From a filmic standpoint, Watchmen (2009) does not remind this reviewer of anything. Director Zack Snyder, just three films into his career, has managed to create a style that is completely original and uniquely cinematic. Perhaps it was born out of a desire to imitate the kinetic stillness of comic books, but with this film Snyder finds a place in between the action. The glorious title sequence, for example, at first glance looks like a series of still photographs, but upon closer observation, we realize that these are moving images captured with high speed film. There are sequences like this all through out the film, and it quickly settles into a visual style that, it can safely be said, has never been seen before.
Sticking like glue to the plot, pacing, and even dialogue of Alan Moore's original graphic novel of the same name, the film has not an original bone when it comes to the things that happen; where it breaks new ground is how we see these things happen. Filtered through Snyder's brain and the faces of his actors, this cinematic endeavor brings Moore's vision into the living, breathing world.
This is more of an ensemble piece than any other comic book movie to date (even X-Men). We are first introduced to aging, retired superhero Edward Blake, aka The Comedian. He is killed within the first three minutes, but, because of the nonlinear narrative, he is featured throughout the film. Played by Seattle native Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Blake is a violent, cackling psychopath, and everything revolves around trying to solve his murder. The Comedian was part of a band of superheroes in the 1940's called The Minutemen, and then joined the group's successor in the 70's, called The Watchmen. Their activities were eventually outlawed, but one still roams the streets fighting crime: Rorchach (Jackie Earle Haley), an insane noir ninja whose paranoid journal entries provide voice-over throughout. Both Haley and Morgan turn in explosive, charismatic and psychologically subtle performances that save these comic book archetypes from coming off as mere caricature. Rorchach's former partner, Nightowl aka Dan Dreiberg, lives a normal, apartmental existence. Patrick Wilson takes Dreiberg, a somewhat boring character in the comic, and creates a complex and sympathetic every-man who just happens to have a history of fighting crime in a silly costume.
Perhaps the most impressive character is Dr. Manhattan, a former scientist who is transformed into a literal super being through a freak accident. Now he can rearrange matter and perceive time in ways no human can; this unique perspective renders him completely apathetic to the fate of humanity, a fate he can change with but a snap of his fingers. Played through motion-capture by a reflective and tragic Billy Crudup, Dr. Manhattan is the most realistic and impressive CGI character since Andy Serkis' Gollum. His blue skin emits a light that shines upon his surroundings in a surprisingly realistic way, he moves with an earthly weight, and his face is relatable and does not fall into the uncanny valley (thanks, no doubt, to Mr. Crudup).
Rounding out this group of retired superheroes are Malin Akerman as Sally Jupiter, and Matthew Goode as Ozymandias, but neither is visibly old enough for their parts or equipped with enough talent, especially next to their much more impressive cast mates.
Watchmen, the film, has been criticized for having an unwieldy story that is at once over stuffed with subplots and too sparse. These critics do not realize that the film is not here for the story; the reason it exists is to present a collection of moments. The first two thirds are a glorious exhibit of live action filmmaking stretched and bent to fit into new and wondrous places. From the title sequence, to Dr. Manhattan's heartbreakingly beautiful origin story, to The Comedian's final, fatal battle, Mr. Snyder shows us some kind of new, uniquely 21st-century vision of where cinema is going or ought to go.