Tuesday, 13 January 2009


Dan Dreiberg: 'But the country's disintegrating. What's happened to America? What's happened to the American dream?'
The Comedian: 'It came true. You're looking at it'.

Watchmen isn't what you'd call a child-friendly superhero movie. Malin Akerman (who plays Silk Spectre II) said in an interview that the film belongs in a genre of its own. There's probably some truth to that. If superheroes did exist (and apologies to those of you who think they do), then this is probably what they'd be like: horrendously flawed, disturbed individuals, desperately trying to save the world, but not always doing the right thing.

My expectations for this movie were high. I think everyone's were. The burden Zack Snyder must have felt filming Watchmen—the only graphic novel to appear in TIME magazines list of the top 100 English novels—must have been enormous. You could almost feel the weight of expectation as the lights dimmed in the movie theatre and a reverent hush descended on those assembled.

We needn't have worried. The film was an absolute belter from beginning to end.

Watchmen is set in an alternate 80's America. The most obvious departure from orthodox US history is the existence of superheroes (or Masks), who help America win in Vietnam, and subsequently secure Nixon a third term as president. Superheroes then fall out of favour with the public and legislation is introduced to outlaw them. Whilst most of the heroes slip off into early retirement, some continue to practise their craft within official government agencies, while others such as Rorschach, continue their work outside of the law.

The film begins with one of the Masks, ex-Minuteman, The Comedian, being killed. Rorschach begins an investigation into his murder and soon comes to the conclusion that someone's out to kill all Masks. Rorschach quickly warns his ex-comrades, and the rest of the movie is essentially the story of the Watchmen reforming and tracking down their would-be killer.

The movie has an 18 certificate, so right away you know what to expect. There are sex scenes, nudity, and moments of such graphic violence that even I, hardened film watcher that I am, cringed at a few of the set pieces. Severed arms, broken bones, and at one point a cleaver being repeatedly thrust into the top of someone's skull, all make you realise that Snyder isn't pulling any punches with this film. It's pretty full on.

Being based on a graphic novel, as you'd expect, the flow of the movie is generally even throughout. The plotting, character development and exposition are so densely packed together, that at times, you're afraid to look away for fear of missing something. I went for a drink in the middle of the movie and came back half way through the prison rescue scene—which looked simply astounding from the back of the theatre. The look of the film is beautiful. It's dark, it's brooding and most importantly, it's seriously cool.

But it's the characterisation which sets this film apart. These heroes are real. Their stories don't fit the usual superhero template. The Comedian, in addition to burning people alive in Vietnam and assassinating JFK, has the murder of a pregnant woman, and an attempted rape on his less than impressive Curriculum Vitae. Dr Manhattan, an almost God-like being, spends virtually the entire movie naked (for some reason you don't notice—apart from one rather obvious full frontal), and as the film progresses, slowly becomes more and more detached from humanity, to the point where he seems unsure whether he cares for them at all. These are not heroes you're immediately drawn to—in fact, some of them are hard to like at all—but the characters are so well drawn, at least you understand why they behave the way they do.

Apart from Dr. Manhattan, none of the other heroes actually have super powers per se—but they have costumes and kick ass nonetheless. The combat set pieces are superbly choreographed. I was expecting Matrix-style fight scenes, but what I got was a lot harsher than that. The violence is exaggerated, almost grotesquely so, but it doesn't seem out of place. It just adds to the brutal landscape of screwed up America—where the doomsday clock is on five minutes to midnight and the Russian threat has never felt more real.

This isn't a film for everyone. If you were turned off by the gratuitous violence of movies like 300 and Sin City, then doubtless you'll have problems with this film too. But if you're a fan of Alan Moore's work ('V for Vendetta', 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen', 'From Hell' and 'The Ballad of Halo Jones'), or are a fan of Zack Snyder's other movies (Playground and Dawn of the Dead), or simply fancy something different, then this is definitely a movie worth checking out!

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