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WATCHMEN
d. Zack Snyder, 2009

Well, it's finally here.

After spending twenty years in development hell, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's acclaimed superhero story Watchmen has finally been brought to the big screen. The film is directed by Zack Snyder, a man whose filmography so far has consisted of incredibly stylish but one-dimensional action movies such as 2004's remake of George Romero's Dawn of the Dead and 2007's swords-and-sandals blockbuster 300. He brings a lot of the same qualities to his adaptation of Watchmen (slick use of computer graphics, state-of-the-art visuals, graphic violence, etc.) except now he's working off a significantly stronger script than his prior films.

The story revolves around an alternate reality where superheroes actually existed and acted as law enforcement throughout the 20th century. The film is primarily set in 1985 (although it frequently jumps back and forth across the decades as multiple characters have flashbacks or, in one character's case, experience time in a totally different manner). However, superheroes are eventually outlawed and the remaining heroes all live vastly different lives. The film opens with the murder of one of the film's "heroes" - the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a psychopathic soldier with a brutal streak a mile wide. His death draws the attention of Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), a trenchcoat-wearing vigilante who scours the streets bringing his own particularly violent brand of justice to wrongdoers all over New York. He believes that the Comedian's death is part of something bigger and opts to tell the other surviving "masks" - the insecure Batman clone Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), feisty token female Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman), smooth-talking billionaire Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) and Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), a naked blue man with God-like control over time and space.

I've been a fan of Watchmen for a couple of years now, and the film was highly anticipated ever since I heard it was actually being produced. Of course, I went in expecting it not to match the book (because I doubt any film adaptation could actually do that, no matter how long), but I was still holding out hope for it being a good film nonetheless. I think the latter part definitely came true. Even though the film's opening scene was not actually in the book (something I hoped was not a sign of things to come), the bulk of the film followed the book to a tee. At a guess, I'd say the content of the film was about ninety percent true to the book - sure, it left out plenty of subplots and characters (which Snyder claims will be featured more prominently in an extended cut he plans to release on DVD), but as for the main plot and much of the most important character development, it's all there. Despite several small changes here and there (noticeable to a fan, perhaps, although I doubt newcomers will get the difference) and a change to the film's big twist (more on that later), it's about as faithful an adaptation as you're likely to find anywhere. The book's various techniques, such as jumping back and forth between different times and places and use of overlapping dialogue, translate reasonably well to film as well.

Of course, this doesn't mean much to people who care about the film. Is it any good? I'd say it's definitely good. Despite Snyder's tendency to indulge his own particular style (namely, adding plenty of slow-motion and violence to various action scenes), he manages considerable restraint for most of the film. He also manages to handle the special effects competently (the most obvious example being Rorschach's trademark ink-blot mask, which has a pattern that changes frequently due to CGI), and that manages to make the film much smoother. Still, I'm missing out on what's probably the most important thing about Watchmen - the characters. As with his prior films, Snyder has elected to use relatively small-time actors (although I still managed to recognise a handful from other films) and they all elicit performances that range from decent to excellent. Being an ensemble cast, you would think it's somewhat difficult to pick a "best" actor, but there's no doubt in anyone's mind after they take in Haley's performance as Rorschach. Despite spending much of his screen time wearing a mask that covers his entire face, Haley brings the character to light perfectly through his incredible voice (a voice so deep and gruff that it leaves Christian Bale's Batman voice in the dust), embittered narration that sounds like it could've been lifted straight out of Taxi Driver and his multitude of small mannerisms that serve to humanise someone who is one of the most inhuman characters in the entire film. The only problem is that it overshadows all the other performances on offer - most of them are pretty good (with the possible exception of Akerman), but none of them hold a candle to Rorschach, a performance which should go down as an example of just how damned good acting in comic book films can be (clown-faced robbers aside).

The real question I'm trying to figure out it, what were the flaws here? Granted, I liked it a lot, but it doesn't feel truly brilliant. There are parts where it drags slightly, and I'm willing to bet the film is going to confuse people who aren't particularly familiar with the novel, but hell, it's their own fault they haven't gotten familiar with it first. While it's not really a masterpiece, Watchmen is still an incredibly solid superhero flick, a faithful adaptation of an incredibly poignant story and quite simply a very good film. I can only hope the rest of 2009's filmic output is capable of matching it.

GRADE: B+