I have to honest; Watchmen (the original graphic novel) was an incredible reading experience and try as I might, I cannot perceive this film on its own basis. So this review is primarily aimed at those people who have read Watchmen – though I will try not to isolate though who have not read Watchmen or reveal anything that would spoil the story or the experience.
With that disclosure out of the way, Watchmen (directed by Zack Snyder) is the film adaptation of a graphic novel from the 80s written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons. Watchmen is set in an alternate 1985 which shares some of the history that we’re familiar with – and some that we’re not. In this 1985, the president is Richard Nixon (played by Robert Wisden), there is a serious threat of nuclear war with Russia and it has been eight years since legislation was passed to make superheroes and masked vigilantism illegal. Watchmen invites us to explore this familiar and strange world, trekking back and forth through time periods as the narrative unfolds. But back in 1985, the core story is led by the death of a ‘superhero’ known as The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Thrown out of his sky scraper apartment to die on the pavement below, only his former superhero allies know this man’s true identity.
Like Sin City, Watchmen is (for the most part) a straight conversion from comic to film – yet the opening sequence is not the first page of the comic. It begins with The Comedian’s grisly demise before going into a montage of moments in the history of this world. To the tune of Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’ we’re treated to a series of shots – some shot in such slow motion that they verge of being slowly changing still-photos. It’s an impressive and affecting sequence which conveys many hints about this world’s history and situation and also introduces the audience to this alternate reality.Exposition aside, the sequence also shows moments of human celebration (such the streets erupting with post-war joy) and human destruction (the assassination of JFK). Exploring the spectrum of human behaviour, this montage reflects what it is to come in viewing Watchmen.
After this, it is the comic itself in film form. Many scenes appear to have taken their storyboards and shot lists straight from the comic panels. But more important than the panels, is the structure of Watchmen. The original comic told the story from multiple view points; it was mostly from the viewpoint of a number of superheroes and masked vigilantes – but it also told the story from the perspective of a number of ordinary citizens. Additionally, Watchmen also contained chapters of text that were extracts from a book or an article from this world. Full of texture and contrast, each perspective built upon our understanding and experiences to form an increasingly detailed layered narrative – like a delicious lasagna. Sadly, many moments, chapters and entire character viewpoints have been cut from the film. Completely gone are the chapters with the newspaper stand man and the kid reading the comic. Also gone is the parallel comic-within-the-comic. The text chapters have not been converted into film form – although some of the information in these chapters does sneak its way into other parts of the film.Watchmen the film has chosen to focus the narrative threads told from the perspective of the masked vigilantes.
One of the big appeals of Watchmen is the way in which it subverts the comic book superhero genre. It isn’t about seeing these ‘superheroes’ fight and conquer villains, but more a journey through past and present to find out who these people were and who they are now. The film is partly a murder mystery as the Rorschach tries to find out who killed The Comedian. At the same time, it’s the story of the Laurie Jupiter’s (formerly the super hero known as the Silk Spectre and played by Malin Akerman) deteriorating relationship with Doctor Manhattan. Then again, it’s also a tale about an impending nuclear war, the personal lives of these masked heroes, how these superheroes affected history and much, much more. Most of the time is spent just trying to figure out why these people are the way they are – and the non-linear storytelling only serves to make this task even more challenging. Take the Comedian; he works for the American government, fought in the Vietnam war and in New York fought crime. Yet it he also violent, has a disregard for innocent life and seems completely amoral if not immoral. Why is this man wearing a mask and doing work the work of a superhero? Playing the Comedian, Jeffrey Dean Morgan inhabits the character wholly and his portrayal of this complex character not only faithful, but is also one of the films strengths. There is a single scene in which the Comedian cries; in the comic it’s unexpected – but when you actually see and hear the Comedian cry, it’s a genuinely sad. The rest of the cast is equally wonderful. Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach is particularly amazing, combining an almost misanthropic and violent nature with an endearing sense of justice.Meanwhile Doctor Manhattan (Billy Crudup) is blue, glowing and naked is completely convincing as an entirely computer generated character. This mystifying man is sold thanks not only to the incredible visual effects work, but also due to Doctor Manhattan’s voice, which is both monotone and full of some queer emotion. His unique origin story and his impact on this world is one of the many highlights of this film.
Though many wonderful characters and their stories from the original graphic novel have been cut, the richness of Watchmen remains even in this abridged form in the film. But while the omissions do not affect the film’s ability to tell the story, the film is missing the richer and more detailed storytelling of the comic. Mostly, these cuts rob the viewer of learning more about the characters and seeing the world from the perspective of ordinary citizens. Whereas the comic used all of its narrative perspectives to bring the film to a simultaneously occurring climax, the film is unable to do this. Other times entire chapters in the comic are condensed to a much shorter scene in the film. While some such scenes are able to economically tell the story, minus some of the details (such as Rorsarch revealing his ‘origin story’ to the psychologist) most of these shortened scenes just feel rushed and poorly paced. Especially quick is the scene where Nite Owl and Silk Spectre rescue people from a burning building. The scene is full so many ellipses in time it becomes jarring. For example, Nite Owl’s airship approaches the building from above and Silk Spectre is dropped down. But the rescue ends with Silk Spectre escaping a flaming explosion by leaping to safety – blink and you won’t notice that she leaps into the open hatch of Nite Owl’s airship, which is now on the side of the burning building. The first third of the film is very much a faithful adaptation of the comic, but once there has been enough exposition, many scenes like these are subject to much editing for the sake of trimming the running time. But of course, as much as I’d enjoy a ten hour Watchmen film, you must always expect that a film adaptation has to make a call on what to keep and what to cut. For the sake of telling a complete story in 160 minutes, I have to admit they made solid decisions as this condensed version still manages to tell the same story – even if it is missing some of the richer details.
That’s not to say that Watchmen is an adaptation limited by the nature of its medium, as Watchmen is enjoyable for its visual and audio splendour alone. Larry Fong’s cinematography is gorgeous and goes to some lengths to replicate John Higgins’ bold colouring of the comic in the way Larry uses colour and light in a non-naturalistic manner to enhance a shot. That said, there is a lot more black here than John used.In the comic John Higgins often used semi-surreal colours to emphasise a mood – but sometimes the films sound design (Rick Hromadka, Ai-Ling Lee and Jeremy Peirson) finds a way to translate a mood created by colour into the realm of cinema. There’s a scene early on in which Rorschach and Nite Owl are talking. As the conversation ends Rorschach stalks off into a tunnel. Nite Owl gets nostalgic about their crime fighting days, saying: “those were good days – what happened?” To which Rorschach replies: “you quit.” In the comic, a stark black and red colour scheme emphasised the harsh truth of Rorschach’s statement and the rift in their friendship. In the film, the phrase “you quit” is given emphasis as Rorschach’s parting words echo along the tunnel. It’s the same idea – just a different approach and both methods work.
For the most part, the sound design is one of the most successful elements of the Watchmen adaption – partly because while the film’s visuals make the comic panels move, the audio is a unique part of the Watchmen experience. Often the sound design augments the experience, sometimes with something as beautifully simple as the light grinding metallic noise of The Comedian’s badge as it slowly rattles on its edge before coming to rest in on the ground. There’s just something oddly enchanting about the precise rhythms of this sound. Other times the sense of time is enriched by the use music, including 99 Luft Balloons by Nena and Sound Of Silence by Simon & Garfunkle. These iconic pieces cement the feeling of being in this alternate past. Although the number of music heavy moments does verge on being excessive, you can’t really complain when you’re listening to All Along The Watchtower by Jimi Hendrix. It never becomes as indulgent or needless as it did in the music heavy Shrek The Third. (I can’t believe I just made that comparison.)
When the sound design works it is brilliantly immersive and effective. That said, the sound design does have its faults. When Rorschach is narrating, as intoxicating as his gruff voice is, it’s not possible to fully absorb both his dialogue and the visuals. These moments were intended to be in comic form so that you could absorb text and images as your leisure. But the biggest and most common problem with the sound design is needlessly overdoing a moment. When Rorschach looks at an ink blot and sees a dead dog split with a cleaver, we don’t need an abrupt generic horror noise to signal to us that this is a gruesome image – the visual needs no enhancement and an attempt by sound to tell us how to feel comes off as needlessly forced. The same indulgence is often seen in the cinematography as the use of slow motion becomes increasingly passé. Sometimes it’s used to great effect, such as in the opening montage or to demonstrate the direct and incredible strength of Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode) as he knocks down a criminal. But more frequently slow motion is used for visual flair as someone leaps from an explosion or throws a punch. Then there are a few odd moments where certain elements of a shot are slowed, such as when Nite Owl shoots down a water dank to douse a fire the water spills out and splashes much slower than it would in real life. It all just gets a bit excessive and doesn’t really add to the storytelling. Again, there are small niggles to be had with the costume design (Michael Wilkinson.) While the majority of the character’s iconic costumes have been recreated with intense attention to detail, Ozymandias and Nite Owl have received a re-design. While still recognisable, it’s strange that these two characters would receive a re-design when the rest of the costuming is so faithful to the comic.
But there’s one big change to the Watchmen comic that you should be aware of before you enter the cinema: the ending has been changed. Without giving anything away, the film manages to maintain the same intent and meaning of the comic. The change seems to have been made for economy of time and actually works with the story presented in the film. I’m torn between my dislike of changing an established and important part of Watchmen and the admirable way in which the film manages to make it work. Whatever you make of it, it helps to be forewarned.
As mentioned, I have an unresolvable bias in viewing this film: Watchmen the comic was awesome, therefore Watchmen the movie is also awesome. The film gave still gave me shivers at the same moments as the comic did – but who knows if that isn’t really some Pavlovian associated response? But here’s my advice: go read Watchmen and then go watch Watchmen. Read the comic first because although the film manages to condense and trim the story fairly well, there is so much more to be gained by reading the full story. Most of the Watchmen experience is just being in this world and learning more about these people. Plus the film has so many allusions it doesn’t explain, but are there to broaden the experience for people who read the comic. In the comic there’s a text chapter that mentions a superhero named Dollar Bill who died because his cape caught in a revolving door and was then gunned down. In the opening montage of the film, there is a shot of Dollar Bill already dead in the doorway – but just who Dollar Bill was is never explained. The relationship between Watchmen the film and Watchmen the comic is not unlike that of A Clockwork Orange – and not just because the original authors of both those works were dissatisfied with their respective film adaptations.
A Clockwork Orange was book written in 1962 by Anthony Burgess and was adapted for film in 1978 by director Stanley Kubrick. These two works are complimentary to one another and I highly recommend you read and watch both versions of A Clockwork Orange – although in this case I would recommend watching the film first so you can get a grasp on the unique language used. In the book there is more story and detail to be had – but the film benefits from the use of music and striking art direction. Together they work together to create one piece of art. To complete this apt comparison, the film adaptation of A Clockwork Orange did not include the final chapter of the book, thus effectively changing the audience’s perception of the ending. So while I cannot tell if the Watchmen film can stands on its own, I do believe these two pieces congeal well enough to form a single piece of art. So go on: read the comic and watch the film. You’ll be rewarded with a rich world full of moral complexities, simultaneously endearing and reprehensible characters, a well choreographed narrative with its own history and potent ideas that will linger with you long after you turn the last page and the credits roll.