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Starring: Jackie Earle Haley, Billy Crudup, Malin Akerman, Patrick Wilson

Directed by: Zack Snyder

Produced by: Lloyd Levin, Lawrence Gordon, Eric Watson
Written by: David Hayter, Alex Tse

Distributor: Warner Bros.

     Regardless of your opinion of Zack Snyder’s Watchmen—I’m assuming that you have one given the movie’s strong opening weekend box-office and its source’s rabid following—I’ll ask you to step back and consider what a miracle Snyder’s accomplishment is by inception alone. Snyder has not only brought to life a complicated, anti-mainstream graphic novel of 416 packed pages that most fans considered inadaptable. He has done so after the project was publicly denounced by source-author Alan Moore, whose fans are devout and could have just as easily been offended by the idea from the get-go. Snyder has done so at the colossal budget of $150 million, put up by Warner Bros., which has shown a near-unbelievable confidence in the risky project. And Snyder has done so despite complicated litigation between Warner and 20th Century Fox, the studio that initially had rights to the film but gave them up in a turnaround deal that it claims had a changed-element clause Warner violated. But here Watchmen is, storming the multiplexes—3,611 of them, a record for an R-rated picture—and it’s being hailed by many.

     Some may argue I’m providing Snyder an inordinate amount of credit given he didn’t even write the movie, nor is he responsible for the legal negotiations that allowed it to open on-time, but it’s challenging not to think of Watchmen as an auteur piece. After all, I love the movie and Snyder is the man responsible for anchoring its numerous artistic successes with cohesion. The picture clocks in at 2 hours and 43 minutes, but it’s so thematically dense and stylistically marvelous that I was never once bored. Yes, Watchmen  makes some missteps and is at times uneven, but when has a movie so unlikely in nature provided so much food-for-thought in so many arenas—artistic, social, and political? I’m sure Moore’s original is great—I had too much trouble reading the panels to get past Page 10—but Snyder has given its noted complexities the punch of both old-fashioned (in story-arc) and cutting-edge (in technology) cinematic bravura.

     The film takes place in an alternate reality. It’s 1985 and the United States has won in Vietnam, allowing Nixon to push on as President without term-limits. But the country is not at peace—nuclear war with the Soviet Union is imminent, with the nation’s emblematic “nuclear clock” at five minutes to midnight. Nixon has banned all superhero activity except for that of Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), the only one of his kind with supernatural powers. Manhattan, once a young scientist, became a part of a quantum universe when accidentally locked in an activated “Intrinsic field subtractor” test chamber. This left him with incredible capabilities: his alternate perception of the world was ultimately the driving force of the U.S.’ successful strategy in Vietnam. Manhattan does not process events linearly, which usually allows him to foretell the future, but something catastrophic blocks his vision of the outcome of the Cold War. Essentially a psychological human with overwhelming, inhuman capabilities and responsibilities, Manhattan falls into a period of deep social isolation and has no desire to remain on Earth.

     Meanwhile, vigilante narrator Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), another member of the titular group of formerly-lauded superheroes, lurks in dark alleys trying to find out who killed the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Rorschach believes the Comedian’s murder is closely linked with a plan that could result in nuclear doomsday. He is eventually joined by Laurie Jupiter a.k.a. Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman) and Dan Dreiberg a.k.a. Night Owl (Patrick Wilson), who have their own suspicions about what has happened. Rounding out the Watchmen is Adrien Veidt a.k.a. Ozymandias, now a billionaire with a fortress in Antarctica, where he claims to be working on a solution to the nuclear conflict.

     Before even digging into the layers of sociopolitical commentary, I first noticed how human and realistic everything about Watchmen felt, a credit to source-author Moore, adapters David Hayter and Alex Tse, and director Snyder. It’s not easy to make superhero movies—especially those with grandiose world portraits like Watchmen—and yet I never questioned the story’s believability, nor found it goofy. For instance, even I, an ardent defender of Nixon, had no trouble conceding that the former President may indeed have tried to remove term-limits had his quest for further national security crisis-mandated executive power been successful.

     In terms of story, Watchmen represents the most credible film depictions of what a society with superheroes might really be like. Outside of Dr. Manhattan, who is really more of an allegorical symbol than a literal object, the Watchmen behave like humans thrust into extraordinary circumstances. They find themselves in a position in which justice can be exacted in an unjust society, and they respond to the situation not necessarily in the ways we would expect them to, but in ways we can believe they would. Even more so than Bruce Wayne, who despite his empathy and grounded nature still defies gravity, these characters show awareness of external society in ways comic-book figures usually do not. This isn’t always in reference to the arms race, either; the often-Shakespearean relationship-dynamics between the Watchmen resonate dramatically with the audience. Even the fading love between Laurie and Dr. Manhattan—shown graphically in a sex scene that involves a blue member, if you know what I mean—on some level feels probable within the mirror-universe established. And it’s hard to argue that Rorschach, despite his constant nihilism, doesn’t appeal to the voice inside of us that craves life’s messy truths at all costs and abhors the moral decay of American society.

     Much of the film’s deep sociopolitical commentary is achieved merely by putting the themes on the table and exploring them. Watchmen is not an overtly partisan picture, but it adopts several points of view from both sides of the political spectrum. New York Post critic Kyle Smith observantly writes that the movie shows an “eagerness to argue with itself,” which works well because it allows viewers to explore every angle of the political parallels in Moore’s universe. Most of the ideas come to fruition in the third-act, so it’s hard for me to discuss them without spoilers. I will say that the movie serves as a thought-provoking dissection of the pros and cons of peace-through-strength governance, the questionable necessity of objective media coverage, how far executive power can extend without becoming tyrannical, what the government’s core responsibility to the people is, whether ethical ends can come from unethical means, and more. Even with the occasional cheap-shot at Nixon—or, in the final scene, Reagan—Watchmen proves itself a thoughtful and valid political work, which is ultimately all a viewer of any persuasion can ask for.

     Furthermore, beyond all of its intellectual and parabolic values, Watchmen still works as a great nuts-and-bolts, comic-book-adapted superhero flick. While the typical Friday night set of teenage boys will probably dislike the picture, those who love well-made pop-art but don’t necessarily go to the movies for anything beyond simple entertainment will still love Watchmen. Audiences will swoon over the gorgeous images, which once again take CGI to new heights and are integral to the storytelling. The colors are vibrant and the action’s sense of motion is impressively realistic. One particular sequence in which Dr. Manhattan seeks refuge on Mars is particularly enrapturing. Ensuring these visuals and the accompanying story never get boring, Snyder and editor William Hoy perfectly pace the film for its near three-hours. And then there is perhaps the movie’s greatest pleasure—its obligatory (but far out of the ordinary) dream girl. As Silk Spectre, Malin Akerman is radiant in the way that Old Hollywood’s leading ladies used to be but rarely are anymore; she will be the object of every straight male viewer’s desires for months to come. More than any of Snyder’s elaborate visual tricks, Akerman’s attractive face, physique, and screen-presence make the IMAX version of Watchmen a must-see.

     Thus far, I have nothing but praised Watchmen. But as I noted in the opening of this review, the movie does have its faults, two of which are particularly pronounced. The first is its unfitting selection of classic rock songs for the soundtrack. While Snyder and his music supervisor likely picked old standards like Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are ‘A-Changin’” and Jimi Hendrix’ “All Along the Watchtower” to juxtapose familiar artifacts of the era with the film’s revised version of history, their well-known choices feel so lazy that the experience is occasionally reminiscent of Tropic Thunder’s parody of Vietnam movies filled with CCR tracks. The film’s other big misstep is the absence of needed story-background. An explanation for Roscharch’s moving-ink-blot mask is notably absent and I would’ve liked to have known more about the life-history of Ozymandias, who becomes integral to the plot. Perhaps these issues will be resolved in Snyder’s 4 ˝-hour-long director’s cut due out later this year.

     Detractors may argue that the above two flaws are more pronounced than I have made them seem and that Watchmen is full of other problems. Many reputable critics hate the movie just as much as I love it. But I think there’s one thing everyone can agree on: Watchmen joins the ranks of The Dark Knight and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button as one of the most of the most layered, ambitious, and chancy projects tackled by Hollywood in recent years. Even those who ultimately don’t find Snyder’s achievement resonant will have a tough time arguing it isn’t a hell of an attempt. It’s precisely this type of gutsy, high-minded motion picture that we filmgoers must champion so that mainstream product doesn’t become completely soulless and safe, sort of like that one movie Snyder made two years ago.

-Danny Baldwin, Bucket Reviews

Review Published on: 3.10.2009

Screened on: 3.6.2009 in IMAX at the Regal Escondido 16 in Escondido, CA.


Watchmen is rated R and runs 163 minutes.

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