Watchmen ****1/2

Watchmen just might be one of the most anticipated films in recent history.  It is an adaptation of a much coveted graphic novel, has been stalled in development for two decades, has had some great film artists attached and was the focal point of a heated court case, which only concluded recently.  And the vast majority of the reviews of the film have spent as much word space, if not more, dissecting the film in comparison to the comic and in debating about the possible ‘what ifs’ had other people been involved.

 

Which is an absolute shame, because when judged on its own, Watchmen is one of the most compelling films of recent years.

 

It is set in an alternate 1985, in a universe where Richard Nixon is still president, America won the Vietnam War and masked crime-fighters are a regular part of law and order.  Part mystery and part genesis tale, the film follows the lives of a group of disbanded vigilantes known as ‘the Watchmen’, not only telling their individual origins but following their lives after one of their own is murdered.

 

For me, the best thing about the film is the maturity behind the story.  Yes, it is about masked vigilantes, but these are first and foremost flawed human beings.  They have psychological and sexual problems, fits of rage and issues with parental expectation.  Some even take a bit too much pleasure in the violence.  They are seen by some as heroes, glorified thugs by others, and when one looks at the lives and actions of these people, both sides have a point.

 

Maybe the plot is a bit dense, maybe I felt the 165-minute running time a bit, and maybe the characters could have been fleshed out a bit more, but I didn’t care.  I found myself utterly compelled, not only by the multiple plot threads but by the visuals.  Director Zack Snyder may have been a bit self-indulgent and gratuitous with his previous film, 300, but here the style and substance have a nice balance and everything, from the landscape to the heavy violence, felt justified.

 

Having not read the graphic novel, I can only judge this film on its own merits.  And on that, I loved it.  Even with its flaws, it is an ambitious film that gets far more right than wrong, and most of its missteps are at least noble in their intentions.  It may not be the artistic triumph it wants to be, but it is pretty close.

 

Script flaws aside, Watchmen is a great film.  It is an adult story that is more complicated than most Hollywood fare and manages to use its budget rather than being used by it.  I hope that, in the long run, it becomes a success because it is an antidote to the brainless parade of ridiculous ‘spectacles’ forced upon us, especially during the summer.  If this fails and the ‘crash-bang’ brigade of blockbusters succeed, then we will have nothing to look forward to than a vapid entourage of special-effect driven films with flimsy characters and no plot.

 

For the love of God and all things great in cinema, may Watchmen save us from that catastrophe.

Watchmen is in general release.

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