07 March 2009

Film: "Watchmen"

Watchmen
Directed by Zack Snyder
Screenplay by David Hayter & Alex Tse
Based upon the Graphic Novel Co-Created by Dave Gibbons and Published by DC Comics
Starring: Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Carla Gugino, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Patrick Wilson
Date of Screening: 6 March 2009
MPAA Rating: R (For Strong Graphic Violence, Sexuality, Nudity and Language)

Watchmen's reputation for being critically acclaimed has been rivaled only by its reputation as being unfilmable for 23 years.  Zack Snyder, with his panel-for-panel adaptation of Frank Miller's 300 under his belt, has attempted to bring the same faithfulness and attention to detail to Alan Moore's masterpiece.  The early knocks on the film version are that Snyder has slavishly sacrificed any originality of his own in favor of putting on the screen what Moore and Dave Gibbons put on page.

I had never read Watchmen, despite knowing my geek status would be incomplete until I did.  A friend lent me his copy of the trade paperback collection (what today's marketers call a graphic novel) of the original twelve issues and I finished reading it about forty minutes before showtime.

Before we go any further, you may wish to know the premise.  A costumed hero, The Comedian (Morgan) is murdered, instigating a murder investigation by Rorschach (Haley).  This is an alternative timeline, one in which a man capable of manipulating the laws of phyics themselves (Dr. Manhattan, played by Crudup) secured victory for the United States in Vietnam.  His power and presence not only helped carry President Richard Nixon into a constitutionally permitted third term of office, but has held the Cold War in check as there is nothing the Soviets could possibly use to counter him.  Regardless, the Doomsday Clock, a symbolic representation of the tensions between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., ticks ever closer to nuclear holocaust.  Who murdered The Comedian?  And what is the connection between the murder and the ever-escalating tensions?

Watchmen was originally published in 1986 and '87, when President Ronald Reagan's "peace through strength" policy convinced many around the world that a nuclear war was not only likely, but inevitable.  The real appeal of this story is not that it's a murder mystery about costumed heroes, but rather a commentary on humanity itself.  What kind of psychological and emotional causes could lead people to put on costumes and try to help others?  What do they do when it becomes an exercise in futility?  What are the effects of living under constant threat of Armageddon?

Unfortunately, most of these questions are best discussed in elements that Snyder cut from the theatrical release of his film.  As it stands, the 163 minute long film is convoluted enough for audiences who have not read the original source material, with its frequent flashbacks.  They work brilliantly in print, but the linear demands of the film medium may be confusing for general audiences.  Without the extra material, much of which focuses on ordinary citizens, the film adaptation loses much of the elements that made the graphic story so brilliant.  What is left is a murder mystery somewhat out of context.

Final judgment really must be reserved for the director's cut DVD release.  As it stands, all I can really say about Zack Snyder's film is that, in terms of faithfulness to dialogue and imagery, it is exactly the film Watchmen readers could ever have hoped to have.  In terms of telling the story of Watchmen, Snyder must surely have discovered in the editing room why this was long considered unfilmable.

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