Entertainment » Movies


by David Foucher
EDGE Publisher
Friday Mar 6, 2009

I'll be upfront about my disenchantment with the source material for "Watchmen" - author Alan Moore's brooding, pre-apocalyptic alternate version of 1980s America is provocative and insightful, but maintains an emotional distance from its reader in sending a cast of morally ambiguous characters into battle for the future of mankind. I responded more warmly to Zack Snyder's film, a hip blend of "The Matrix," "Dr. Strangelove" and "300" - all set in a sarcastically imagined altered reality in which Vietnam has been annexed as the 51st state of the Union, Nixon has been elected to a fifth term, and an era of masked adventurers has risen, climaxed, and been deep six-ed by lawmakers. It's a veritably visual orgy, and it works hard to overcome the inherent weaknesses of the comic, making it - for better or worse - a must-see movie for 2009.

I've already hinted at the perplexing plot, but here's the long(er) version. It's 1985 and the United States and Russia are poised with their proverbial fingers on the nuclear war button - a conflict that plays out in archetypal visuals of doomsday clocks and enormous, foreboding underground war-rooms. The forties and fifties gave birth to an era of vigilante justice perpetuated by homegrown superheroes who fought crime, aged, attempted to bequeath their costumes to a new generation, and whose legacies would likely have been chased from the earth forever were it not for the glowing-blue Dr. Manhattan, whose kinetic powers, born of a physics experiment gone wrong, singlehandedly won the war in Vietnam and have helped him become the United States' most effective deterrent to World War III.

The populace is frightened and gloomy, pinning their hopes on the blue dude while vilifying anyone in a mask. But when those ex-superheros start to get knocked off - led by the gruff, ideal-chewing Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) - the fate of the planet seems even more like a cosmic joke. Only Rorschach (Jackie Early Haley), Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) and Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman) seem to be fighting for the future, their investigation into the death of the Comedian uncovering a sinister plan to push the world definitively over the edge.

On the face of it, the plot sounds familiar; the film is anything but. Not only is the material dense, it's littered with innuendo and coded shout-outs from the graphic novel (witness the 51 stars on the Comedian's burial flag pursuant to my point about Vietnam above), as well as the implied homosexuality of Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode), herein suggested via a quick shot of his desktop computer, the screen of which includes a documents folder called "Boys." You'll have to keep your eyes sharp to pick this stuff out - it goes by quickly.

Where Snyder excels is in capturing the gritty feel of the comic, as well as in the execution of the action fight sequences that earned him fame thanks to his direction of "300." It's not an easy story to tell, given the constant flashbacks and unusual amount of exposition required to introduce both altered history and characters; in fact, Snyder's opening sequence, set to the tune of Bob Dylan's "The Times, They Are A-Changin'," is surprisingly effective. GLBT props also go out to one of the film's historic alterations, wherein a first generation superhero named Silhouette steals the sailor's girl for a passionate kiss in a moment reminiscent of Alfred Eisenstaedt's iconic V-J photograph.

In the end, however, Snyder's slavish devotion to the source material simply feels gratuitous and even shaky. It's as if he wasn't entirely sure of Moore's true intents in penning the graphic novel - which may be partially because Moore did not contribute to the project. And while the slightly changed ending certainly updates and improves the plot, a modicum of 21st century sensibility apparently failed to make the cut. It's no longer subversive to show nudity and send up alternative lifestyles, as it was in 1985 - and so even given the film's superior special effects, it comes off as somewhat tragically ludicrous. Point in fact: we don't really need to see Dr. Manhattan in full-frontal-nudity mode as he struts around on Mars; antiquated notions of titillation are not what we're after.

Nevertheless, "Watchmen" is a captivating film, in tune with today's disenfranchised mood even as it plays the what-if game with world history. And its 161 minutes flies by beautifully, enhanced by a soundtrack that's brilliant for all of its schizophrenia. It'll certainly win over the fanboys and those who still thirst for a superhero movie with brains (in case there are any of you left after last year's "The Dark Knight"). For the rest of us, it's a great value for the ticket price, and might just sizzle into a memorable blockbuster.



Runtime :: 163 mins
Release Date :: Mar 06, 2009
Language :: English
Country :: United States

David Foucher is the CEO of the EDGE Media Network and Pride Labs LLC, is a member of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalist Association, and is accredited with the Online Society of Film Critics. David lives with his daughter in Dedham MA.

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