Review: Watchmen @ BFI IMAX

By M@ Last edited 175 months ago
Review: Watchmen @ BFI IMAX

Look. Stop standing around and go kill some bad guys.

With 13,000 tickets sold at the South Bank IMAX more than a week before release, and additional shows scheduled for 3.45am on Sunday mornings, the words 'hotly anticipated' hardly do it justice. Such is the hype surrounding Watchmen, the latest movie adaptation from an Alan Moore graphic novel.

Transforming the intricacies and subtlety of any decent comic book into the movie format would take superhero powers, one of the reasons Moore never sanctions the screen incarnations of his masterpieces. The turgid, trades-description-defying League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie, or the hollowed-out body cavity that is From Hell are just two examples of this butterfly to caterpillar transformation. Filming a Moore novel is like trying to compress a hike in the Sierra Nevada into a single camera-phone image.

So that's our straw man built up like a seemingly unassailable supervillain. But can we knock him down?

Yes. Because Watchmen somehow succeeds where the others have failed. It takes the best of the two mediums, chews them together, and spits out a bolus of phlegm whose complex elements stick together surprisingly well en route from the giant IMAX screen to your receptive, jaw-dropped face.

It's also preposterous. Just like the novel. Very briefly, the story concerns two generations of superheroes (though only one individual is actually 'super' and most are not 'heroes') known as Minutemen and Watchmen. Multiple storylines flick back and forth through time, charting the rise and fall of the masked avengers, their soap opera entanglements and ignominious ends. The various threads settle down on an alternative 1985 where Nixon is still president, masked heroes are banned and an omnipotent blue man called Dr Manhatten maintains the balance of power against an ever-more beligerent Soviet Union. As the film progresses, the clock of mutually assured destruction approacheth midnight, while the remaining Watchmen are sucked into the confused powerplay of corporations, nations and the god-like Manhatten. Down to Earth it ain't.

Yet somehow it all works. While no 2.5 hour film could match the subtleties of the novel, the baroque world of the Watchmen is artfully conceived by 300 director Zack Snyder. The largely unfamiliar cast are solid; an initially hammy Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) appears to let the side down until his unmasking transforms the portrayal into a deeply menacing performance. You'll cover your eyes as limbs are snapped, chewed and sawed, and check out the most horrific deep-fat-fryer scene since Spooks Series 1. But the violence never overpowers the production, much as the special effects are perfectly judged to assist the storytelling rather than supplant it. Watchmen is a compelling, draining and gutting movie, and won't be reviewed anywhere without at least one of the words 'bleak', 'nihilistic' or 'dystopian'. But it also contains many subtle touches and background details reminiscent of the novel (keep an eye on the Martian craters and the posters and adverts of New York). The final result is an impressive feat of cinematography that can be appreciated on its own terms without reference to the Moore original.

Still, it's not as good as the graphic novel though, is it?

Watchmen is out from the 6 March at the BFI IMAX, and lesser screens nationwide.

Last Updated 27 February 2009