***First published in the Cary News on March 17, 2009***
Split open the mind of a scientist, add in superhero strength and struggles, set it in a doomsday world, sprinkle with some saucy fan service, shake, and you get The Watchmen.
But this film is more than its parts. The Watchmen is based on Alan Moore’s mind-blowing graphic novel. I am reviewing this movie separate from its graphic novel form, but check that out if you get a chance.
They had to simplify the story a great deal to make it manageable in a film form.
The plot is somewhat complex, but in fact, it matters little to this film. This movie is all about characters, culture, and the mood of the film. The story is set in an alternative United States history. It’s 1985, and Richard Nixon has been elected to his third term in office.The doomsday clock has been set for five minutes to midnight — midnight being the time when either Russia or the U.S. will launch a deadly bomb and the idea of world peace will forever be obliterated.
The Watchmen are a group of “superheroes,” although none of them (with one exception) have superhuman abilities. The story is laid out in a non-linear fashion: We see the past, then the present, then the more distant past. We find out bits of the story through memories, conversations, and photos on walls.
The main conflict is that The Comedian, one of the former Watchmen, has been murdered. Rorschach, our narrator, is convinced that someone is targeting the Watchmen and picking them off, one by one. He sets out to discover who it is and to warn the rest of his former teammates.
As usual, the others either mock him or ignore him. While he is trying to solve this mystery, Dr. Manhattan gets accused of causing his former colleagues to get cancer. He chooses to separate himself from the human race and abandon Earth, which leaves the United States feeling defenseless against Russian attack.
There are other subplots happening, but these are the two most important events in the film. Let’s meet our characters.
In the present of the film, the Watchmen are retired. Any celebrity status they held was put to a halt when Nixon proclaimed the Watchmen to be outlaws. The only one who continues to be pampered is Dr. Manhattan, a physicist who accidentally got trapped in a room years ago. His body was dissolved into tiny particles from the blast. Later he learned to reassemble himself. Now he lives in the facility, with no boundaries in time, space, or abilities. He holds the world at a distance, spending all of his time working on top secret projects for Adrian Veidt. Nixon keeps him on call in hopes that the Russians will be too scared to pull the trigger.
The rest of the Watchmen lead semi-normal lives, if you can call being paranoid, raging, or narcissistic normal. Dan, or Nite Owl, has become pudgy from inactivity and spends most of his time in an isolated warehouse working on machines or hearing stories of the Watchmen histories from his predecessor, the first Nite Owl. Laurie, Silk Spectre II, is the current girlfriend of Dr. Manhattan. She grew up without a father and a mother who pressured her to become a superhero. Dr. Manhattan is like a distant father figure, and Sally can’t seem to get him to really see her. Adrian Veidt, Ozymandias, is a narcissistic man who thinks his contemporary should have been Alexander the Great. He has an ancient Roman soldier mentality. He knows how the world should be run, and he might have the money to make it happen.
Last, we have Rorschach, by far the most fascinating character. He wears a face-less mask, decorated with ink blot shapes that change by the second. He has an absolute moral code, and anyone outside of the white deserves to be punished. He views himself as a soldier of justice. He is tortured on the inside and out by hatred, most of which is directed at himself.
The Watchmen pose a problem. They don’t act or talk like superheroes, but that is the position they were given in society, at least for a time. Now, as retired superheroes, they live like a bunch of cast-off toys. The world has no use for them anymore. None of them seem happy, although a few tell themselves it’s better this way.
The potential evil of a human soul is fully explored. We see different ones of the Watchmen cheating on spouses, murdering pregnant women, and shooting civilians as a way to calm them down. The most loathed act is done by the murdered Comedian, who tries to rape one of his fellow superhero friends. Are we supposed to like them? Is there a hero in this story at all? Or is the problem the world?
In our modern world, with weapons that can cause so much destruction, is it even possible to be a hero? Do the Watchmen do horrible things because they are horrible people or because they live in a horrible world? These are the types of questions this movie presents as we watch the film.
The cinematography is a sight to behold. The camera gives equal love to both full-screen panoramic views, such as when Dr. Manhattan sets up his own city on Mars, and the tiniest detail, such as watching a drop of blood fall and spatter the yellow smiley face pin. Yes, the action scenes include lots of slow motion shots (Director Zack Snyder is well known for this after “300”). The tone is dark and beautiful. The soundtrack reflects the historical time periods shown, featuring artists such as Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Simon and Garfunkel, and Jimi Hendrix.
The acting is well done, not outstanding, with the exception of Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach. He completely steals the show. He is our narrator, so we get to know him the best, and his character is one you won’t soon forget. Whereas some of the Watchmen have gone slack or lost their passion for the work, he continues to live life with utter conviction. He never backs down, even up until the end. We might not agree with his actions, but we know what he stands for, which is more than I can say for most of the crew.
I would not recommend bringing children or even younger teens to this movie. It includes graphic violence, rape, sex, profanity, and disturbing images.