Review: “Watchmen: The IMAX Experience” (spoilers!)

March 8, 2009 at 1:26 pm 2 comments

First off, let me say that after watching Watchmen, I knew I had to give it some time before I posted my review.  I saw it opening night, in IMAX, with about 300 other people (complete with a nearly 4-hour wait in line, of which we were actually close to the front of).  The rush of excitement and the restlessness of the crowd would probably have an effect on my overall viewing experience, and for a movie so anticipated and controversial as Watchmen, I wanted my review to focus primarily on the movie, and not the baggage that came along with it.

I’d also like to mention that I did read the graphic novel beforehand, and have become somewhat of a fan.  I’m not ‘hardcore’, mind you, and I don’t take Alan Moore to be the greatest thing since sliced bread (I find his attitude toward this movie, although understandable, makes him come off as an asshole who’s full of himself).  However, going into the theatre for this, I knew I’d have to separate myself from the original source material as much as possible.

And another note on remakes, re-envisionings, re-tellings, reboots, or whatever you want to call them.  If there’s a movie that was based on something else, the movie should not have to be judged on whether it is ‘better than’, ‘as good as’, or ‘worse than’ the source.  If the movie is deemed to be ‘good’, then it should stand on its own without the viewer needing to go back to the source.  If they choose to check out the source material, then that’s just icing on the cake.  For example, Gone with the Wind is a film based on a novel, but to the average American, when you mention Gone with the Wind, they will most likely think of the film rather than the novel.  That’s a testament to how good the film version is; I’m not saying that it proves the film is better than the book, it just means that the film is good enough to stand on its own.

Now, on to the review…

Watchmen tells the story of an alternate 1985 America, one where Vietnam has been won, Nixon is in his third term as President, and ‘masked adventurers’, which were common a few decades previous, are now outlawed..  Some things, however, haven’t changed: the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union is still just as heated as it really was, and the threat of nuclear war hangs like a guillotine over the entire planet.

One thing that has kept the peace between the two superpowers is John Osterman, a.k.a. Dr. Manhattan.  The result of an unfortunate accident, Dr. Manhattan has become a ‘walking nuclear deterrent’, a glowing blue being that resembles a man, but can manipulate matter, peer into his own past and future, and be in multiple places at once.  He’s the American government’s primary weapon against the U.S.S.R., who know Dr. Manhattan can easily dismantled more than half of the nukes the Russians may launch in the event of war.  Oh, and he has a girlfriend, Laurie Jupiter, a.k.a. The Silk Spectre II, whose mother was the original Silk Spectre.

Then there’s Rorschach, the only masked adventurer still trying to clean up the streets (and who has also been labeled an outlaw and vigilante by the police and public).  His old partner, Nite Owl II, a.k.a. Dan Dreiberg, is retired, living a quiet life and occasionally reminiscing about the old days with his predecessor Hollis Mason (the first Nite Owl).  Another former adventurer, Adrian Veidt, a.k.a. Ozymandias, has become the most successful of them all.  Having been dubbed “The World’s Smartest Man”, Veidt now owns several companies that do different things: market a toy line, advanced scientific research, etc.

Finally, there’s The Comedian, a.k.a.  Edward Blake.  Having served with the original team of adventurers, dubbed ‘The Minutemen’, he’s been around since the beginning.  Throughout the years, he’s developed this viewpoint towards the world, one that’s made him cynical, and eventually, a viewpoint that made him realize how insignificant his actions are.  No matter how many badguys they put away, the world will still be shitty (that’s a brief summation of his character, but it will suffice for the sake of this review).

The movie starts with the murder of Blake by someone who apparently knows how to kick a lot of ass.  Rorschach then makes it his mission to find those responsible.  He comes to the conclusion that someone is targeting former masked adventurers, he goes to see Dreiberg and Dr. Manhattan, in hopes of warning them and enlisting their aid.  They all think he’s crazy and that his death was an isolated incident.  Things get more complicated when Dr. Manhattan goes on a self-imposed exile to Mars following an emotionally distressing public interview, followed by an accusation that he was inadvertently responsible for the deaths of people he cared about.  All of which died of cancer, something his accusers attribute to Manhattan’s molecule-altering abilities.

The plot only gets more complicated from there, so I see it of little consequence to put it here.  What I want to get to now is the visual style of the movie.  Just like with 300, Zack Snyder went back to the source material and lifted as much as he possibly could from the graphic novel’s panels.  With the exception of some slight costume changes, everyone in the movie looks like their printed counterparts.  And though the book and the movie aren’t heavy on action, what action there is hits pretty hard.  The style of action for the movie is very similar to that of 300, but with less dramatic flair.  It actually looked a lot like the faux kung-fu from the Matrix movies, not that it’s entirely a bad thing.  For example, there’s a scene where Laurie and Dan break into a prison in order to break the recently captured Rorschach out.  The prison is in the state of a massive riot, with the guards and the inmates battling it out.  Laurie and Dan jump right into the middle of it, and the combat looked very reminiscent of the battle scenes from 300, complete with occasional slow-mo, exaggerated sound effects, and blood.  Basically, its effective, fun to watch, and pretty much what I thought the combat would look like.

The sound design in this movie was also great.  Granted, I was watching it in an IMAX theatre, where the sound setup is among the best in the theatre industry.  Every sound came through clear, whether it was a bone breaking, the thrusters of Dreiberg’s ship, the Archimedes, firing, or the gravely voice of Rorschach.  Also, the choice of music was good; I especially liked the ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ during a short flashback to Vietnam, where a giant Dr. Manhattan dominating over a battlefield decimating all of the NVA and Vietcong soldiers.  And Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A Changin'” being played over a well-crafted title sequence was a stroke of genius.

The cast is also strong.  It is said that if you screw up in casting, you screw up the movie.  You get the right actors to play the right parts, and most of the director’s work is done.  In Watchmen, all the actors fit perfectly into their roles.  Special notice should go to Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan, who brings a sense of sadness to the super-being’s detached look at humanity, and Jackie Earle Haley, who may not look like Rorschach in real-life, but after watching this movie, no one could’ve played him better.

What I didn’t like is some of the make-up.  They did a great job with someone like The Comedian; the story shows him during different eras, and he ages appropriately.  But, some characters like Nixon or Pat Buchanan look kinda bad.  Their faces appears saggy and rubbery and unconvincing.  People might say that it could be a caricature of the real person, but it just didn’t look good to me.

———————

Now, to what might be the most controversial part of the movie, and one that will have fans of the graphic novel arguing about for years: the changes in the plot.  This also where I will draw the most similarities to the movie and graphic novel.  If you’re not looking for spoilers, stop reading now.

After finishing the book, I admit I was slightly underwhelmed.  Everything about the story and the world in which the character lived in was completely believable, up until that  final chapter.  Veidt tricks the world into going into this new age of peace by making it seem that the planet faces a serious threat from outside this dimension.  With the help of some kidnapped geniuses and creative types, along with research that his own companies were doing, Veidt creates this  giant creature which he plans to teleport into New York City.

Upon teleportation, the creature will die, thus causing its brain to unleash a powerful psychic wave that would kill millions.  Russia, alarmed that this incident could easily happen in one of their own cities, decides to bury the hatchet with the U.S. and work together to face this threat.  The other heroes are appalled at this, but they eventually agree to it.  Veidt’s reasoning is that peace must come at any cost.  If it takes the sacrifice of millions of lives to save billions, then so be it.  Even if the peace was based on a lie, it is still peace and should stave off nuclear war for the time being.

(I know what I just explained skipped over some details, but I’m summarizing here).

My issue with that is that the whole ‘tentacled monster’ thing seemed very deus ex machina to me.  Yes, they made some small references to this group of missing geniuses in the beginning of the book, but by the last chapter I had completely forgotten about it.  The whole thing seemed very comic-booky to me.  Sure, Dr. Manhattan is also extreme, in that he actually has superpowers, but Moore took the time to create a history for the character and to allow the reader to get inside his head.  With the tentacled monster, it seemed to come from nowhere and, to me, didn’t have a shred of believability to it.  Yes, I did enjoy the book and have not read anything that delved into the psyche of its heroes as well as Moore’s writing has.  But, no, I was not completely satisfied with the ending.

In the movie Watchmen, Zack Snyder and the writing team get rid of the monster thing entirely.  Instead, Veidt destroys most of NYC, along with several other major cities around the world, and attributes it to Dr. Manhattan.  Veidt makes it seem that Manhattan was under sever emotional distress and after leaving Earth, he unleashes his anger and kills millions.  Again, that’s a quick summary, but that’s basically what happens.

And I bought it.  It’s a drastic change, sure, but one that made sense, considering what the movie was telling and showing us.  Throughout the beginning of the movie, they were dropping hints and clues as to this research being done by Veidt with the help of Manhattan.  Those scenes made complete sense by the end, and it brought everything full circle.

I know, I know, anyone who reads this review and hold Alan Moore’s words to be gospel probably think I’m and idiot.  And that’s fine, everyone has their own opinions.  What the book’s fans need to realize is that there are some things that just don’t translate very well from printed media to the screen.  Some changes need to be made in order to keep the story going.  There’s a whole subplot involving Hollis Mason that was cut, only because that had no real impact to the story as a whole.  And that’s fine with me.  I believe that many changes they made to the plot were smart changes.  They don’t take away from the story, but they don’t diminish things, either.

——————-

I know I’m about to be a bit hypocritical and do some backpedaling of my opening statements, but the question must be asked: Is the movie ‘better than’ or ‘as good as’ the book?  My answer is no.  There are so many details that help describe the world they live in that would be impossible to put on the screen without meandering from the story.  All of those parts that close each chapter in the book are gone, and I personally loved reading them.  They added depth to each character, and made them feel like real people.  You lose that when watching this movie.

That being said, I still think fans of the book should check this out, if only to see if Alan Moore was right (he said this movie was trash, even without seeing a frame of it).  What I find funny is that all those fans that revere Alan Moore probably saw Watchmen, and they shouldn’t have.  Moore doesn’t want anything to do with this movie and doesn’t want his fans to watch it.  Now, should the uninitiated watch WatchmenRoger Ebert, who has not read the book, has already given the movie his praise:

“The film is rich enough to be seen more than once. I plan to see it again, this time on IMAX, and will have more to say about it. I’m not sure I understood all the nuances and implications, but I am sure I had a powerful experience. It’s not as entertaining as “The Dark Knight,” but like the “Matrix” films, LOTR and “The Dark Knight,” it’s going to inspire fevered analysis. I don’t want to see it twice for that reason, however, but mostly just to have the experience again.”

I think that the experience outweighs the story in this version.  The average viewer may not fully understand what’s going on, but Snyder, the cast, and the whole team have created a streamlined version that points back toward the graphic novel.  If you watch Watchmen, and at least liked it, you should read the book.  But, as its own separate entity, Watchmen is  enjoyable in its own right.  Not on the same level as The Dark Knight (the obvious standard all superhero movies will be held to), but better than most comic book adaptations.

7.5/10

(images from Yahoo!)

The IMAX Experience

Unlike The Dark Knight, I can’t remember seeing any footage shot specifically in the IMAX format (70mm).  I could be wrong, but nothing in the movie filled up the massive screen.  That doesn’t take anything away from the end result, but it would have been awesome to see a gigantic Dr. Manhattan towering over Vietnam in true IMAX format.

Oh, and the line we waited in definitely smelled better than the line for The Dark Knight.  In me review of that film, I mentioned that people probably didn’t bother to shower before going to the theatre.  In this case, most people did, and only these two guys, who thankfully moved further down the row in front of us, had any repugnant stench.  I did have a tiny can of body spray with me just in case I had to spray someone who was smelling funky.

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