Watchmen (United States, 2009)

March 04, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Watchmen Poster

Transforming Watchmen, one of the most lauded comic series of all time, into a movie is as ambitious an undertaking as anyone in Hollywood is likely to attempt. For more than 20 years, a variety of people (including Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky, and Paul Greengrass) have been involved and all have backed off when faced with the enormity of the task. The team to finally get it done is headed by 300 director Zack Snyder. Whether Watchmen will become known as "Snyder's Folly" remains to be seen. Snyder may have replicated the narrative faithfully (with the exception of a change to a climactic plot device) and re-created the dark look of the comic books, but the nuances are gone. The film is too busy, too narratively dense, and too awkwardly structured for it to achieve the level of absorption that one can get from reading the books.

Books, with or without pictures, are a different medium than movies, and a slavish adherence to the storyline does not guarantee success. Watchmen is a perfect example of how material, no matter how reverentially treated and massaged, often loses something critical in translation. Most of the cuts made by Snyder and his creative team are small but they add up. The rich backstory is eviscerated, with pieces of it making it to the screen - enough to inform the uninitiated but not to eliminate all confusion. Perhaps the biggest flaw, however, is the inability to navigate this story at one's own pace. A movie, by its nature, moves forward relentlessly, allowing little time for introspection, review, or consideration. These elements are necessary for Watchmen. They give it power and depth. By not being able to study a panel, turn back a page and re-explore something, or pause to consider the moral implications of what's being stated, too much has been lost. The film feels like a shiny toy not a seminal milestone in graphic literature.

Arguably, Watchmen the movie makes a good companion piece to Watchmen the comic series, although writer Alan Moore, who has vigorously denounced the project (sight unseen), would not agree. Yet the movie appears to have been made primarily with the Watchmen fan in mind. Those who approach the movie with an understanding of the plot and a familiarity with the characters and their backstories will get more out of the movie than those who are facing their first exposure to the material. For anyone coming to Watchmen as a different way to experience something with which they have a link, the film may work in the way Snyder intended. However, for viewers without this background, Watchmen has the ability to alternately fascinate and frustrate. It's a project that reaches for a greatness that ultimately eludes its grasp.

Some have speculated that perhaps the newfound international passion for dark superheroes, as evidenced by the box office success of The Dark Knight, will help Watchmen. But this is different. In Moore's vision, Watchmen deconstructs the myths rather than adding to them, and some of that makes it into the movie. Although there are superheroes, they are not of the conventional sort, and the story does not follow any of the traditional formulas. Although there is action, it is limited and confined to short, violent bursts. Most of Watchmen is setup and exposition. In fact, the first 2/3 of the film are heavily weighted with character-building flashbacks. This is a structural flaw. It replicates material from the comics but keeps the viewer wondering if the narrative is ever going to attain momentum. The reason the movie has such a long running time (163 minutes) is because there's a lot of baggage that needs to be unloaded before the main storyline can begin to unfold.

Watchmen takes place in an alternate universe during October 1985. Richard Nixon, unencumbered by the Watergate scandal and appreciated by a cynical population, is in his fifth term as president. The U.S. and the U.S.S.R. have never been more antagonistic toward each other and the threat level is sliding in the direction of DefCon 1. The "nuclear clock" is at five minutes to midnight and ticking inexorably toward Armageddon. This is the reality in which the main characters find themselves. With two exceptions, they are ex-superheroes - individuals who have been forced by legislative mandate to remove their costumes and bury their secret identities. This law does not apply to Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), the blue-skinned superman who is the United States' ultimate weapon and most compelling nuclear deterrent. Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) has chosen to live outside of the law, acting the part of the vigilante with sadistic resolve. He still wears his mask and prowls the nighttime shadows. Laurie Jupiter (Malin Akerman), once called Silk Spectre, is Dr. Manhattan's girlfriend and works as his assistant. Adrien Veidt (Matthew Goode), formerly Ozymandias, a billionaire businessman and the "smartest man in the world," is working with Dr. Manhattan on a plan to save humanity. And Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson), a.k.a. Night Owl, is at loose ends, trying to figure out how he fits in the new order. There are other, older "Watchmen" as well - those who were active in the '40s when the group was first formed. These include Laurie's mother, Sally Jupiter (Carla Gugino), and the crass, classless Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), whose death during the film's opening scene sets events in motion.

With the planet on the edge of nuclear annihilation, are superheroes relevant? Is anything relevant? Certainly, the story told by Watchmen is heavily allegorical, since it's about humanity's capacity to destroy itself. The story's eventual moral conundrum comes down to a variation on an old theme: Do the ends justify the means? There are, of course, no easy answers or, in fact, answers at all. Watchmen also calls into questions the motives that drive some of these superheroes. Are they doing this for the good of men or to satisfy some inner need for violence and mayhem. Are they heroes or vigilantes?

From a visual and stylistic standpoint, Watchmen develops a gloomy, paranoid atmosphere, but doesn't overplay it. There are also fewer flourishes than one might expect from the man behind 300. Compared to that film, this one appears almost conventional. Care was taken to ensure that the look of the movie is in synch with that of the comic books, and there are times when panels from the source function as storyboards.

Despite having detailed backgrounds that unfold in flashbacks, the protagonists of Watchmen fail to compel. The exception is Rorschach, who is brilliantly portrayed by Jackie Earle Haley (the pedophile in Little Children). Everyone else is bland. It's difficult to care about them, especially the enigmatic Dr. Manhattan. This is one of the reasons it can be difficult for the non-aficionado to become involved in the story. The world is so bleak and the characters so colorless that there seems to be little reason to care whether or not the planet survives. Watching Watchmen is at times more of an intellectual exercise than a visceral one. Snyder's decision to film it verbatim inadvertently keeps the audience at arm's-length. Those who come to the film with a prior love of the characters may rediscover that here. Those who are new to these disillusioned superheroes may wonder if there's a reason to bother caring.

Aside from Haley, who brings energy to his interpretation of the disturbed Rorschach, none of the principals are memorable. Matthew Goode and Patrick Wilson occupy space and say lines but there's not much for the viewer to hook into. Malin Akerman is attractive and looks nice with and without clothing, but there's no humanity in her performance. Billy Crudup (with a huge CGI assist) gives us the Dr. Manhattan Snyder apparently wants: a detached, emotionless enigma. In the comic book, Dr. Manhattan is a tragic, tortured figure, but not much of that comes across in the way Crudup portrays him. (For anyone who is wondering, Dr. Manhattan is naked in most of his scenes, and there are plenty of opportunities to glimpse the dangling blue torpedo - Snyder, perhaps unduly influenced by Judd Apatow, seems to enjoy showing it.) Jeffrey Dean Morgan's interpretation of The Comedian is lively but his screen time is limited and the character feels unfinished.

In the comic books, Richard Nixon is a shadowy figure. For some reason, Snyder elects to give him a fair amount of screen time and to place him in good light. The problem isn't this decision, but that the actor who plays Nixon, Robert Wisden, is miscast. The physical resemblance is weak and the layers of makeup applied in an ineffective attempt to make Wisden better resemble the president look cheap and unconvincing. The prosthetic nose is so over-the-top that it causes him to resemble Jimmy Durante more than Nixon. The end result is borderline laughable. (It also doesn't help that Frank Langella's recent interpretation from Frost/Nixon lingers in the mind.) Yes, this is a minor misstep, but it's a jarring one, and the makeup is just as bad with the other "old" characters.

Watchmen isn't brain-dead, and that's a good thing. In fact, the opposite is true. But the film, as pregnant with ideas as it may be, has trouble standing on its own, and for a movie that's opening in thousands of theaters, that's a problem. For the Watchmen fan, this may be as close to the Holy Grail as a motion picture could come. For everyone else, a sense of frustration and disappointment is not unwarranted. Watchmen is many things but it is not the Next Great Comic Book Movie or the film that will advance graphic novel adaptations to the next level.

Watchmen (United States, 2009)

Run Time: 2:43
U.S. Release Date: 2009-03-06
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Nudity, Sexual Situations, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1