The joys of London's IMAX booking system meant that despite booking well in advance of the film opening, and using my 'advance' BFI membership pre-booking notification (ha! ha!) to boot, I got to see The Watchmen a week after everybody else. A week is a long time where films like Watchmen are concerned because it seems like the whole world and its wife has been twittering their impressions of the film after seeing it on the opening weekend.
As it turned out, suffering the delay just to see the film on IMAX was a mistake on my part. The Watchmen is NOT a film that needs to be seen on IMAX because, unlike The Dark Knight, the film was not shot using special IMAX camera's, and nor does it have any 3D scenes
'The IMAX experience' this time round simply means you're watching a larger, but softer, blurrier version of the film that is being shown in normal theatres. It felt like watching an iPlayer TV programme up-rezzed to 'full screen' size on a computer monitor, with the same end result: you kind of wish you'd just seen it at its original resolution even if it meant it was smaller. So, rather like the 'amazing never before seen' giant water projection display (actually a fuzzy blue light mess nobody could really see) used to officially launch the film's opening on The Thames last week, 'the IMAX Experience' this time around, has been seriously over-hyped. And if my Friday night was anything to go by 'The IMAX Experience' is no different from a normal local cinema experience (are you listening Clapham Picture House?!) with several minutes needing to be spent before the film started to clean my seat of popcorn and coke cup debris before I could sit on it. Cinema owners keep complaining about the competition from shiny discs - but when they charge the equivalent of the cost of a Blu-Ray disc that I can keep and rewatch (my Watchmen ticket cost an exhorbitant £13.50 with travel costs on top) and treat their customers in such a cavalier manner I am tempted to join those on the sidelines applauding the fact that cinema attendances are on the decline. Nobody needs experiences like this when they can have a much nicer, controlled environment at home.
The week's delay in getting a decent seat did give me one advantage: it gave me the chance to see what others reaction to the film was and prepare me for the worst. The reaction seemed to be more polarised than I can ever remember about a new film. Comments were very clearly divided between 'four out of five stars' fans who'd read the comic book but thought the film flawed because it stuck too slavishly to a format that doesn't work for cinema, and 'zero or one star out of five' newcomers who found it 'too long, too slow, and too boring because nothing happens'.
I haven't read the comic book, and the warning signs from so many dismissive reviews might have had me cancel my attendance were it not for a review in The Daily Mail. Alone, out of all the mainstream papers who at least recognised the quality of much of what was put on screen, England's most bigotted and homophobic tabloid gave the film a pitiful 0 out of 10, concluding "This despicable trash will find an audience among sad sociopaths, deranged pseudo-intellectuals and brutalised, immature men of all ages." Coming from the cesspit world of opinion that is The Daily Mail that sounds like a 'Must see' recommendation to me! I'm still trying to work out why they didn't include a reference to homosexuals in their diss, given that one of the main characters walks around naked, showing off what fans keep referring to as 'the big blue wang' in several key scenes!
Worried that I needed to have read the comic book first, I managed to get a quick look at the US import (region free) Blu-Ray of Watchmen: The Complete Motion Comic (recommended - and MUCH better than the other pitiful comic book adaptations I've seen on Blu-Ray). The Blu-Ray runs for twelve 25 minute chapters, with a total running time of five and a half hours, which just goes to show how different the perception of time can be with different mediums. The two episodes of the Blu-Ray 'comic book' I watched seemed perfectly paced. The exact same story as a film, running at a considerably lighter 2 hours and 45 minutes, seemed overlong and plodding by comparison. Go figure!
For what it's worth I DON'T think you need to have read the comic book to enjoy the film - and there is a LOT in the film TO enjoy. But you do need to set aside your preconceptions about what a comic book movie should be. This sure ain't no Superman or even a Dark Knight - it's far less mainstream than that.
Ultimately, I felt the film was a good one, but not a great one. Its comic book origins are all too clear and the director has over-egged the comic book aesthetic with endless slow-motion and gimmicky 'straight out of a comic book panel' camera angle shots. I think the main problem is that the basic narrative in the comic book appears to be one of those 'the character thinks out loud, pseudo-intellectualising the action with a comment in every panel' stories. This may work very well in the comic book medium, but doesn't really work on film, where the scribbled comic book comments become overlong, rather tedious narrative that just slow everything down. My guess is that the comic book had a thin central narrative running through the 12 different issues, with each issue focussing on a single character. Transferred to the medium of film this doesn't work: just as you're getting into the story of one character the story stops abruptly and moves on to another. Although this worked for the director's earlier Sin City, this time around the narrative is too dense, the characters too many, and the intellectualising too engrained for this to really work.
All that being said, I had to admire the film for what it was attempting. And the 'twist' conclusion with its moral dilemma genuinely surprised me (whilst making perfect sense and not resorting to the usual silly super-hero deus-ex-machina ending it looked like it was heading towards - hoorah!).
It's an over-used phrase, but Watchmen really is a film I admired rather than outright enjoyed. You sort of admire the work that's been done, but can't help wondering why anybody thought it needed to be undertaken in the first place. Part of me feels sad that this interesting experiment is likely to be deemed a failure given the box office figures that are being reported. The opening weekend was fairly strong, but still less than those for the director's previous 300, which cost a lot less to make, and was much more mainstream in its appeal, and the box office appears to be fading fast if the second weekend takings are indicative, now that the core fanboy demographic have moved on. It looks as if the film will struggle to approach break even point, hardly surprising given the obscene amount of money that seems to have been spent on marketing it. I'd like to see Hollywood make more thoughtful, experimental films like this instead of the mindless 'action' formulaic fodder they usually specialise in, but for that to happen films like this need to turn a profit - a big profit, and not just one based on overly optimistic follow-through DVD sales.
If you haven't seen Watchmen yet, and can endure nearly 3 hours in a cinema seat, I'd encourage you to go and see the film if only to help the flagging box office (That important consideration aside, I'd say wait for the inevitable Blu-Ray, complete with extended Director's Cut) Don't set your expectations too high, and I think you'll enjoy it!