[Review]Skilled imitation of comic book classic hits the screen

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[Review]Skilled imitation of comic book classic hits the screen

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Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) is the only masked hero who still roams the streets in “Watchmen” - but he’s not the only one trying to save the world. [CineSeoul]

Isaac Asimov once wrote that there were three stages in the history of science fiction. The first focused on simple fantasy: What adventures will we take in the future? The second, on technology: What will science do for us in the future? And the third, on sociology: How will the future change us?

The original “Watchmen” series, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons in the mid-’80s, helped take the superhero comic book medium into the final stage and remains its greatest masterpiece.

Where “X-Men” just used current events to give the heroes one more villain over whom to triumph, “Watchmen” confronted cultural decay and the threat of nuclear annihilation with all its raw, bloody implications. It brought the sexual fetishes that had always bubbled between the covers of comics to the surface for all to see. And it asked the question: In a world where anonymous heroes roam wherever they please, “who watches the watchers?”

Set at the height of the Cold War, “Watchmen” follows an ensemble cast of masked heroes whose time has passed: outlawed and marginalized, most have hung up their capes and gotten on with their lives. One who hasn’t is the uncompromising vigilante paranoiac calling himself Rorschach, who tortures for information and kills without regret. When masked-hero-turned-sadistic-rapist the Comedian is murdered, Rorschach chases a conspiracy that brings his old friend the Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) out of retirement.

Meanwhile, the Soviet Union is pushed to the edge of nuclear attack by the existence of Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), a man who through an accident has been untethered from space and time, able to manipulate matter as he sees fit. Now the superman is working with Ozymandias, another ex-hero who has become a business magnate, to save the world from destruction.

Two decades later, Hollywood special effects have finally caught up with Gibbons and Moore’s imaginations. And the film is worshipfully faithful to its source. Every page director Zack Snyder and his writers has chosen to include is translated nearly frame for frame onto the screen, and the message emerges basically intact despite a changed ending.

But the cost of casting actors who look exactly like their comic originals is stilted, unexciting performances. The mother-and-daughter heroes played by Carla Gugino and Malin Ackerman are especially bad, while Jackie Earle Haley does nothing more than ape Christian Bale’s Batman growl. The film also features perhaps the worst Nixon ever, by Robert Wisden in a ridiculous fake nose and chin. (If you want to see how it’s supposed to be done, see Frank Langella in “Frost/Nixon,” coincidentally also opening this week.)

The original comic has an extremely anti-corporate bent, which, unsurprisingly, doesn’t survive the transition to Warner Bros. action blockbuster - a syndrome common to the last adaptation of an Alan Moore comic, “V for Vendetta.”

In the end, the film doesn’t bring anything new to the table, other than to beef up the novel’s anti-heroes and add rock ballads. Just as with Snyder’s previous film “300,” “Watchmen” is simply a skilled imitation. Unfortunately, unlike “300,” there’s more to this comic than Hollywood pornography.

Besides, the revolution “Watchmen” inspired has already hit Hollywood, most prominently in the form of “The Dark Knight,” which tackles almost identical themes. And the Cold War is over.

Today’s primary extinction threat is more insidious - that we will suffocate ourselves in our own waste. It’s not as quick, it’s not as sexy and it can’t be solved with an action sequence. Hollywood has tried and failed to make it thrilling (see: “The Day After Tomorrow,” “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”)

But I’m sure that if Rorschach were alive today, he’d have seen it coming.

Watchmen

Superhero / English

161 min.

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By Ben Applegate Deputy Editor [bapplegate@gmail.com]
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