Watchmen arrives to theaters with much fanfare, which is to be expected since a big-screen adaptation of Alan Moore’s mid-80’s source material has been in development basically since the source material was released. Director Zack Snyder and screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse have braved the unenviable task of translating a twelve-part graphic novel series into a coherent theatrical experience. While visually dazzling, the exposition-heavy story will likely leave the uninitiated confused and indifferent and the initiated slightly more satisfied. As part of the uninitiated, I had pretty much checked out by the third act.
Set in an alternate reality circa Cold War era-1985, where Richard Nixon is serving his fifth term as president, the “Doomsday Clock” is dangerously close to midnight and a nuclear showdown with the Soviet Union may be even closer. Costumed superheroes, known as Watchmen, freely roam the streets and protect the everyman from the city scum. When one of the Watchmen’s own, The Comedian (Dean Morgan), is murdered by an unidentified assailant, the group’s most mysterious figure, Rorschach (Earle Haley), begin to investigate. What he discovers is a vast conspiracy that entangles our past and inevitably our future as a civilization.
I was very critical of Snyder’s previous effort, 300, mainly because the storytelling was abysmal. The good news is that Watchmen is a step up in that department. The first act is fantastic; serving as homage to 40’s film noir and soaked in atmosphere. This alternate 1985 is one grim place, and Snyder and his team have showed off that $100 million plus budget very well in terms of visuals. As the film progresses on, however, the proceedings only get more convoluted and those unfamiliar with the source material will simply be overwhelmed. The core problem is that Hayter and Tse’s script focuses on Dr. Manhattan (Crudup), a man who was subjected to a terrible lab accident and has been rendered naked and glowing blue. Not only is he monotonous and uninteresting, but his relationship with our heroine, Silk Spectre II (Ackerman), couldn’t be more unconvincing. The star of the show here is Rorschach, the mysterious killing machine of a masked hero, and a film made solely about him would draw no complaints from me.
In one of the most unlikely comebacks in recent history, Jackie Earle Haley owns this movie as Rorschach. Hardly a physically foreboding man, his cold and calculated performance is far and away the best aspect of Watchmen. Look no further than the extended prison sequence for Haley’s pitch-perfect black humor and physical presence. Jeffrey Dean Morgan makes The Comedian the second most interesting character, thanks to a big-time attitude and some great one-liners. The rest of the cast pales in comparison, nearly all of whom cruise in to cheese ball territory for the third act. Malin Akerman, while seductive enough for the female lead, simply doesn’t have the chops to carry the film and never really convinces us to regard her as anything other than eye candy.
Running a very long 163 minutes (and it was cut down just to reach that number), Watchmen will be an endurance test for those who don’t quite know what they’re getting themselves into. Contrary to the trailers, there isn’t a whole lot of action but plenty of exposition. There’s no doubt that Snyder has delivered in terms of visuals and creating a very unique world, but the screenplay is scattershot and lacking in focus. Watchmen is no doubt a love letter to those who have been awaiting this film for two decades, but the drawbacks outweigh the advantages for the uninitiated.
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Length: 163 Minutes
Rating: R for strong graphic violence, sexuality, nudity and language.
Theatrical Release: March 6, 2009
Directed by: Zack Snyder
Written by: David Hayter & Alex Tse. Based upon the graphic novels by Alan Moore & illustrated by Dave Gibbons.
Cast: Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Patrick Wilson