Thursday, 12 March 2009
Watchmen: movie review
"Who watches the Watchmen?" (Juvenal, 1st Century) Well, I do. I've been waiting 20 years for this movie.
For those not old enough to remember*, Alan Moore's Watchmen was (along with Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns) one of two graphic novels published in the 1980s that completely changed the way we looked at superhero comics. At the time it was an extraordinary shock: they took a medium that catered to adolescent fantasies and rewrote the genre as an adult one. They dared to go dark. They dared to state that violence can actually kill. They dared to suggest that if you have a propensity for putting on skin-tight fetish costume and going out to beat people up, then you probably have some serious psycho-sexual issues.
The Watchmen movie in 2009 cannot possibly have the same impact, because these issues have become mainstream now. What we have got is a densely-plotted, visually stunning superhero-noir film combined with Zak "300" Snyder's balletic vision of combat violence. But it's actually extremely faithful to the original comic (there were points I thought too faithful: why keep the lynx in? What does it add except confusion?).
The action is set in an alternate 1980s where America won in Vietnam, Nixon is still President and the Cold War has brought us teetering on the brink of worldwide annihilation. In the middle of this are a group of retired American costumed heroes known as The Watchmen. One of them, the Comedian (and what a mind-boggling shit he is: spot-on portrayal there) is murdered by an unknown assailant. Another, the creepy and deranged Rorschach (another superb performance), takes it upon himself to find out why someone has started bumping off "masks". And from there the plot thickens and the body-count starts to build...
And oh boy are there a lot of dead people by the end of this film.
Being so true to the 12-part graphic novel means that the film is long (nearly 3 hours) and complex and multi-layered, with lots of flashbacks. It doesn't have a lot of forward momentum. I'm glad though: the alternative would have been to simplify it beyond recognition.
Incidently, I've read a number of reviews in which much is made of Dr Manhattan (who is the only one of the "heroes" with genuine superpowers, and not actually human anymore) and his penis: how he grows to giant size and strides naked about the battlefield. There's no giant penis in the version I saw; although you do see Dr Manhattan full-frontal a lot, it's only when he's human sized. They've cut the colossal cock, the bastards.
Watchmen is an 18 certificate ('R' in the USA) and deservedly so. The fight scenes are bullet-time kung-fu but brutal: these are superheroes who kill (and in the case of the Comedian, attempt violent rape). Broken bones burst out through skin, there is one dismemberment scene where gore is literally flung around the set, and a flashback to a child's kidnapping is, though comparatively understated, really unpleasant.
This is a movie about the ways we respond to human evil, about saving the world, about whether the ends justifies the means. The small-scale violence practiced by the costumed vigilantes "for the greater good", whether it is directed against criminals or enemies of the state, finds its true apotheosis in the climax.
If Watchmen does have a problem, it's that its vision of humanity is so bleak that by the time the final twist comes, in the last few seconds, you just don't care. This is a film where the single most engaging and sympathetic character, Rorschach, is a twisted miserable right-wing sociopath who hates literally everyone in the world. However much one enjoys the ride, the movie-goer is led to conclude, along with Dr Manhattan, that humankind isn't actually worth saving.
"And all the whores and politicians will look up and shout 'Save us!' And I'll look down and whisper 'No'."
*in which case you might have problems appreciating the "appearances" by Kissinger, Warhol etc in the film. Not to mention the dread of nuclear war and Communism.