Watchmen (2009) Movie Reviews

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Watchmen (2009)  Movie Reviews

Compelling, exciting and original

Watchmen (2009) Movie Reviews

It is 1985, Richard Nixon is serving his fifth term as US president and the world stands on the brink of destruction as the world's two superpowers vie for nuclear supremacy. The only thing stopping the USSR from launching a doomsday attack is America's Dr Manhattan – a being with enough power to destroy planets and much else besides.

Wow! I was lucky enough to watch this at a preview screening in London last night and came to the film with little knowledge about what to expect. Having seen the posters around the place and perhaps catching one or two of the trailers I was expecting something akin to another "X-Men" movie (which frankly I've never found particularly interesting). However, it was a very pleasant surprise to find that Zack Snyder has served up something entirely fresh and quite dazzling. Watchmen takes the well-worn superhero format and turns it on its head. As you would expect from a movie of this genre you get a tale of attempted world domination by evil baddies, good guys wearing latex costumes, fistfuls of action and spectacular special effects. What you would not expect is to have this interwoven with eye-watering violence (a scene where one particularly nasty bad guy gets a meat cleaver brought down on his forehead being one example), full frontal male nudity (albeit computer generated) and rampant satire. The US political system, military posturing and blind patriotism are all given a bit of a roasting by David Hayter and Alex Tse's script. Add to this a host of compelling performances, notably Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach and Patrick Wilson as Nite Owl, and you have an exceptional cinematic experience.

Watchmen is no ordinary superhero movie and likely to manage the difficult feat of satisfying both the fan-boys and the uninitiated punters (like myself). Its success means it must be highly likely that there will be a sequel – if not several. Catch this early if you can and be one of the first to witness that rarefied thing in cinema – something beautiful, exciting and original.

First, I'm glad I went to see the movie alone. I've heard so many comments focused on a blue dick, or the length of the movie, or some other such nonsense, that I'm sure watching it with someone would have been a constant barrage of commentary and complaint. And no, that's not Javier Bardem. 

Yes, the movie is long; nearly three hours. But, unlike the dreadfully insipid Titanic, at the end of this movie I wasn't asking for those three hours of my life back. And, as with all such movies, you must be able to look beyond the literal.

Watchmen is iconic and iconoclastic, deconstructionist and revisionist, laden with allegory and allusion. Consider, for example, the character Ozymandias. I'm wondering how many people who viewed the film ever even heard of Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem by the same name. The character even quotes the poem on a plinth in his Antarctic lair. The allusion is amazing. Here's the full quote;

And on the pedestal these words appear -- "My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away.'

Clearly one must see the allusion to the work, in this case, of a superhero who hopes to leave mankind a lasting legacy, but realizes in the back of his mind that everything is eventually lost in time. Ozymandias was the first poem I ever examined from an expositional point of view, and I was blown away. The use of it in this movie is equally impactful.

Then there is Dr. Manhattan, named, of course, for the Manhattan Project, which yielded the atomic bomb. His character is an allegory for God, and his relationship with man mirrors the apparent detachment with which God sees suffering in the world He created. The deity reference is reinforced often, and one thinks of Oppenheimer's citation of the Bhagavad-Gita, in which Vishnu takes on a godly form and says, "Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."

In an expository scene in the second act, Dr. Manhattan has a sort of recollection of his life. His account is dizzyingly elliptical, since he does not see time as linear the way others do. This scene has the lyrical feel of my favorite piece of fiction, Alan Lightman's almost unbearably beautiful Einstein's Dreams, and the reference to Einstein cannot be ignored.

But the real beauty of Watchmen is the moral diversity of its superheroes. Each is flawed in different ways, allowing us to inhabit different ethical perspectives, intellectually at least, and witness their consequences. Everything from Rorshach's refusal to compromise, which makes him a doomed fugitive, to the ultimate compromise envisioned by Ozymandias, who can dispassionately evaluate scenarios where millions of lives are sacrificed, calls into question our most cherished beliefs. Where does it leave you? Well, that's for you to decide.

From a purely entertainment perspective, Watchmen is stunning. The visuals are state of the art, and do not suffer from the sort of mental rejection I have for some movies that present too many special effects to swallow at once as reality. And Watchmen doesn't suffer from Hollywood's apparent fascination with camp in comic book movies. Camp works to some degree in Spiderman, since he's a somewhat humorous character to begin with. But the excess of camp rendered the Fantastic Four sequel unwatchable. Watchman proves that superheroes can use more subtle forms of humor, such as irony, without devolving into camp for cheap laughs.

And the music, oh, the music. If you didn't grow up in the 60's and 70's, you will surely miss some of the impact, but don't worry. Even a second hand recollection of such iconic tunes will suffice. I am reminded of the painfully awful Across the Universe, which couldn't even pull together a decent movie built around the greatest catalog in modern music. Watchmen does it in spades.

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