As a powerful story peppered with full frontal nudity, graphic lovemaking, and hateful violence, Watchmen is both a near-perfect superhero opera and every comic geek’s dream come true.
The year is 1985. Richard Nixon is enjoying a third term as President of the United States, but with the Russians gathering their forces on the border of Afghanistan, the threat of a nuclear holocaust is ever present. Meanwhile, an ex-superhero is mysteriously murdered, and a masked vigilante named Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) believes it is the beginning of a vendetta against the living members of the defunct superhero group called “The Watchmen.” As his investigation widens to include his former friends and associates, the evidence begins to uncover a plot that even the most paranoid conspiracy theorist wouldn’t believe.
Director Zack Snyder follows up his film 300 by tackling the reportedly unfilmable Alan Moore graphic novel “Watchmen.” Set in an alternate 1985 where superheroes were once commonplace but now banned as illegal vigilantes, the interconnected story resonates on many levels and in many layers. Unlike Moore’s V for Vendetta re-imagining, Watchmen follows the graphic novel virtually page for page except for what’s been cut for time (and reportedly waiting for restoration on the future DVD release). Even with a slick Hollywood production influenced by other recent superhero films, the world of Watchmen may not be as fouled as its source, but the raw emotion promised in the trailers resonates just as loudly.
As previously mentioned, one noticeable departure is the look of the film when compared to the book. The original story picked up when many of the Watchmen had let themselves go, hardly fit to be fighting crime and more apt to be watching their blood pressure. The film glosses over that idea, implying instead that the old suits still fit, that a man dressed as an owl looks as cool as “The Dark Knight,” and that only the will to fight again is actually missing. This undermines a few classic confrontations, but give Hollywood her moment; if the costumes and characters were as antiquated and unfit as suggested in the graphic novel, it would fight too hard against the belief of everything else Watchmen has to sell, and that’s a worthwhile trade off.
Likewise, using a cast of virtual unknowns to bring the Watchmen to life serves the film well, especially for the film’s hero, Rorschach. Once Jackie Earle Haley sells you on Rorschach, every character introduced afterward carries weight simply because Rorschach says so. Snyder pulls no punches with his direction, wallowing in his visual medium and leaves nothing to the imagination. Watchmen is both a feast for the senses and exhausting (the theatrical cut coming in at just under three hours), but as this review is tainted with my own knowledge and love of the original book, I am certain fans will be awed by what has been accomplished. For Watchmen to truly succeed, however, it must appeal to those with only a passing interest of what waits within, and that will be the real test of how well the book has been translated to screen.
(a four skull recommendation out of four)