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Watchmen (2009)

by on 2013/05/27

Watchmen (2009)

“Obsolete models a specialty”

* * * *

It’s fair to say that Watchmen is a contender for greatest comic ever. Those who dispute its stature probably haven’t read it. And this isn’t a retrospective honour; it was lauded early on. I remember, having bought it in its day.

My trouble was – and remains up to now – I respect it, but I don’t love it, the original comics and this feature adaptation alike.

Ironically, in the mid-to-late Eighties, I preferred comics featuring The Question, a faceless investigator and, unbeknownst to me, the inspiration for Rorschach, the avatar character who guides us through Watchmen.

Rorschach (here played by Jackie Earle Haley of TV’s Human Target) is occasionally a narrator, protagonist, and anti-hero. He inhabits an environment much like our own, where the timeline has been altered, by the existence of the Minutemen  costumed heroes in the Forties, and the Watchmen, another fifteen years after their end. The later group features advanced technology, a superhuman member, and infinitely less devotion from the public.

As labyrinthine as the plot seems to grow, it’s simple at the core: a member common to both now-disbanded groups is murdered, and the others react to being hunted. The complexity comes in its presentation: the juggling of three time periods, a sprawling cast, and the barrage of mixed media.

The function of the story is less about what, why, and how . . . and more about asking – and not necessarily answering – a lot of what-if scenarios. What if superheroes were real? What if they had influenced our history? What if resources became infinite?

While watching, my mind kept wandering back to a claim I had heard in my school years, that Communism had good intentions, but it could never really work because innate human weakness would undermine it.

The strange thing about meditating on frailty, however, is approaching the notion of a soul. Unless we view humanity as a kind of imperfect machine, where do those weak impulses originate? Watchmen posits a cynical world where nothing of the sort exists, not only in its fictional reality, but also in the telling of its tale. It’s got the body in style to spare, the mind in its cerebral content, yet lacking that certain something we might call its spirit.

In short, it feels like a mechanical and intellectual exercise.

In purely cinematic terms, because it does more right than wrong, its handful of flaws stand out even clearer for their context. Some of the visuals, and most of the makeup work looks distractingly poor: Carla Gugino (Sin City) as an older woman, the Nixon impersonator, Billy Crudup (Mission: Impossible 3) as Dr. Manhattan, changing size or replicating, and the poor compositing of scenes set on Mars. And the combat scenes are entertaining enough, but so stylized as to be unconvincing, lacking pace and impact which I blame on wonky physics.

Similarly the audio left me cold, if for slightly different reasons than the rest. Where the story was dense with issues suggested, and less neatly resolved, the song selection was extremely didactic. Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’” underscores an historical montage. “Ride of the Valkyries” plays during a Vietnam scene. Nena’s “99 Luftballons” suggests nuclear threat. “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” does likewise for megalomania. Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence” echoes at a funeral. The phrase “heavy-handed” springs to mind time and time again.

It might be easy to simply dismiss Watchmen as style over substance, but doing so would be inaccurate. There’s more than enough substance here, perhaps even too much. The style is relatively weak, always ambitious, though not always successful. At least in reading the comic, the former issue is mitigated by time, since you don’t need to get through it all in the span of one sitting. The latter issue vanishes completely as the original works in its familiar medium, and needn’t compromise in transition to another.

Watchmen isn’t a misfire, but it’s not all it could be. It reminds us sometimes older really is wiser.

* * * *

Rated 18A

162 minutes

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