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oblivion [Celluloid 03.07.09] movie review scifi action drama fantasy

Year: 2009
Directors: Zack Snyder
Writers: David Hayter & Alex Tse & Alan Moore (graphic novel)
IMDB: link
Trailer: link
Review by: oblivion
Rating: 7 out of 10

“The Watchmen” opens with a fierce and brutal fight scene that lets the audience know exactly what kind of characters will be involved in its story, and what’s at stake. These are super-heroes, make no mistake about it, but they are not your typical caped and costumed paragons. These heroes are gritty, dark, intense, and sometimes bitter and destructive wayfarers of the moral darkness of humanity. And one of them has just been murdered while the world sits on the brink of nuclear warfare. Welcome to “The Watchmen.” Welcome to what some say is the best comic story ever told.

Then, the opening credits roll, delivering a superb montage of the history of the world we are now entering, an alternative 1985 where super-heroes are real and among us, but have become shunned and outlawed. But, the world of “The Watchman” is not to be mistaken for fantasy, but a reality where we can raise the questions of what if heroes were real? How would we treat them? How would we need them? Who would watch over their power? And what would they do to save us from ourselves?

For fans of the “The Watchmen,” I must say that the entire movie is an adaptation loyal to the spirit of Alan Moore’s quintessential graphic novel. The characters are as magnificent and terrifying as you expect, and the story is just as deep, though its lasting impact may be lost on film. I will leave the differences and debate up to you, but I must say that this film, for a fan like me, was 2 hours and 45 minutes of pure thrills and well worth the wait.

For those unfamiliar with the graphic novel, “The Watchmen” redefined the comic industry in the late 80’s, receiving awards and acclaim from well beyond the comic book world. Any synopsis is too shallow for the labyrinthine depth of its story and themes, but, essentially its plot follows Rorschach, one of two active members of an old super-group, as he investigates the killing of The Comedian (the hero killed at the beginning of the movie). It then follows the six main heroes of that super-group (including The Comedian), revealing their complex back-stories as Rorschach continues his sleuthing and uncovers a vast conspiracy to usher in a nuclear holocaust.

To the uninitiated, the characters may seem to be rip-offs of more famous comic heroes, and, indeed, “The Watchmen” parallels the entire world of comics, serving as a potent mirror and critique of that universe and of our own. This is deliberate and true to the comics, as these rich and diverse renditions serve as platforms of social commentary and awareness. That being said, the many levels of the story and characters are not entirely present in this adaptation. Film, as great as it is, is very seldom a proper medium to tell a story as deep and complex as those found in books. As a result, the storyline, though delivered conceptually, lacks the weight it possibly should have. Mostly, this comes from the lack of being able to develop and deliver the importance of the relationship between Dr. Manhattan and Laurie, which is integral to the climax and drama of the story. However, this is not entirely surprising as the screenplay was written by David Hayter (screenplay writer of X-Men and X2). The same lack of intensity, motivation, and emotion between Jean Grey and Cyclops there is present here, resulting in characters that may not be relatable.

However, the cast is nearly perfect and the performances are mostly spot on, leaving the relatability problems to the storytelling not the actors. Jackie Earle Haley and Jeffrey Dean Morgan are just plain amazing as Rorschach and The Comedian, respectively. Each delivers a powerful and layered performance that frequently sent the good kind of shivers down my spine, invoking memories of Ledger’s Joker. Billy Crudup plays Dr Manhattan excellently, and Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) is so perfectly believable as to be seamless.

The director, Zack Snyder, proved in “300” that he can depict on films the rich textures and atmosphere of a graphic novel, so it is no surprise to see him deliver again in “The Watchmen.” Simply, the cinematography and visual effects are superb. As we follow Rorschach’s investigation, we are consistently given shots straight out of film-noir and comics. Low and high-angle shots deliver scale and tension, and the shots of Rorschach kicking in doors, busting heads, and scanning rooms are just perfect for the feel of a hard-boiled detective. Couple this with excellent angled establishing shots, parallel cutting close-ups, shots framed and taken through glass and you have the feel of panel after panel of a live-action comic. Add in some solid effects shots and the result is nothing short of stunning.

However, like “300,” this film is often a little too over the top. While the gore serves to ground this story in realism, it does at times seem excessive, even gratuitous. The fight scenes, though well-done, seem to mostly serve the function of delivering broken bones and blood sprays. A sex scene that should be important to the narrative seems to miss the point, instead seeming to attempt, and fail, with female nudity, at striking a balance with the excessive amount of naked man-bits. Though faithful to the comic, after seeing Dr. Manhattan full-frontal for the fourth time I wondered “if the man can make anything out of matter, can he please make himself a cod-piece?” Alas, my wish did not come true and blue man-bits abounded.

But, the largest negative was in attempting to stay loyal to the comic. Ultimately, what is sacrificed in full development of the story suffers even more by a pacing that may lose many viewers. There is so much exposition and story set-up that many might not have the patience for how and why things develop. Having read the comic, I even found it hard to wade through all the flashbacks, and flashbacks within flashbacks, to find the cohesive narrative present. In a 2 hour and 45 minute movie, pace is critical, but I fear the pacing here might lag and lose most audiences, especially considering the difficulty in relating to every one of its critical protagonists.

Overall, “The Watchmen” is an excellent effort to tell a story that was often deemed “unfilmable,” even with twenty years of development. As a fan, it was an incredible rush to watch this immense story unfold on screen, and I would be tempted to rate it higher and possibly among the best comic book movies ever made. However, to an unfamiliar audience I fear the depth of character, story, relevance, and theme may be missed. Moreover, a regular audience may just not care about these characters and a story that deserves much more acclaim than “300” may go unnoticed. In addition, its pushing of even its “R” rating further limits its accessibility. But for those of us who are fans, or who like our heroes and stories to not pull punches, this is the movie to see.

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Killcrop (14 years ago) Reply

Great on. The big gripe most fans had was the ending...personally i think it made a little more sense than that of the novel..very well done..


Saladyn (14 years ago) Reply

Very good movie. I agree that "anatomical bits" were unnecessary. But the rest, especially Rorshach crusade, are awesome.


agentorange (14 years ago) Reply

Great review. I'm going to see this later in the week to avoid some of the opening weekend crowds.

Now I can't wait!


reginald h. kumbath IV (14 years ago) Reply

you know, I love this site for information about upcoming genre films. but, a major bummer for me is that you guys give glowing praise on far too many crappy films. having written professionally about films before, this appears to me as one of two things: either you guys are outright employees of the industry, paid to create hype around every film you post about. OR, you have serious guilt issues about getting to see free movies, get free screeners, and generally getting a free insider's ride to genre films. I suspect the latter coerces you into praising so many weak filmic efforts. And that's why this review of the Watchmen wins, hands down, as the most obvious "oh man, this film sucked, but I feel bad saying that after all the free crap they gave me" award.
I guess we all have to do whatever it takes to sleep through our nights.


quietearth (14 years ago) Reply

first off that's not what he's saying, and secondly, oblivion is not a regular contributor, he paid to see this.


Anonymous (14 years ago) Reply

he paid to see it and still loved it? I want my 10 bucks back. jeez. I freaking LOVED watchmen years ago and now I understand why moore left his name off. what a steaming pile...


Jay (14 years ago) Reply

The review echoes exactly my thoughts. I also thought the pacing was off.

Weirdly, it reminds me of 'The Golden Compass', which also transposes the story almost exactly from the book, but in doing so, also seems to miss the point of the story. The two are different mediums, and so they shouldn't be dealt with in exactly the same way.

I thought Watchmen was very good, and yet so very flawed. Very different to most films, which really doesn't follow the formula of Hollywood films.

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