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THE ABYSS – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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The more times I see The Abyss (1989), the more I am convinced that it is James Cameron’s best film to date. Wedged between megahits, Aliens (1988), and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), The Abyss was unfortunately lost in the shuffle. This may also have been due to the flood of leaky underwater films like Leviathan (1989) and Deep Star Six (1989) that were released around the same time. Even though The Abyss came out after these financial and critical failures, it was dismissed by most critics as yet another underwater disaster. Most reviewers were clearly tired of this string of underwater themed films and assumed that Cameron’s motion picture was no better than the rest. However, this is simply not the case with The Abyss, which, like many of Cameron’s films, is filled with stunning visuals, a strong ensemble cast, and a solid story that is never sacrificed at the expense of the movie’s special effects.

As the film opens, a United States nuclear submarine is accidentally sunk by a mysterious, unidentified source under 2,000 feet of water off the coast of Cuba. Nearby, a corporate owned underwater oil-drilling rig commandeered by Virgil “Bud” Brigman (Ed Harris) is subsequently ordered to aid a group of Navy SEALs, led by the no-nonsense Lt. Coffey (Michael Biehn), to salvage the downed sub and search for survivors, if any. To make the situation even more interesting is the surprise arrival of Bud’s soon-to-be ex-wife, Liz (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), who designed the rig and rejoins the crew to ensure that everything goes smoothly. As the mission progresses, a storm rages topside causing many problems for the rig and its crew. Add to this the growing tensions of nearby U.S. and Russian naval fleets and you have a potentially volatile situation. But this is only the beginning of a string of dilemmas that beset Bud and his cohorts who gradually realize that there is something else down there with them, and it may not be human.

The Abyss
was a project that James Cameron had dreamed of making ever since he was 17 years old. He wrote a “very, very crude and simple story dealing with the idea of being in the very deep ocean and doing fluid breathing and making a descent to the bottom from a staging submersible laboratory that was on the edge.” His original short story concerned the adventures of a group of scientists in a laboratory at the bottom of the ocean, “which is the sort of sci-fi idea that appeals to all kids, I suppose,” he said. Over the years, Cameron became involved in numerous other projects but he never forgot about this underwater adventure and wrote several drafts that changed radically over time but the original idea that started it all remained intact. When Terminator (1984) and Aliens became bonafide box office hits, Cameron was in a position to make his dream project a reality. He had no idea the problems that he would face trying to realize this dream.

The bulk of The Abyss was shot in and around Gaffney, South Carolina. At first, this seems like a rather unlikely place to shoot an underwater epic, but it turned out to be the best place after their decision to shoot on-location became unrealistic. Cameron had originally planned to try filming in the Bahamas where the story is set, but soon realized that he had to have a totally controlled environment because of the stunts and special FX involved. To this end, Cameron found the Cherokee Nuclear Power Station, an abandoned site that proved to be ideal for what they needed. The film crew ended up shooting all of the underwater sequences (this comprised 40% of all live action principal photography) in two specially constructed concrete containment tanks: one holding 7.5 million gallons of water, and the other holding 2.5 million gallons.

As if this wasn’t enough of a challenge, the actual shoot consisted of a grueling six month, six-day, 70-hour a week schedule that took its toll on cast and crew alike. “I knew this was going to be a hard shoot, but even I had no idea just how hard. I don’t ever want to go through this again,” Cameron remarked at the time. And yet, the sense that what they were making was groundbreaking and worth doing was the glue that kept everything together. The film’s producer, Gale Anne Hurd clearly viewed The Abyss in this fashion. “No one has attempted this before, and we had to solve everything from how to keep the water clear enough to shoot, to how to keep it dark enough to look realistic at 2,000 feet where it’s pitch black.” By all accounts, the cast and crew thrived on this challenge, and as the final results demonstrate, succeeded in producing a truly stunning work.

Cameron’s production company had to design and build experimental equipment and develop a state-of-the-art communications system that allowed the director to talk underwater to the actors and dialogue to be recorded directly onto tape for the first time. For all of the underwater scenes they used three cameras in watertight housings specially designed by underwater cinematographer expert Al Giddings, known for his incredible work on The Deep (1977). Another special housing was designed for scenes that went from above-water dialogue to below-water dialogue. Underwater visibility was a major concern for Cameron as he wanted to see the actors’ faces and hear their dialogue. Western Space and Marine built ten experimental diving units for the film. They engineered helmets which would remain optically clear underwater and installed innovative aircraft quality microphones in each helmet.

In addition, Cameron was also breaking new ground in the area of special visual effects, which were divided up among seven FX divisions with motion control work by Dream Quest Images and computer graphics and opticals by Industrial Light & Magic. ILM was brought on board to create the amazing water pseudopod and spent six months to create 75 seconds of computer graphics needed for the creature. However, this work caused the film’s release to be delayed from July 4, 1989 to August of the same year.

The production difficulties that plagued The Abyss have become the stuff of Hollywood legend. There were reports from South Carolina that Ed Harris was so upset by the physical demands of the film and Cameron’s dictatorial style that he said he would refuse to help promote the picture. The actor later denied it and did press for the film. He did admit that the daily mental and physical strain was very intense. He recalled, “One day we were all in our dressing rooms and people began throwing couches out the windows and smashing the walls. We just had to get our frustrations out.” The actors were not happy about the slow pace of filming. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio remembered, “We never started and finished any one scene in any one day.” Michael Biehn was frustrated by the waiting. He claims that he was in South Carolina for five months and only acted for the three to four weeks. Cameron responded to these complaints by saying, “For every hour they spent trying to figure out what magazine to read, we spent an hour at the bottom of the tank breathing compressed air.”

Like all of Cameron’s other films the action plays a secondary role to the central love story — whether it was between Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor in Terminator or Ripley and Newt in Aliens. In The Abyss we are presented with a disintegrating relationship between Bud and Liz. And yet, as the film progresses and we spend more time with these two people, we begin to realize that they still love each other and that this is what adds a real element of humanity to the special effects-laden film. But The Abyss is much more than that. It mixes elements of an exciting thriller, action film, and science fiction story together in one great package. The way the film is structured, we are presented with several small movies that, when linked together, comprise a larger whole. It is this wonderful structure that makes one realize that there is more going on than a search for a missing submarine.

As Cameron demonstrated with Terminator, he has a real eye for action sequences and The Abyss is no different. One scene, in particular, demonstrates Cameron’s ability to create moments of white knuckle intensity. Several compartments of the underwater rig begin flooding, while crew members try frantically to escape to a safer area. Cameron’s hand-held camera follows these men through the claustrophobic hold at such a breakneck pace, via a compelling first person point-of-view angle, that one can’t help but get caught up in the feeling of urgency brought on by this dangerous situation. At times, it feels like you are actually bouncing through the tight corridors of the rig alongside the characters and this enhances the thrill and excitement of such adrenaline-fueled sequences.

The Abyss
is also similar to Cameron’s previous film, Aliens in the sense that both have a top rate ensemble cast. The crew of the rig all have their own distinctive personalities, which are each given their own moment to shine and never detract from the larger story. The interaction between these people has a ring of honesty and authenticity, which suggests that every character is important and crucial to the film’s outcome. But these colorful characters never obscure the three main principles that are also fully-fleshed characters each with his or her own agenda. Ed Harris portrays Bud as a man dedicated to his rig and his people, but he cannot balance his work life with his personal life. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s Liz is, as she later admits, “a cast-iron bitch,” but underneath the hard, tough exterior there are occasional glimpses of a sensitive dreamer fighting to get out. Cameron regular, Michael Biehn (an underused actor also seen in Terminator and Aliens, respectively) personifies intensity as the leader of the Navy SEALs who slowly loses his grip on reality and his priorities, posing a threat to the safety of everyone on the rig. Each of these characters has their own inner conflicts as well as the larger conflict that threatens everyone. One of the pleasures of watching The Abyss is seeing how these personal conflicts play out and resolve themselves by the end of the film.

The Abyss
deviates from Cameron’s other features in the sense that it stresses the idea of settling disputes through non-violent means. Violence in the film is not the solution to the problem, but the source. This idea is illustrated through Lt. Coffey, the main instigator of violence in the film. His violent acts create the many problems that the protagonists face and this ultimately results in his demise. On the other hand, Liz personifies the peaceful alternative. Where the selfish Coffey sees anger and hatred, Liz is willing to sacrifice herself for others. She is the calming effect on everyone and her presence on the rig is pivotal in resolving many of the story’s conflicts. It’s a refreshing view that you don’t often see in films nowadays where everything is solved at the end of a gun. Unfortunately, this viewpoint seemed to have disappeared from Cameron’s subsequent work, which regressed to the usual violent antics. Whether it was because of the film’s failure to connect and succeed on a mass level or the departure of long time partner, Gale Anne Hurd, is unknown, but with a film like True Lies (1994), Cameron abandoned a strong, independently minded female character for one that is objectified by the camera and on the receiving end of a lot of misogynistic behavior. It’s too bad because The Abyss contains none of this and instead points the way for a new kind of action-oriented film that stresses problem solving over violence, while still providing the requisite amount of thrills. This is a much-needed antidote to the mindless violence and anger that is problematic in so many films today.

The Abyss
is a truly special film that never lags in pace or interest thanks to the many stunning visuals courtesy of breathtaking computer animation from Industrial Lights and Magic (effects that were the precursor to ones used in Terminator 2). There are also fascinating characters and exciting, often intense situations that keeps the viewer involved in the story. The Abyss is one of those rare films that you wish wouldn’t end because the world and the characters that inhabit it are so compelling and exciting. This film demonstrates, yet again, that James Cameron is one the few directors who can make good science fiction films, with a strong story, a solid cast, and exceptional images that help elevate it above the usual Hollywood dreck and straight-to-video sci-fi clunkers. And that is truly something special at a time of militaristic, flag-waving propaganda like Independence Day (1996), which purports to be entertainment, but is just another mindless special effects workout.

B Movie Glory with Nate: Guns, Girls And Gambling

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Guns, Girls And Gambling is an absolute doozy of a film. The term ‘so bad it’s good’ was invented for slapdash mockeries such as this, and with every stylistic cliche and ridiculous tactic, it owns the moniker vigorously. The filmmakers are obvious disciples of the neo noir crime thriller, as we see countless hard boiled walking stereotypes prance across the screen. Whenever a character shows up, a garish font announces them in writing below, which is crime genre 101. This happens so many goddamn times though, that eventually I felt like I was watching Mel Brooks’s attempt at a heist flick. It’s silly beyond words, derivitive enough to give you the onset of dementia and admirably dumb. But… I still had fun, at least in parts of it. It concerns the theft of a priceless Native American artifact from a tribal casino. The perpetrators? A gang of Elvis impersonators with, let’s say, interesting characteristics. There’s gay Elvis (Chris Kattan), midget Elvis (Tony Cox), Asian Elvis (Anthony Wong) and Gary Oldman Elvis, played by Gary Oldman who looks like he was dared into taking the role at a frat party. The bumbling Elvises break ranks post heist and the plot thickens, or should I say befuddles, with the arrival of every kooky, sassy assassin and archetype under the sun. Now from what I could make out: Christian Slater plays a dude called John Smith, a ‘wrong place at the wrong time’ type of guy who is swept up into the intrigue and is in way over head. He’s pursued by all kinds of unsavory people, and joined by the girl next door (Heather Roop). There’s The Cowboy (a salty Jeff Fahey), a gunslinging hitman who claims to never miss but literally misses upon firing the first bullet. The Indian (Matthew Willig) is a hulking tomahawk sporting badass. The Chief (Gordon Tootoosis) is the casino owner, muscling in on everyone to get back his artifact. The Sheriff (Dane Cook) is a corrupt lawman out for anything worth a buck. Best of the bunch is a snarling Powers Boothe as The Rancher, a good ol’ southern gangster who languishes in a white limo longer than the cast list of this movie, chewing scenery as vigorously as his cigar. There’s also a sexy blonde assassin called The Blonde (Helena Mattson) who wanders around quoting Poe right before she blasts people’s heads off. Its inane, mind numbing eye candy, with a cast that seems to have been blackmailed into participation. There’s even a last minute twist ending that seems to have wandered in from a much more serious film. It’s quite literally one of the most stupefyingly odd flicks I’ve ever seen. It’s earnestness in aping countless Pulp Fiction style films before it is beyond amusing, and the only thing that will make you laugh harder is how spectacularly and epically it flounders. It’s truly B movie gold, and one that demands a watch simply because it’s a sideshow unto itself.

Ca$h: A Review by Nate Hill

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Ca$h has an obnoxiously tongue in cheek title, and a premise that could have easily run off the rails into the silly zone. But rejoice: It knows how to create a tense, unpredictable environment accented by the slightest bits of naturally occurring humour here and there, a winning combination indeed. Sean Bean doesn’t often get a movie to himself, or at least get to play the lead. Here’s he’s the top dog, and while most would argue that he’s the antagonist as well, I’m in the opposite corner on that one. Yes he’s a criminal, yes he goes to extreme lengths to get his money back, but he’s a rigidly disciplined and staunchly fair bloke, driven by a set of principles and operational tics that reek of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and trust me, it takes one to know one. Oh, and he gets to play identical twins as well, pulling a Parent Trap and acting opposite himself which is a delight to see. When reckless career criminal Reese Kubrick (Bean) dicks up a robbery, loses a bunch of money and gets apprehended, a young couple think they have hit the jackpot. Played by Chris Hemsworth and Victoria Profeta, they find the money and make that fateful cinematic mistake of trying to keep it for themselves. Before they know it, Reese’s brother Pyke (also Bean) comes looking for them, and believe me when I say that this guy is a dude who finds what he’s looking for. Fast. The young couple has already begun to indulge, and as Pyke barges into their lives he finds a great deal of the amount spent. He then buckles down and calmly,  coolly forces them to come up with every remaining cent of the ‘deficit’, as he calls it, even if it means doing a bit of illegal stuff themselves. Bean has a ball as the icy cool, ruthlessly efficiant prick who plays hardball with a glint in his eye. He’s karma manifest, a very real and very dangerous metaphor for the perilous risk of excessive currency and ill gotten gains. It’s a terrific role for him, both in the moments of dangerous serenity and the few rare instances where he loses his cool streak, which sting like daggers. Hemsworth and Profeta play their standard roles very nicely. An arbitrary bit of fun: the actor Glenn Plummer shows up for a hysterical cameo as a dude named, I shit you not, Glenn The Plumber, who receives a whollop of a verbal beatdown from Bean that serves as the film’s most lighthearted moment, and is a riot for anyone who gets the reference. Snuck into limited DVD release back in  2010, this one deserves more than the small shelf space it’s gotten. Fun stuff.

Snow Angels: A Review by Nate Hill

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“Some will fly, some will fall..”

Snow Angels is an agonizing film to put yourself through, as it determinedly focuses on two people who are losing track of their path in life. Their emotional and psychological clarity is dimming, blinded by possible mental illness and lingering tragedy, mentally snowed in, so to speak, like the ironically idyllic Midwestern town they call home. Kate Beckinsale and Sam Rockwell are Annie and Glenn, a couple wading through a bitter separation that is taking a damaging toll on their little daughter (Gracie Hudson). Glenn embarrassingly clings to Annie and what they had, leaning on the crutch of alcohol and making a pitiable fool of himself. Annie is lost and fragile, unsure of appropriate action at this particular crossroads in life. Their story is laced with that of other residents in the town, and you’ll be pleased to know it’s not all doom and gloom: a budding romance plays out with the talents of Michael Angarano and the wonderful Olivia Thirlby. There’s also work from Griffin Dunne, Nicky Katt and the excellent Tom Noonan in an extended cameo that bookends the film’s  enigmatic emotional climate. Rockwell seeths with regret and heartache, lashing out passively at first until his behaviour becomes very destructive to himself and those around them. Beckinsale has never been better, downplaying Annie by bottling up her feelings, and letting them corrosive erupt in a third act of unimaginable tragedy that demands courage and compassion from the viewer. A highly complex, grounding story of lives gone off track and the not always so simple way in which we humans conduct ourselves with each other. A must see.

Alien Resurrection: A Review by Nate Hill

  
To this day it still amazes me how under appreciated and misunderstood Alien Resurrection is. The four films in the series are a quartet of vastly different stories, due to the fact that the torch was passed to four very diverse directors over the course of the legacy. Ridley Scott crafted a tense, claustrophobic catalyst. James Cameron made a rootin, tootin Wild Bunch set in a galaxy far far away where no one can hear you scream. David Fincher gave us an odd, inaccessibly disturbing thriller where the real monsters lurked inside the humans, literally. French Maestro Jean-Pierre Jeunet, best known for his own charmingly surreal quartet of distinctly European wonders Amelie, A Very Long Engagement, City Of Lost Children and Delicatessen, made the final film in the franchise. I once saw a post on IMDB which prompted users to describe each of the Alien films in one word. The one response that stuck with me was: Alien-suspense, Aliens-action, Alien3-unpleasant and Alien Resurrection-weird. Is this accurate? Depends on your opinion of the series. Resurrection is my second favourite, after Aliens. To some it was weird, to many a failure, but to me it’s a bona fide, rip roaring odyssey of gorgeous, gory design and offbeat ideas fleshed out by an absolutely legendary cast, headed up by Sigourney Weaver as Ripley. Two hundred years after she died, she is cloned using parts of the Xenomorph’s DNA, and kept sequestered on a titanic pseudo military ship run by whackos who have never heard of a certain expression involving curiosity and a cat. She awakens, the alien genes giving her a decidedly heightened awareness which Weaver plays with giddy, sinister glee. This ain’t the stalwart Ripley we are used to. Her eyes dance with an unearthly fire that pronounces ‘here be dragons’, in the spaces beyond science that humans foolishly venture into. The station is run by creepy, power hungry Dr. Mason Wren (underrated J.E. Freeman is almost ickier than the monsters themselves), and his sidekick Gediman, played by Brad Dourif in his final form, resembling a demented Pokemon who also raises more goosebumps than the aliens. The good doctor has commissioned a ragtag troupe of space pirates to bring him kidnapped humans in cryogenic sleep to be forcefully impregnated with alien fetuses. Lovely, right? This is where it gets interesting. Joss Whedon penned the script, and the crew of intergalactic badasses in this film are in fact the prototype for his endlessly successful TV series Firefly. Now, he claims that everything about the tone, delivery and execution of this film is wrong, and that the end result butchered his work. Here’s my take: I’ve seen Firefly. It’s good. But the team of space pirates in this movie are eternally more fascinating and worth spending time with. I feel that he really abandoned part of a great premise here, opting for a chipper, watered down version of a vision which presented itself to him and begged for further exploration. Firefly is fun, and it’s characters are a veritable Partridge Family of interplanetary characters to chill with, but it lacks the steel edged nastiness and grit that he began with here. Michael Wincott is a blast as the captain, Frank Elgyn, in a role that’s cut entirely too short but is aces while it lasts. Ron Perlman is a primate on earth and proves the same in space as Johner, the lovable lug of the crew. Gary Dourdan, the only black dude I know with blue eyes is Christie, with more than a few high powered tricks up his sleeves. Jeunet disciple Dominique Pinon plays wheelchair bound Riess, a tougher cookie than one might imagine. Lastly, Winona Ryder is Call, a doll with a pixie cut who takes an immediate shine to Ripley, leading them both to dark and dangerous places. Dan Hedaya makes lively work of Perez, the military honcho in charge, with Raymond Cruz, Kim Flowers and a shrieking Leland Orser rounding out the dream cast. As one might expect, all hell breaks loose in outer space as the creatures breed and hunt anything in their proximity. This provides loose cannon Jeunet with reason to fire off many a special effect that will give your gag reflex a workout and your pulse a solid pounding. There’s seriously gnarly stuff here, especially near the end with a certain fucking monster of an alien hybrid that acts as pure nightmare fuel while also being a bucket of fun at the same time. One of Whedon’s complaints was that his lighthearted script was given the heavy treatment, which obviously clashed with the vision he had. Fair enough. It was his baby after all. But for me though, it works bettering he ever planned. The characters maintain a sense of gallows humour laced with very real danger, garnished with cheeky levity in the face of unimaginable horror. That’s a good recipe to follow in any book I can think of. This one is ripe for redemption, certainly in the eyes of many who panned it upon release, and always ready for a revisit from myself.  

B Movie Glory with Nate: Catch 44

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Catch 44 lives in that lurid interzone of direct to video crime thrillers that have the budget for the bare boned minumum: guns, a few big name actors stopping by for a paycheck, and a hard boiled, often ludicrous tale of criminals, cops and sexy chicks knocking each other off for some unnatainable trinket of wealth. Here we meet three lively femmmes fatale: Malin Ackerman, Nikki Reed and Daredevil’s Deborah Ann Woll, the angel’s to Bruce Willis’s Charlie, in this case a sleazy criminal kingpin named Mel. He tasks them with intercepting a mysterious package that passes through a lonesome truckstop diner. All hell breaks loose when the shotgun toting owner (Shea Wigham) takes them off guard,  and blood is shed. From there it all spirals into a mess of chases, strange pseudo artsy setups and the entire cast hamming it up royally as they essentially go nowhere fast. There’s Forest Whitaker who seems to have wandered in from the loony bin, playing a psychotic Sheriff who switches up his accent from scene to scene until we realize we are sitting there watching an Oscar winner warble out a choppy Tony Soprano impression and have to chuckle at the absurdity of it all. Willis has fun doing his nonchalant smirk to kingdom come and sporting a soul patch that steals his scenes before he gets a chance. There’s also an underused Brad Dourif as a confused highway patrolman who wanders in and out of the story. A lot of pulpy outings like this get accused of aping Quentin Tarantino’s style, and while that is often a lazy, bullshit critic’s cliche, here the claim is understandable and not necessarily a bad thing. The soundtrack is appropriately offbeat, the trio of girls have a Death Proof type cameraderie and Willis ambles through his scenes with a verbosity reminiscent of Pulp Fiction. The story is a little haywire and one wonders what the ultimate outcome even means, but it sure has a ball getting there in violent, kooky fashion.

WATCHMEN – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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To say the Watchmen film (2009) had a long and checkered production history is a massive understatement. Originally a 12-issue mini-series written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons that was released in 1986, it was a revisionist superhero story about a mysterious assassin killing off costumed superheroes but this is merely a springboard for a brilliant dissection of the genre and comics in general by manipulating symbols and icons. It also addressed the fear of nuclear annihilation that was so prevalent in the 1980’s. The series was a critical and commercial success despite Moore and Gibbons’ intentions for it to act as an epitaph to the superhero genre and ended up revitalizing superhero comics and spawned numerous rip-offs. It wouldn’t take long for Hollywood to come calling.

In 1989, just after he finished making The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Terry Gilliam was approached to direct a film version of Watchmen by producer Joel Silver. Sam Hamm (Batman) wrote the screenplay, which by all accounts was awful. So, Gilliam discarded this draft and wrote his own with Charles McKeown (his screenwriting partner on Munchausen). Gilliam felt that the mini-series was unfilmable as a traditional two-hour film. The biggest problem lay in the financing. According to Gilliam, Silver said that he had secured a $40 million budget but in actuality he only had about $24-25 million. In 1996, after the success of 12 Monkeys, Gilliam was asked again and turned it down.

Nothing happened with the project for many years until it was announced that screenwriter David Hayter (X-Men) had signed a seven figure deal to adapt Watchmen for the big screen and possibly even direct it for Universal. Larry Gordon, who had long held the rights to Watchmen was going to produce the film. Originally, Hayter pitched Watchmen as a mini-series for HBO but the cost would have been an estimated $100 million. His way to condense the mini-series into a two-hour film was to break down the story points into their main components.

Filming was to being in Prague sometime in 2004; however, the option was picked up in April 2004 with Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan) being named as the director for Revolution Studios. By July, the project had moved over to Paramount when the deal fell through with Revolution. However, by early November 2004, Aronofsky was off the project due to scheduling conflicts with pre-production on The Fountain (2006). Paramount’s insistence on getting Watchmen out in theaters by summer of 2006 forced them to find another director fast. In late November of 2004, they picked Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy) to direct using Hayter’s script. It did not take long for problems to arise when in April 2005 Paramount was looking to cut the film’s budget by 20% while Greengrass was immersed in pre-production at Pinewood Studios in London, England. One of the reasons cited was the exchange rate of the U.S. dollar to the British pound. However, the studio put the project in the dreaded turnaround (i.e. development hell) in June of the same year because of change of studio heads and the new one felt that the budget for such a risky project was too high.

Finally, in 2005, the film’s producers took the project to Warner Bros. and approached Zack Snyder to direct as they were impressed with his work on 300 (2007), a stylish adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel of the same name. Screenwriter Alex Tse was hired and he took elements from Hayter’s drafts while maintaining the Cold War setting of the comic book. The resulting film polarized critics and was a modest commercial success. Taking his cue from Robert Rodriguez’s adaptation of Sin City (2005), Snyder set out to make a visually faithful adaptation, often recreating certain panels exactly as they were presented in the comic book but ran into trouble when he deviated with his own preoccupations and stylistic flourishes. The end result is a film that is at times brilliantly faithful and also deeply flawed – a mixed bag but also an admirable attempt at an impossible task. The Ultimate Edition version, which fused the director’s cut with the animated short film, Tales of the Black Freighter (a comic book that runs throughout Watchmen, often commenting on the action), is the most complete version of Snyder’s take on the material.

Set during the mid-‘80s amid the nuclear arms race between Russia and the United States, Watchmen begins with two police detectives investigating the mysterious murder of Edward Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) whose alter ego is the costumed superhero known as the Comedian, an amoral mixture of Nick Fury and G. Gordon Liddy. Another costumed vigilante by the name of Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) – imagine Travis Bickle mixed with Sam Spade – decides to conduct his own investigation and realizes that the Comedian’s death is only a small fragment of a much larger puzzle. He proceeds to notify the surviving members of the superhero team he belonged to: Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wlison) a.k.a. Nite Owl, a Batman-esque crusader now retired; Laurie Jupiter (Malin Akerman) a.k.a. Silk Spectre, a beautiful woman pushed into the business by her famous mother, Sally (Carla Gugino), the original Silk Spectre; Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode) a.k.a. Ozymandias, a billionaire businessman and considered by many to be the smartest man on the planet; and Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), an omnipotent being capable of manipulating matter on a cellular level. As Rorschach’s investigation progresses it appears that someone is trying to eliminate all of his former team members but to what end?

The first indication that director Zach Snyder imposes his trademark style occurs in the prologue when the Comedian is killed by a mysterious assailant. Not only does he drag out the fight, but he also unnecessarily employs his slow motion/speed up technique. However, Snyder makes up for it with a superbly executed opening credits sequence that introduces this world and its alternate history timeline (i.e. the Comedian assassinates President Kennedy on the grassy knoll) while also including all kinds of visual Easter eggs for fans of the comic book (like showing how minor character Dollar Bill died). As a result, there is something for newbies and fans alike.

For everything Snyder gets right – the look and feel of the film, which features some truly astounding production design that completely immerses you in this world – he maddeningly gets other things wrong when he adds bits to scenes that have no purpose except to add a little more action for our ADD culture, like in the scene where Rorschach is discovered by two police officers as he’s searching the Comedian’s apartment. The masked vigilante subdues one of them and disappears before the other can collar him. Why? To show what a badass he is? This is unnecessary as actor Jackie Earle Haley’s excellent performance does that for him.

Another nice addition is the integration of an animated rendition of The Tales of the Black Freighter, a comic book within the graphic novel about the sole survivor (voiced by Gerard Butler) of a shipwreck who desperately tries to make it back home to his family before the pirate ship of book’s title does. Snyder nails the nightmarish Tales from the Crypt vibe of the comic while also restoring the newsstand scenes between the vendor and the kid reading the book, which fleshes out this alternate world.

Snyder makes some blunders with a few of the musical cues, like using “Ride of the Valkyries” in the sequence where Dr. Manhattan slaughters Viet Cong soldiers during the Vietnam War. The director is obviously paying homage to the famous use of the song in Apocalypse Now (1979) but it is unnecessary and too on the nose. However, the most glaring miscue is using “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen instead of “You’re My Thrill” as it was in the graphic novel. Do we really need this song played yet again in a film? This song and all versions of it need to be retired from cinema indefinitely.

For the most part the casting is spot on. Patrick Wilson put on weight to portray the slightly out of shape Dan Dreiberg and with his retro haircut and defeated posture certainly looks the part. Wilson gives Dreiberg a slightly sad, pathetic vibe, which suits the character. Billy Crudup nails the eerie detachment of Dr. Manhattan, a god-like being bored with humanity. The actor adopts a neutral tone akin to that of HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Perhaps the best realized and most faithfully recreated portion of the graphic novel is Dr. Manhattan’s tragic backstory, which also attempts to present his worldview: he perceives the past, present and future simultaneously. Crudup does a nice job of showing the transition of Manhattan from a mild-mannered scientist to omnipotent super being with some eerily uncanny recreations of panels from the graphic novel. We see how Manhattan’s ability to manipulate matter on a cellular level radically changes the course of world history (for example, the U.S. wins the Vietnam War with his help). According to Moore, his aim with Manhattan was to show that he “does not perceive time the same way we do. We have a character who’s post-Einsteinian, who seems to accept that all time is happening at once. Past, present and future. And to him, the past is still there, and the future is there, right now.”

Thankfully, the flashbacks depicting the Comedian’s backstory don’t shy away from his amoral behavior: trying to rape the original Silk Spectre and killing a Vietnamese woman pregnant with his child. Jeffrey Dean Morgan does a fantastic job conveying his character’s skewed worldview: how everything is part of a big, dark joke that only the Comedian gets. In his own way, he realizes that what costumed superheroes do – fighting crime – is ultimately meaningless in the face of nuclear annihilation. The darker and more chaotic things get the more he likes it. Morgan is also able to dig deeper during his tearful late night visitation with an old foe, giving us tantalizing hints at a much, darker and larger scheme at work – the knowledge of which got him killed in the first place.

Easily the strongest performance comes courtesy of Jackie Earle Haley as the sociopathic Rorschach. The most important thing he does is get the voice right. Everyone has their own idea of what he should sound like and Haley got it. Not only does he look great in the costume but also out of it during the portion of the film where he’s unmasked and in prison. The actor is even more chilling as he recounts to a psychiatrist how he became Rorschach and the incident that transformed him permanently into his costumed alter ego. This section of Watchmen offers a glimpse into his disturbing worldview in what is easily the darkest, most bleak part of the film, much like the graphic novel. But again, Snyder imposes his style unnecessarily, adding his own gory flourishes to Rorschach’s showdown with a kidnapper. It is excessive and clumsily executed like something out of a cheap B-horror film whereas the graphic novel was much more horrifying because it left the criminal’s fate to your imagination. Snyder is too busy making Rorschach look cool and failing to realize that in the graphic novel Moore and Gibbons were deconstructing the romantic costumed superhero myth and exploring what motivates someone to dress up and fight crime and how this might warp them. Rorschach wasn’t meant to be a cool character but a depressing, frightening one. His backstory was where, according to Moore, “we actually go for the heart of darkness, we go to the very center of this black, depressing sort of pre-nuclear worldview.”

The most significant miscasting of the film is actress Malin Akerman as Laurie Jupiter. While the attractive actress looks the part, she lacks the acting chops required for the role. Known mostly for romantic comedies, Akerman looks lost in the role, which is unfortunate as it’s the most pivotal part and arguably the most complicated character in the book. Laurie’s relationship with Dan is the emotional center of the story and this is diluted in the film by the casting of Akerman. Carla Gugino, who ironically plays her mother in the film, would’ve actually been better in the role – or, maybe Jennifer Garner who demonstrated a capacity for action and drama in the J.J. Abrams television show Alias.

Another glaring miscast role is that of Matthew Goode as Adrian Veidt. The actor doesn’t look like the character or really act like him either. He’s a little too smug and too over-confident in his portrayal whereas in the graphic novel Veidt was subtly condescending to those around him, coming across as almost distracted, the reasons for which become apparent later on. Snyder has said that he didn’t want to cast recognizable movie stars in the major roles but for Veidt, a celebrity in his own right and by his own making, this would’ve been a wise move. I always thought that Jude Law would’ve been a good choice as he looks the part and showed the capacity to play unlikable characters in films like The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999). Plus, while doing press for Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004), Law admitted to being a huge fan of the graphic novel and probably would’ve been willing to take a pay cut.

Watchmen perfectly summarizes Snyder’s limitations as a filmmaker. He slavishly recreates panels and sequences from the graphic novel without demonstrating any understanding of what they mean. For example, the climactic scene where Laurie convinces Dr. Manhattan to come back to Earth, that there is more to the universe than random molecules colliding with one another is handled all wrong. In the graphic novel, we find out that Sally loved the Comedian, even after he tried to rape her. The fact that she could feel for a person who committed such a horrible act goes against all logic and that Laurie was the product of their act of love is what convinces the Manhattan to renew his interest in humanity. The film waters this down completely and Sally says that she made a mistake being with the Comedian that one time but that she loves Laurie anyway. Whereas, the graphic novel is a thought-provoking look at human nature and our fascination with costumed superheroes, the film dilutes and tries to make it palatable for a mainstream audience while still trying to appeal to fans of the source material. This schizophrenic attitude is arguably one of the biggest flaws of the film.

Watchmen is a flawed mess of a film – one that gets many things right but also gets a lot of things wrong – but a fascinating one nonetheless. If I’m being overly critical on Snyder it’s only because I love the source material so much that seeing it brought to life in a film was at once exhilarating and depressing. One has to give Snyder credit for making it at all, for using his clout to make sure it was R rated and keeping it set during the ‘80s – two things he went to the mat for with the studio. He made the best possible film one could with the limitations of a feature film format. Ideally, the graphic novel could only truly be done justice in a mini-series format aired on a cable channel like HBO, which would free the filmmakers of the constraints of network television. Watchmen asks many questions but perhaps as Dave Gibbons points out, it really asks the big question: “Who makes the world? Who is responsible for the way the world is? And a lot of it is planned, but a lot of it is just sheer chance. There are patterns, the pattern that we perceive, but there are patterns going on underneath it. And that’s what we tried to show. With these sub, almost subliminal patterns that go through things, echoes, repeating shapes, motifs turning up in unexpected places.” Is the world made of patterns or is it sheer coincidence? The graphic novel expertly examines these questions and offers an entertaining story as well. The film? Not so much.