VOD film review: Watchmen
That Owl Scene6
Ivan Radford | On 07, Jun 2016
Director: Zack Snyder
Cast: Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Billy Crudup, Patrick Wilson, Malin Akerman, Matthew Goode
Watch Watchmen online in the UK: All 4 / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play
First things first: it’s not rubbish. Not completely rubbish, at least. In bringing Alan Moore’s “unfilmable” graphic novel to the screen, there were always going to be glitches. But where to start with such an amazing, epic project? Watchmen’s basic premise is this: it is 1985. Nixon is still in power. The USSR and America are on the brink of war. Both have nuclear weapons. The world is minutes away from Doomsday.
Who will save them? Not costumed heroes: they’ve been outlawed. Except for Dr Manhattan, that is. Years ago, a freak nuclear accident turned scientist Jon Osterman (Crudup) into America’s superhuman God. He’s big, he’s blue, and he can meddle with atoms on a mere whim. He was the only one of the 1940s ‘superhero’ troupe, The Minutemen, to have actual super powers. And, incidentally, the only one to be butt naked.
Our former crime-fighters, meanwhile, age outside of their masks, (mostly) inactive and impotent, until one of them is severely defenestrated. Who killed The Comedian (Morgan)? An amoral man who brutally butchered his way through ‘Nam, raping and pillaging both home and away, like a warped Captain America, his list of enemies seems long. Rorschach (Haley), a vigilante sociopath with an inkblot for a face, is determined to find the culprit.
Watchmen the novel was a bleak examination of the superhero condition, showing the psychological, philosophical and political results of leading a double life – in short, all of them got pretty screwed up. Here, Moore’s murder mystery unfolds over nearly 3 hours, as David Hayter and Alex Tse’s script encompasses everything: Silk Spectre’s (Akerman) battered relationship with her mum, the original Spectre; Dan Dreiburg’s (Wilson) search for meaning without his alter ego, Nite Owl; and the attempts of certified genius Adrian Veidt (Goode) to solve the world’s WWIII crisis.
But such acute attention to detail (Snyder is slavishly dedicated, to say the least) comes at the cost of depth and richness. Although Haley and Morgan breathe life into their characters, filling out the frame with their flawed identities, the weak links lie with Akerman’s Spectre and Goode’s Adrian, neither of whom rise above their narrative function or soap opera dramatics.
At the helm, Zack “the visionary director of 300” Snyder is a geeky fan gone to heaven. Slowing down the action willy-nilly, he’s clearly having a whale of a time holding it all together. Which is, perhaps, the problem. Blood splatters here, limbs are severed there; Snyder’s unafraid of Moore’s graphic material. If anything, he revels in it too much, from the Doctor’s lower Manhattan (ahem) to a very blue 5 minutes, involving Silk Spectre, Nite Owl, and Leonard Cohen’s Halelujah.
The risk is, of course, that in adapting a gritty, character-driven satire of the glossy, action-driven superhero, it can become what it lampoons (this and Batman vs. Superman would make an interesting double-bill). Snyder understands the questions of the original text and keeps the risk at bay – for the most part – by retaining the story’s retro soundtrack and, crucially, its (thematically faithful) downbeat conclusion. So is his glorification of violence intentionally designed to make us uneasy? It’s hard to say. But in a world of largely similar comic book flicks, a loyal rendition of Watchmen’s narrative, uncommercial and uncompromising, is a remarkable achievement. The opening credits sequence alone is a superb piece of cinema that brings Watchmen’s panels beautifully to life. By targeting Moore’s readers as its audience, though, Watchmen also sets itself up as a disappointment; filming the unfilmable was always going to be an anti-climax. A spectacle made for the fans who would inevitably be unhappy with it, Watchmen is a striking and ambitious blockbuster. Occasionally, though, it feels more like the Official Movie Companion to the Graphic Novel; read it first, watch this later.
Watchmen is available on All 4 until 25th October 2021.