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Watchmen (2009): ****

Directed by Zack Snyder

I saw Watchmen twice before I wrote this review. Why? Because like many people my age, I read the comics on which the movie is based. So the first time I saw the film I automatically found myself comparing it to the source material. They changed that line, they cut out this part, they emphasized that a lot more, etc. The second time I saw it I already knew what it was, so I was able to enjoy it simply for itself and not as an adaptation. It is that 2nd viewing that I now review.

Watchmen is an experience. A densely woven, beautiful and ugly, loud and crass, exciting and solemn, funny and dreadful. It is not a simple movie. It is not a subtle movie. It is not an easy movie. But it is a great movie.

Watchmen has a basic plot: a man is murdered. It turns out he used to be a masked hero. Who killed him and why? Are his retired compatriots at similar risk? But the plot is not really very important as a plot; the plot serves as a way to guide the viewers through this alternate 1985 world. And that's what this movie really concentrates on, this world of costumed adventurers, looming nuclear war, and a 5-term President Nixon. It opens (after the murder) with a brilliant montage that starts in 1940 and brings us up to the present day, showing an alternate history of how the world is different because of the existence of superheroes.

The essential question of Watchmen is: how do you live in this world? I was only a kid in the mid-80s, so I vaguely remember a world in which nuclear holocaust seemed highly probable. In the mid-80s of Watchmen, nuclear holocaust doesn't just seem highly probable; it seems nigh inevitable. Say you're a regular guy who dresses up in a costume and fights criminals. Is beating up some punks in an alley going to prevent World War III? How do you go about your normal life when the fate of the entire planet is in the hands of a couple of irresponsible, bigoted assholes who can kill you and everyone you love with a push of a button, and there's nothing you can do about it?

That sense of dread, of impending doom hangs heavily over the whole film. Characters joke that they don't worry about the consequences of their actions because they'll probably get nuked tomorrow. The character Dr. Manhattan, the only superhero with genuine super powers, who can usually see into his own future, casually says that his future visions are disrupted by a large burst of tachyons, most likely caused by nuclear war. If everything mankind has ever striven for is wiped out in an instant, what is the point of any of it? Of anything?

Dr. Manhattan is the most intriguing of all of these superheroes. Created (by being, ironically, destroyed), as is the norm, in a freak scientific accident, he has the ability to do, well, just about anything. He exists just outside of normal space/time. He can see his past, present, and the future all at once. He has vast telekinesis. He can create duplicates of himself, into each one of which he can focus 100% of his concentration simultaneously. He can grow enormously in size. He is a force of such magnitude that he approaches godhood. As a former colleague says, "God exists, and he's American."

He's so much of a force that he can hardly be said to be human anymore, and indeed he seems to be drifting away from human concerns. Eventually he exiles himself to Mars, and in one of my favorite sequences in the film he remembers his own origin story and lets it go. "Why would I save a world I no longer have any stake in?"

The movie is full of Big Ideas© like that. It asks the questions and then watches its characters squirm around, grasping for answers. How can this world be saved? Should it? At what cost?

Almost as important as the world in which Watchmen exists and the questions it raises is the visual impact of the film. It is gorgeous to look at. Gorgeous. And disturbing. There are moments of jaw-dropping beauty, like the Mars sequences. And there are moments of unflinching, raw, brutal violence. The kind of violence that most movies would cut away from, but this one shows with a steady, unblinking camera. The colors are rich and saturated, except when they shouldn't be, as when showing the filth of a run-down New York. Specific details fill every corner of every shot. The images seem to breathe with their own life. Nuclear forces seem to surge beneath Dr. Manhattan's skin. The air around him seems full of forces of its own.

Almost as good as the world, almost as good as the visuals, are the characters and the casting. Watchmen has an almost flawless cast. The movie is literally an ensemble, with characters occupying the whole gamut of the philosophical and neurotic spectrum.

The closest thing the movie has to a POV character is Dan Dreiberg, AKA Nite Owl, played with delightful awkwardness by Patrick Wilson. Nite Owl is played as a geek who becomes a superhero not out of a sense of justice, but because he's a huge fan of the previous Nite Owl. As Nite Owl he's a well-meaning, straight-laced superhero, but as Dan Dreiberg he seems almost paralyzed by social anxiety and is impotent to do anything about his life (literally).

Jakie Earle Haley plays Walter Kovacs, AKA Rorschach, a man who exists in a world of black-and-white, uncompromising morality and conspiracy theories. Edward Blake, AKA the Comedian, who chose that identity because, "Once you realize what a joke everything is, being the Comedian is the only thing that makes sense." Matthew Goode plays Adrian Veidt AKA Ozymandias, the smartest man in the world who is wrapped up in antiquity and also in seeing the big picture. Malin Akerman plays Sally Jupiter, AKA the 2nd Silk Spectre, who only became a superhero because her mom (played by the lovely Carla Gugino) was the original Silk Spectre back in the 40s. Akerman's voice sounds almost exactly like Drew Berrymore. She's probably the weakest of the core actors, but then Sally isn't exactly the strongest of characters.

The strongest performance, ironically, is the one that isn't even really there at all: Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan. Crudup was replaced in the film by a motion-captured, digitally-rendered CGI Dr. Manhattan. The effect is not flawless; there are times when Manhattan moves (especially his fingers and hands) that just do not look quite... right. But this is one case where it actually helps. It makes Dr. Manhattan seem less human. But the true brilliance of the performance is in the voice. It would be too easy and too obvious to give Dr. Manhattan a booming "superhero" voice. What a great choice, then, to have Crudup speak with such a soft, gentle voice. It totally works and it something I probably would never have thought of myself.

The movie is not without flaws. It sometimes tends towards the overdramatic. It isn't at all subtle, especially in its use of music. There's probably a little too much slow motion. And the wire-fu fight scenes, while well-done, seemed out of place in a movie that was trying in all other ways to be as realistic as possible, under the circumstances.

Quibbles, though. The film is an experience. It is fascinating to look at. It asks intelligent questions and presents multiple attitudes towards the answers. It shows you things you'll never be able to see in your real life. And that, folks, is what I want to see when I go to a movie.

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