; there is no black and white, all is grey; that’s why it broke the mould for comics and paved the way for The Dark Knight and all the rest. Maybe its pure cheese but this makes it difficult to know who to root for; you end up backing Rorschach, simply because he is the only character who has a moral centre, even though he is a sociopath. In the end, the whole experience is quite a cold one; I failed to really engage or sympathise with any of the characters, and the blame for this rests squarely on Malin Ackerman’s shoulders, as she was desperately lacking in charisma or conviction in her big speeches, coming across like a whiny schoolgirl. The running time also seemed excessive at nearly three hours, and some of the set ups could have been trimmed.
A film to admire then, rather than to love.
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