Watchmen (2009)

They said it was unfilmable. They were so wrong.

OK, so purists may find some differences between Alan Moore’s beloved, seminal graphic novel and Zack Snyder’s epic adaptation – namely omissions forced by theatrical time constraints – but Snyder has certainly captured the book’s very heart and soul. The essence of what made Moore’s tale a work of genius is up on the screen for all to see, and it looks phenomenal.

It’s 1985, and Richard Nixon presides over an alternate United States on the brink of nuclear war with Russia. The ticking of the doomsday clock has grown ever louder since Nixon outlawed all ‘masked vigilantes’, after the lawless antics of some members of the Watchmen group of superheroes turned the public against them. When one of their number, The Comedian (Morgan) is killed, the remaining Watchmen – Silk Spectre II (Akerman), Nite Owl II (Wilson), Rorschach (Haley), Ozymandias (Goode) and Dr Manhattan (Crudup) realise that they are being deliberately targeted. As they search for the murderer, the fate of mankind soon depends on the Watchmen’s ability to discover the truth.

Snyder is clearly a huge fan of the original novel and, to his unending credit, has stayed resolutely faithful to his pitch-perfect source material. Much has been made of his battles with studio executives to retain the story’s Eighties setting and intensely adult themes, and the film benefits infinitely from his singular determination. This is a superhero movie like none before it – even making The Dark Knight look like a teddy bear’s picnic – and it is most definitely not for kids. It’s bloody, its sexy, it’s gritty – it looks, as it should, like the Watchmen universe brought vividly, aggressively to life.

And praise be, too, that neither Snyder nor screenwriters Alex Tse and David Hayter shied away from the political and moral ideas at the heart of this mayhem. America is shown as a virtual wasteland of humanity, ruled over by a pantomime president prepared to sacrifice his people to neutralize a foreign enemy. It’s like Dr Strangelove meets Apocalypse Now and it pulls absolutely no punches in its message. It remains undiluted for a wider audience and, again, is all the better for it.

But Snyder has pulled off the impressive feat of making a film that should both appeal to fans and win over those who have never picked up the novel. After a truly stunning opening sequence – set to Bob Dylan’s evocative ‘The Times They Are A Changin’ – which effectively sets up the background of the story, the film focuses squarely on the Watchmen, their exploits and fates. There are flashback sequences, but these are handled with such aplomb that they slide effortlessly into the narrative, serving to further define the characters.

And what of these all-important characters? They are, across the board, outstanding – again, it’s like they have been raised from the very pages of the novel. Despite the majority of the cast not having read the book previously , they handle these difficult roles with strength and dedication. Morgan captures the repulsive vulnerability of The Comedian, for example, while Akerman and Wilson positively crackle with the energy between reluctant superheroes Nite Owl and Silk Spectre, and Goode showcases the quiet malevolence of Ozymandias – a man straddling the boundaries between philanthropist and psychopath.

Special praise must go, however, to Haley and Crudup – for creating such vivid characters despite the added pressures of having to act behind a mask and with CGI respectively. As the tormented Rorschach, Haley is jaw-droppingly good, pinning down both his character’s raw aggression and desperate need for vindication, while Crudup lends a detached humanity to the neon blue, omnipresent computer-generated superhero Dr Manhattan. It’s a performance easily as solid and believable as Andy Serkis’s portrayal of Gollum in Lord of the Rings.

Funnily enough, I came out of seeing Watchmen feeling slightly deflated, without knowing why. I now realise that it was a sense of relief after such high anticipation; relief that Zack Snyder has, against all odds, done the best possible justice to one of the greatest novels of all time. Who watches the Watchmen? It’s certainly worthy of the widest possible audience.

5 stars

Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Malin Akerman, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Goode, Jackie Earle Haley, Billy Crudup
Director Zack Snyder
Screenplay David Hayter & Alex Tse, based on the novel by Alan Moore
Certificate 18
Distributor Paramount Pictures
Running Time 2hrs 38mins
Opening Date March 6th