Friday, March 6, 2009

Review: Watchmen

Film: Watchmen
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
In a nutshell: Faithful adaptation that provokes and delivers in great measures

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

For people who don't speak Latin (that includes me) it roughly translates to "who watches the watchmen?," a question Plato asked in his work, 'Res Republica.' In the film, 'Watchmen,' it is the superheroes (or vigilantes) that get asked this question.

They are masked vigilantes, prepared to risk their lives to uphold justice. Yet like the people they fight, they are themselves flawed. For one masked hero, being a sociopath is necessary to stop other sociopaths. The Comedian is almost amoral in his approach to justice. "What happened to the American Dream? It came true. You're looking at it."

So what made Time Magazine refer to 'Watchmen' as "a superlative feat of imagination, combining sci-fi, political satire, knowing evocations of comics past and bold reworkings of current graphic formats into a dysutopian [sic] mystery story" and even made it to their list of the 100 best English-language novels (yes, novels) from 1923 to the present? Why did 'Watchmen' deserve the Hugo Award? Entertainment Weekly placed it at Number 13 of the best novels written in the last 25 years, referring it as "the greatest superhero story ever told and proof that comics are capable of smart, emotionally resonant narratives worthy of the label literature."

The fight the Watchmen fight is more morally ambiguous and emotionally exhausting than what Bruce Wayne faces in the excellent 'The Dark Knight.' These 'heroes' find themselves outcasts of society, unable to become normal yet has no choice but to adhere to society's contempt for vigilance. Society cheers these brightly-clad warriors when trouble strikes, but quickly cast them aside as freaks, as self-proclaimed Gods or judges who have no right to exercise justice without a designated badge.

Yes, this is the closest thing comic books (or graphic novel) had ever come to literature. Many would argue 'Watchmen' even crossed that boundary by a great margin. With its abundance of motifs and layers, the story is character-driven, and it dealth with themes like heroism, morality, human nature and war in such depth that many novelists can't even dream of. It requires multiple readings to fully appreciate the depth of Alan Moore's exploration to the notion of heroism.

And I haven't even started talking about the film.

This is as faithful as it gets without it getting to five hours long. Still, at 160-minute long, it'll be quite hard to digest if you have a short attention span. Its highly stylistic aesthetic is gorgeous and beautiful to look at. Like in '300' the screenplay is pretty much the comic book. Yet it works in a completely different way. The colours are more human, more gritty. The costumes are both parodies and tributes of the common comic book superhero. The sets are wonderfully constructed, detailed to the point you can point out countless graffiti that also appeared in the book.

The narrative, though captivating and beautiful, can feel disjointed. This is really what you expect from a straight adaptation of a comic book. These two are very different mediums. Some people have said in the past 'Watchmen' is the most unfilmable comic book out there. Yet Zack Snyder succeeds with few hiccups.

The soundtrack is quite unique for a very serious superhero movie. Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix shouldn't even work in a movie like this, but it did, wonderfully.

I suggest reading the comic book first. It really helps with the multi-layered story. Stick to your own pace. The film gives you no breaks to digest the story, essentially compressing a 12-book series into one motion picture. Many people will find the film convoluted because of this. But like when watching many great films (example: 'The Shining,' '2001: A Space Odyssey,' 'There Will Be Blood') you have to treat patience as a virtue.

By the way, it's rated 18 for graphic scenes of violence and sex (though not explicit) and mature themes. Does that make a difference? I think in Brunei some of the scenes will be cut, inevitably. I hope this doesn't make the film more disjointed and confusing.

Signing out

Over and out

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