Well, Watchmen underwhelmed me. It's got plenty of positives, but the faults far outweigh them. I'll start with what worked.
The story's universe engages with curiosity among the similarity. The year is 1985, and the alternate universe is one where President Nixon remained in power. The Vietnam War, also, was won by the United States, with the help of members of the Crimebusters superhero group. All other events, such as the ongoing Cold War standoff between the USA and USSR, as well as notable events, such as the assassination of President Kennedy, remain similar. Yet, for the difference in President Nixon's 1980s, such a reality is very dark, seemingly more ominous, more corrupt, and more paranoid. Within this alternate reality, the characters exist in a world which embodies Nixon's psyche.
Some of the characters are dynamic. In particular, Rorschach, also known as Walter Kovacs (Jackie Earle Haley), well, he rules. This crime-fighter has no superpowers, which is similar to almost all the Crimebusters. He does, however, have a most-chiseled body, one that is meager in stature but surprisingly strong and agile. In addition to his uber-human physique, Rorschach is a skilled investigator and a man of extreme resourcefulness. The only gadget he carries on him is a grappling hook, as a minor climbing aid and occasional weapon. Rorschach wears a custom mask with an inkblot pattern that moves in patterns, resembling the inkblot tests of the same name.
Watchmen features stunning visuals. Check out one of the trailers. Director Zach Snyder did an outstanding job of portraying the gritty cities, and detail-laden interior scenes. There was also a breathtaking rendition of Mars. Effects, such as the inkblot mask that Rorschach wears, are seamless ... I didn't find myself noting, 'Hmmm, CGI,' except for the oddity of a superhero's pet late in the film. I liked the slowdown of time on display during some crucial moments, such as the opening sequence, although I think they overdid that effect just a touch. Those are minor criticisms, though, in the face of so much gorgeous footage.
The story, however, is a stunning failure.
I feel cheated, in a way. I love dystopian films, and, for me, nihilist realities are some of the most-exciting playgrounds for stories. For instance, Brazil is one of my most favorite films. I find Watchmen's universe very appealing, but I find the story is extremely poor for execution. It is, in essence, very sloppy.
The plot is easy to understand. Someone has murdered Edward Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), also known as the Comedian from his Crimebusters and Minutemen days. There's reason to believe that someone is targeting the rest of the group. The second act becomes a whodunit, where Rorschach orchestrates the quest and involves his former crimefighter comrades.
Part of the damning failure of this film involves severe redundancy. Early in the film, several characters recall Eddie Blake's life in flashback. Such repetition of Blake's dark nature, I felt, slowed down the film. Blake was wholly offensive, excessive, amoral, and brutal. I got the essence of him, loud and clear, when he sexually assaulted Sally Jupiter (Carla Gugino). He's a rotten person. The film, however, became so focused on Blake's poor character, rife with triteness ... well, I had to fight the urge to leave. I didn't need to revisit Blake's disregard for life, but they showed his murder of a Vietnamese woman pregnant with his child, I guess, for good measure, in case I didn't get it the first time. We then were subjected to Blake's chastising of another character, Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), over the superhero's disinterest in stopping Blake's poor behavior. An anti-hero's insult of another over a lack of altruism ... that might be a quality dark laugh in the hands of a more capable screenwriter. As-was, unfortunately, the scene was a disaster.
After this chain of events, I didn't care what their message was, with regard to the fine line of being a hero or a villain. I wasn't in the hands of a skilled-enough storyteller to regard their interpretation, I felt. I merely stayed to find out who was targeting the Crimebusters.
The conclusion, well, that was most unsatisfactory part of the film, for me.
I have no ultimate problem with utilitarianism. In many cases, the end justifies the means. In the case of Watchmen, however, I felt they handled the justification rather poorly. Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode), aka Ozymandias, reasoned with his peers that if the widespread energy attack were made to look like Dr. Manhattan's work, then such a preemptive attack would serve as a unifying moment for mankind. In particular, the attack would be taken as a warning of divine retribution, should mankind continue down this self-destructive path. From the deaths of millions, and the continuing threat, billions would be saved from a World War 3, and world peace would be achieved. Mankind would unite against a common enemy, that being Dr. Manhattan.
Unfortunately, the explanation, as displayed in the film, was too pithy for my taste. I, instead, wholeheartedly identified with Rorschach's objection to keeping a lie that cost millions their lives. Rorschach, unfortunately, was overruled by Dr. Manhattan, who opted for Ozymandias's reasoning. Dr. Manhattan killed Rorschach because of his refusal to keep the secret. The remaining Crimebusters chose to allow Ozymandias's plot for world peace. In the end, their scheme was foiled by the discovery of Rorschach's journal, right before the credits.
Ugh. I disagree with Ozymandias's reasoning entirely, and I don't understand how Dr. Manhattan would have agreed to Ozymandias's revelation. While Dr. Manhattan serves as a god-like force, I believe in the greater strength of mankind's utter depravity. Fear of divine retribution can be potent, but I disagree with the overall effectiveness as a control mechanism. We still rape, murder, and pillage each other, despite the fact that many of us believe in a divine power. If such a power tangibly presented itself, then I doubt it would serve as more than a mere stalling agent on the path to chaos. In fact, Dr. Manhattan's role in ending Vietnam served only to antagonize the USSR to increase their stockpile of nuclear warheads. So, if Dr. Manhattan aggravated USSR opposition in the past, well, how was he going to keep everyone from plunging into deeper chaos?
I believe that in the event of such third party attack, a weakened US bloc would have been attacked by the USSR, or vice versa. The equilibrium of power was one of the main reasons why the two superpowers never battled, historically. If Dr. Manhattan was perceived as a threat on all, then he would be intensifying agent on all, just like he was upon the USSR. Dr. Manhattan as a worldwide threat would increase, not decrease, the probability of armageddon.
Perhaps Ozymandias knew Dr. Manhattan too well. After all, he did have access to Dr. Manhattan's psychological profile. Yet, such a successful play upon the weaknesses of a near-divine power would serve as a threat likely punishable by death. After all, Ozymandias can't be trusted to cease further exploit of Dr. Manhattan. Furthermore, if Dr. Manhattan is imperfect because of his emotions, then he's capable of succumbing to the desire to eliminate his greatest threat. Dr. Manhattan is definitely capable of carrying out extreme punishment, sooooo, why not deal it out to Ozymandias? Alas, Dr. Manhattan leaves him be. Blah.
I believe one of the film's main problems manifested from the decision to faithfully recreate as much of the graphic novel as possible. While some parts have been condensed or altered from the novel, the majority was intended to be as exact as could be. What I got were a bunch of scenes that may have translated better from panel-to-panel in the novel. Surely, some scenes became lost in translation.
Production made another fatal error from the decision to cram a rather voluminous story into 163 minutes. Perhaps if the film was broken into thirds, giving more breathing room and detail to each installment, then Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's story would have taken a more meaningful plateau. What really sucks is that the graphic novel apparently was made to let people take a slow ride through their alternate reality, with frequent stops along the way to ponder what had happened. Such a tone exists in spurts throughout this film, but it is not fully adapted. Considering that Hollywood loves big-money sequel-trains, the decision to cram gives me pause. Perhaps a lengthy production hell spurned the companies to 'be done with it.'
They absolutely needed to adapt Watchmen better. Despite many positives, I'll never revisit this film.
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