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Four and a half Hearts

"I Watch the Watchmen"

Written by Steven Walker

Where do I start with a movie like this?  There is no denying how great the graphic novel is.  I read through it for the first time in one fevered session and felt like I’d been in a bar fight by the end.  I consider it to be a perfect work because it is extremely well thought out and contains just about every genre you can think of from political thriller to science fiction to romantic comedy. This is the baggage I have coming into this film.  There is no way for me to be objective.

For people who have never read the graphic novel, I honestly don’t know how they would react to the film.  Bewilderment I suppose.

At this point I want to stress how important the Director’s Cut is.  Seriously, there is no reason for the theatrical cut to exist.  I firmly believe that the despite the longer run time, the Director’s Cut would have made been more successful in theaters because it provokes a deeper emotional involvement.  Much like the Lord of the Rings extended versions, the longer cut actually feels shorter because you are more invested in the characters.

And since the characters are what make Watchmen so great, they are how I’ll approach this review.  The awesome thing about the movie is that it portrays my four favorite characters perfectly.  Tragically though, it totally drops the ball on four others characters that are more important to the overall story’s success.  What we are left with is a three hour study in fan service with just enough problems to keep it from connecting with the world at large.  As usual, I’ll start with the good.

1. Rorschach. Obviously.  Perfect in every way.  His final scene with Manhattan…wow.  I really felt that one, man.

2. The Comedian.  I did not think it would be possible for the movie to show Sally Jupiter’s attempted rape and still manage to make the Comedian sympathetic.  I give full credit to Jeffery Dean Morgan here for making this scum of the earth seem so human.

3. Dr. Manhattan.  This is one of my favorite fictional characters of all time.  I had a lot invested in his portrayal and Billy Crudup simply is Dr. Manhattan.  He and the visual effects artists make it feel so effortless when I know it must have been crushingly hard work.  His origin/flashback sequence on Mars defies my skills at hyperbole.  If the whole movie worked at this level, it would have been heralded as an instant classic.

4. Hollis Mason.  This is another chance to praise the Director’s Cut.  Hollis Mason barely registers as a character in the theatrical cut, but in the director’s cut he becomes the source of much of the film’s gravitas.  His final scene is poetic, heartbreaking stuff that should never have been cut out. 
If every character was given the treatment that the above four were, the world would view this film quite differently.  Sadly, we get four other characters whose portrayal is so mystifyingly off-the-mark that they kind of sink the film.

1.  Old Sally Jupiter.  Don’t get me wrong, I think Carla Gugino is great as young Silk Spectre in the flashbacks, but what utterly boneheaded decision was it to have her also play Sally at 65?  I just could not suspend my disbelief on this.  She even has a line where she says “I’m 65 years old” and I just wanted to scream back, “No you’re frakking not!  You’re not even 40!”  It is very difficult for a young person to act like an old person.  Very few young performers have ever pulled it off successfully.  Ms. Gugino is not one of them.  It also doesn’t help that her make-up is pretty awful, which is really weird for such a big budget production.

If they had cast a really gifted actress who actually is 65, who really had the experience in her eyes to make me believe in and care about this aging beauty queen, these scenes would come to life and really add something to the film.  As it is, the character’s whole presence feels like a waste of screen time.

2. Adrian Veidt.  I do not want this taken as an attack on Mathew Goode.  I really like his performance.  There is a great intensity about him and I do believe that large wheels are spinning behind his eyes.  Yet the writing and presentation of his character is so wrong that I just don’t understand how it happened.  The way they portray Adrian makes it obvious that he is the villain from the beginning.  He just has a sinister edge to him.  A snake-like quality that makes you distrust him at once, when it should be the other way around.  The make it worse, his backstory is horribly underwritten so we never really understand his motivations until they are revealed to be nefarious.

They should have cast an older actor with an instant likability.  Someone that you just feel safe around.   Make his desire to improve the world seem noble and selfless instead of creepy and dictator-ish.  In the novel Adrian’s reveal is jaw-dropping.  You, as a reader, feel betrayed by him.  You feel angry.  Then you become begrudgingly awed by his plan.  No one is shocked by the reveal in the film.  Even those who didn’t see it coming are still only able to muster an, “Oh, okay, that makes sense.” 

Adrian evens says, “I’m no comic book villain,” and yet he is presented more like one here than he was in the comic book!  This completely undermines the power of the film’s finale.  And his costume really does look like something rejected from Batman & Robin.

3. Richard Nixon. What the frak?  I mean, seriously, what the frak?  Apparently in Zach Snyder’s Watchmen the government is run by the Marx Brothers, because that is how he directs all the scenes with Nixon.  It’s like a Saturday Night Live parody.  And that nose?  Really?  Obviously this was an intentional stylistic decision, but why?  In the novel there are no scenes with Nixon.  You see posters for his re-election and you see snippets of news broadcasts, but that’s it.  It’s basically nothing more than a clever background joke on Alan Moore’s part. 

For the movie to successfully expand on this means you have to take it more seriously, not crank up the farce factor.  This is a movie that is asking the audience to emotionally invest in the End of the World, but that is just not possible when the leaders of the world are depicted as a joke.

Open your mind up real wide and imagine for a moment that Nixon was played by Frank Langella fresh off the set of Frost/Nixon and his scenes were given the sincerity of a West Wing episode.  I guarantee we all would have cared a frak-lot more about everything going in Watchmen.

4.  Laurie Jupiter.  Finally we come to the nail in the coffin.  I hate bashing actors because I know that acting is seriously hard work and people tend to not respect that.  That said, Malin Akerman is just plain bad when she needs to be transcendent. Her character is supposed to be the Audience Identification Character.  She is the one we are suppose to invest in because she is the closest one to normal.  From her very first scene she completely fails to make me believe anything she is supposed to be feeling.  As a result, she sucks the life right out of the film when she should be propelling it forward.  Her failure as a character translates to the film’s overall failure since the most pivotal scenes revolve around her. 

In the novel, the climactic scene on Mars is a brilliant, heart wrenching, tear-inducing piece of writing.  Laurie learning the truth about the Comedian, a truth that allows Manhattan to finally see the beauty in humanity, is one of the great scenes in comic history.  The same scene, loyally adapted and visually spectacular, falls flat on its face because of Akerman’s crocodile tears. 

Her badness is more pronounced by just how good Crudup is.  I believe him.  Let’s think about that for a moment.  Using just his voice, Crudup is able to make me believe that he is a glowing blue naked god.  Akerman can’t make me believe she is anywhere but on a soundstage, lost in a sea of green screen.  Sadly, Synder is apparently not good enough at working with actors to draw out a good performance if the actor can’t bring it on their own.

The humorous side effect of all this is that Rorschach becomes the Audience Identification Character, but since he is a psychotic killer, that’s kind of a problem.

Amazingly enough, I don’t mind the changed ending.  Yes, a part of me would love to see the alien squid on screen in all its bloody glory, but that really isn’t what the story is about.  In fact, I think framing Dr. Manhattan makes more sense because he will always be out there.  It gives more longevity to Adrian’s plan. 

What we are left with is a version of Watchmen that gets it about 80% right, but the 20% that it gets wrong are the very parts that have made the story resonate so strongly 25 years after its publication.  I still applaud the amazing effort of everyone involved in the film, since there was clearly a lot of love there.  Great job, people.  You came so close.  So close.       



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