Hello again, everyone, and welcome to yet another edition of the film review column that just doesn't know when to quit. For anyone who's wondering, yes, I am still in central Asia, many miles from big-screen English-language cinema, but every once in a while there's a release that really does qualify as unmissable, even dubbed into Russian. And predictable it may be, but for me Zach Snyder's Watchmen is such a movie.
Based on the legendary comic book by Dave Gibbons and Disgruntled of Northampton (who's had his name taken off the credits as is standard for an adaptation of his work lately), this is set in 1985, though not the one you may recall. America's victory in the Vietnam war has ensured that Richard Nixon is still president, and a US invasion of Afghanistan has brought the world's superpowers to the brink of nuclear apocalypse. With this in prospect the brutal murder of aging civil servant Edward Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) seems relatively trivial—but Blake was secretly also a government sanctioned superhero, the Comedian. Unsanctioned masked hero (and savage vigilante) Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) suspects there may a conspiracy in existence to eradicate the few remaining superheroes and sets about his own investigation. The chain of events thus set in motion will affect retired hero Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), government-retained omnipotence Dr Manhattan (Billy Crudup) and his lover Silk Spectre (Malin Ackerman), billionaire genius Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), and ultimately determine the fate of the world...
For many years Watchmen was considered to be almost definitively unfilmable, with directors of the calibre of Paul Greengrass and Terry Gilliam admitting it had defeated them. So to get any kind of movie on the screen has to be some kind of achievement, but Snyder's accomplishment is very nearly staggering, in that this is surely one of the most faithful cinema adaptations ever made, and not just of a comic. The story is as relentlessly grim and uncomfortable, the roll-call of neurotics, psychotics, sociopaths and nihilists is virtually complete (Captain Metropolis' scene has been cut), Dr Manhattan's glowing turquoise masculine appendage makes frequent appearances, and the plot is virtually unaltered from the original. I didn't need to understand all the Russian dub as it was very clear that much of the dialogue had survived unchanged (my tendency to whisper the English version very slightly ahead of the dub rather unsettled the person next to me). The climax has been a changed a bit for reasons I can't completely fathom (and has been made rather more melodramatic as a result), but the clash of moral philosophies at its heart remains and is as unsettling as ever. This isn't a movie that shies away from being provocative, even down to Snyder prominently featuring the World Trade Centre at a couple of points (although exactly why he's doing this other than to reinforce the mid-80s setting is also slightly obscure).
The movie isn't afraid to expand on the story in those areas where the comic is necessarily restricted, namely sound and movement. The inclusion of a number of classic pop and rock songs on the soundtrack seems to me to be more than an attempt to provoke an easy response from the audience, as most of them seem thematically valid (and in at least one case the lyrics were referenced in the book). I'm slightly less certain about the beefing up of the story's action quotient, certainly when this extends to inserting completely new fight sequences and giving Matrix-style martial arts skills to nearly every principal even when it seems rather out of character. The action itself is graphic and as impeccably choreographed as one would expect from the director of 300.
I would suspect, then, that devotees of the book not sharing Disgruntled of Northampton's opinion of its intrinsic unfilmability will be in raptures throughout (I frequently was). The question remains as to whether anyone coming to this movie without any prior knowledge will see what all the fuss is about. Disgruntled and Gibbons themselves have openly admitted that they don't find the actual plot of their story particularly special, interesting, or even original: it's the way the story is structured and told that makes it so special.
Certainly many of the book's most brilliant stylistic conceits and innovations are impossible to transfer to the screen and Snyder doesn't even attempt this: the original Watchmen is such a perfect fusion of medium and message that this was inevitably going to happen (maybe Disgruntled has a point). But there's also the fact that it's a comic book about other comic books— a commentary on the genre, or its apotheosis, or a devastating critique of it, depending on your stance. It's arguable that nearly every major superhero comic of the last twenty years has been either a reaction against Watchmen or an attempt to imitate it, and this has already been filtering into movies for some years now. The attempts at psychological realism and moral uncertainty of Christopher Nolan's recent Bat-movies are drawn from post-Watchmen comics, for example (and even The Incredibles raided Watchmen for its superhero ban).Watchmen's successors have preceded it to the screen, and so I suppose this movie will inevitably have less of an impact on those not aware of its historical context.
But to criticise the movie on grounds like these is just another way of saying how utterly sublime the original is, particularly if you come to it as unsuspectingly as I did many years ago. You should read the book first, of course, but then this is probably true of virtually any literary adaptation. But even if you don't I still suspect you'll be stunned at Snyder's success in bringing a subtly different world to the big screen in such vivid, shocking, and exhilarating detail. For once, comparisons with The Lord of the Rings are justified. Highly recommended.