Lowdown: A gang of superheroes watch over as humanity is on the brink of a nuclear holocaust.
Watchmen is one of those rare cases of a comics turned feature film to receive virtually unanimous praise; I had to watch it. A work colleague ordering the special-special edition Blu-ray from overseas pushed me to rent the Blu-ray out. To him, the “normal” special edition Blu-ray was not good enough; it was more than two and a half hours long but obviously not long enough.
Watchmen takes place in some alternate reality that is not too far off ours, with the main difference being the existence of superheroes. Their existence, starting off with World War II era nuclear experiments, causes history to go slightly differently: the war in Vietnam was won conclusively and, perhaps as a result of that victory, now in the eighties Nixon is in his fifth term as the president of the USA. Friction with the USSR is at its peak with both sides arming tens of thousands of warheads, all ready for a nuclear exchange (for the record: while that number may sound excessive, it's not even an order of magnitude larger than the number of warheads the USA and Russia still have today). The only thing stopping a nuclear exchange is the fear of the Watchmen.
But who are the Watchmen? We don't really know; we learn about them slowly, one by one, as the film progresses [slowly]. They appear to be a gang of friends working together, and we learn the older generation had superhero children as they went into old age retirement.
At present, the question becomes who is watching the Watchmen, as they appear to be the target of someone out to rid the world of them. Our heroes have to retire from retirement or, at least for the younger female superhero, find their place in this world so they can solve that mystery and make sure there is someone to stop a nuclear war. Eventually, the solution proposed by the film is a rather dark one, a solution that says a thing or two about the nature of human beings.
The cast of Watchmen managed a twist to my eyebrows: for a film that obviously required a big budget with special effects and all, I was unable to detect anything more than a vaguely familiar face. Subsequent peeks at IMDB revealed I had met some of the characters before: The blue animated superhero played some familiar roles before, including a starring role in Almost Famous (to his credit he does make a brief in-the-flesh appearance); and the femme fatale superhero character did have a central role in Heartbreak Kid (guess I should have recognized her breasts; more on those below). Still, I praise the use of the unfamiliar and the lack of reliance on star power: obviously, it did not hinder the film but it did give some unfamiliar talent, at least in relative terms, a fair go.
Style is of the essence in Watchmen; it often takes center stage. Action shots are full of sudden slow motion breaks, in a style not unlike Matrix’. Not only that, they are designed to look so artistic that a punch in someone’s face is meant to be perceived by the viewer as poetry in motion. Then there’s the basic look and feel: Watchmen features a high contrast picture with an emphasis on certain colors that give it a unique feel. At this point it's probably worth mentioning Watchmen was directed by the same guy who did 300, as similarities between the two films are very obvious.
Overall, between its multiple superhero plot and its look & feel with its dark themes, comparisons to The Dark Knight are almost unavoidable. Personally, I am of the opinion Watchmen does a better job when it comes to using its look & feel to generate an unconventional notion that makes it feel unique; given The Dark Knight’s failure to stir me away from indifference, I am of the opinion Watchmen is the superior film of the two. I am, however, well aware of being in a minority opinion here.
Ultimately, though, despite all of its credentials, Watchmen is a bit of a miss in the sense it could have been much better. The uncertainty that comes with not figuring out what is going on a long way into the film, together with its too slow a pace, hurt what could have been the best superhero film ever.
Watchmen has an unconventional aura about it and I find it difficult to point out what it is, exactly, that causes this aura. Since it is very much there, though, I suspect it is the result of many small things; things like the superhero sex scene it features. Obviously, a superhero film should not boast its sex scenes as its best, but Watchmen’s one reminded me why I’m often annoyed with American cinema’s rather too clean portrayal of its heroes.
Case in point is Spiderman 2, overall my vote for best ever superhero film. There is a scene there where the hero takes the girl for a superhero night out, but that night out ends in a rather too innocent a way. Watchmen, on the other hand, goes all the way in its portrayal of a relationship that is significantly less intensive than Spiderman’s as a superhero girl torn between two lovers gets down and dirty. That’s the way films should go: I want to see reality. I want to see my superhero going to the toilet for a dump. I want a proper sex scene, nudity and all, the Watchmen way.
Technical assessment: A great Blu-ray with a wonderful picture (although ultimate quality is hurt by the film’s artistic choice for looks) and a very good soundtrack that knows how to hold you in its grip when it wants to. Talking about soundtracks, I almost forgot to mention the kick-ass music featured in Watchmen, with songs from Hendrix, Simon & Garfunkel and Leonard Cohen.
Overall: Unconventional, interesting, but still not as good as it could have been; it’s too long, for a start. 3.5 out of 5 stars.