Epic 'Watchmen' delivers in style


POSTED: Friday, March 06, 2009

Gutsy doesn't begin to cover it. Turning “;Watchmen,”; the most celebrated—and most hyped—graphic novel of all time into a movie is just inciting a fanboy riot. The guy who wrote the thing, Alan Moore, walked away from the project even before it started, because his precious comic-book masterpiece was apparently too perfect as it stood.





        Rated: R

Opens Friday in theaters; Regal Dole Cannery will also be screening the film in IMAX






The original “;Watchmen”; graphic novel, which started out as 12-issues-only of a DC comic, was published in the '80s and became an immediate stylistic reference for clever writers, particularly of episodic television. The vignettes and character-building flashbacks made no sense on their own, instead becoming clues to assemble a coherent story arc. It engages the viewer's brain in the process, the opposite of normal TV-viewing habits. This is also exactly the way dreams work, imposing narrative order upon seemingly random, but fiendishly designed and thematically gravid imagery and action.

“;Backstory”; is something actors conjure to imagine complete lives for their characters. But the structure of “;Watchmen”; is ALL backstory, and we assemble the pieces to understand events of the present. The magic of “;Watchmen”; is that the events of the present are not just illuminated by the past, but that the motives of everything—even our reason for existence on Earth—is hotly debatable. “;Watchmen”; is a Philosopher's Stone of plotting, the universe of reason made malleable.

The children of “;Watchmen”; are shows like “;Lost”; and “;Heroes”; and “;Life on Mars.”; The ancestors of “;Watchmen”; are novelists like Thomas Pynchon, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Italo Calvino. (Hey, now that “;Watchmen”; has been made into a movie, how about “;Gravity's Rainbow”;!!! Dudes! Tyrone Slothrop's Raketemensch is the original ennui-driven superhero!) It's not exactly popular entertainment, or even populist entertainment, but it is a work that makes one think and ponder and reflect. And it has some bitchin' eye-candy special effects and slam-bang action.

Whew. That's a lot of freakin' baggage to drag into a movie theater. Don't worry, there won't be a test. You don't have to prep. You may want to sit around at Starbucks afterward and hotly debate the significance of what you've seen—particularly the solution within a solution within a solution elliptically hinted at in the film's final “;battle”;—and it really is a coffeehouse, college-debate groove “;Watchmen”; is on, but Jeez, it's just a movie. It's projected onto you. In the original work—and in most good fiction—you project yourself. That's why pouty writer Alan Moore stalks away from any and all movies of his works.




        The “;Watchmen”;

Thomas Pynchon's “;Gravity's Rainbow”;




Does it work? Pretty much. “;Watchmen”; is quite amazing to look at, and the film's editing and structure handles the issue of time passage adroitly. There's no point in going into plot details; you either know it by heart or have no clue whatsoever, but basically, the crew has done a brilliant job of shoehorning an epic tale into a big movie. (There's a “;director's cut”; looming on the horizon, however, even more epic, by which we mean longer, and no bathroom breaks.)

There are many pleasures in the film, chief among them its high sense of low style, director Zack Snyder's brilliant handling of action and effects and the fabulous old-style pop soundtrack. On the minus side, well, maybe it's a little talky: The philosopho-babble drones on. And on. Particularly the big blue guy, Dr. Manhattan, who stands around naked on Mars and builds gigantic whirligigs and sees the past and present simultaneously. (He's the only one with actual superpowers, it seems: Everyone else is a vigilante in tights, which is one of the themes, after all.)

Of the cast, the standout is Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach, who spends most of the film with a stained sock over his face, and when it's off, he's like a troll version of Clint Eastwood at his scariest. Rorschach is frightening as hell, and the easiest to understand, although he's more demonically driven than most of the “;heroes”; in this tale.

And there are quotes around that word for a reason.