Watchmen is being billed one of the more avidly-anticipated movies in recent years. Given that the vast majority of the moviegoing audience have no idea who the Watchmen are, it's more accurate to say that it's avidly-anticipated by the subculture of comic book fans who came of age in the 1980s. Based on a twelve-issue comic that was rechristened a "graphic novel" when republished as a single volume, "Watchmen" was critically heralded as a great dramatic achievement that brought realism to the decidedly unreal genre of superheroes.
After over 20 years in "development hell," the comic has finally made it to the big screen as a way-north-of-$100-million would-be blockbuster. All those dollars resulted in a movie that's as visually arresting as anything you're likely to see this year (or any other), but once again, Hollywood has demonstrated that all the money in the world can't make up for inadequate writing and bad acting.
But oh, it does look magnificent. With the bizarre exception on one FX shot towards the end that wouldn't be out of place in an episode of "Buck Rodgers in the 25th Century," Watchmen dazzles the eyes from start to finish. Director Zack Snyder's talent for bringing a series of comic book panels to life is simply without peer. Original artist Dave Gibbons collaborated with Snyder on the film (writer Alan Moore washed his hands of it years ago), and much of Watchmen looks like it sprang from Gibbons' pen straight onto the screen. Visually, Watchmen is movie magic practiced at its highest level.
Unfortunately, most of the acting is lousy; a notable exception being Jackie Earle Haley, who is riveting in the crucial role of Rorschach. Malin Akerman is particularly awful as the story's female lead. What's worse, the screenplay, by David Hayter and Alex Tse, is pretty bad.
I tend to be a defender of fealty to the original text when it comes to movie adaptations, but Watchmen is a classic case of adhering too closely to the source material. Hayter, Tse and Synder are too focused on cramming every bit of nearly 400 pages of densely-rendered comic into their movie, and the result is a jumbled, ponderous mess. Dialogue that should have been translated from word balloons to English remains unchanged, to the film's considerable detriment (although that particular mistake is not as pronounced here as it is in, say, Sin City--but then again, Alan Moore's dialogue isn't as ridiculous as Frank Miller's). If you've read the original you'll find yourself nodding again and again at the meticulous recreation of pages and dialogue, but if you haven't, I doubt you'll be able to make heads or tails of this movie.
Take the case of Peter Jackson's three-movie adaptation of The Lord Of The Rings as a positive example. Even though Jackson and his own screenwriters blundered badly whenever they stepped away from Tolkien's story (particularly in the second and third installments), their overall achievement was a success because they did capture the essence of Tolkien's world and worldview as well as the big plot points and pretty scenery. With Watchmen, the filmmakers got the words, but lost the music.
Speaking of music, Watchmen's filmic father is pretty obviously Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas--the 80's rock soundtrack is a dead giveaway--but Snyder is entirely lacking in Scorsese's directorial chops when it comes to simple dramatic scenes. Snyder can block the hell out of a fight or epic tracking shot, but he's completely at a loss when it comes to filming two or three people having a conversation. That deficiency really shows in Watchmen's last 45 minutes or so, going as far as to rob the book's emotional climax (Rorschach's final scene) of its dramatic punch.
Finally, and perhaps least importantly, Watchmen is Zach Snyder's political apology to Hollywood for having made the conservative-embraced 300. The Comedian, a ridiculous characature of American conservatives in the comic, is rendered even more evil and psychotic on the big screen, as is every other character to the right of, say, Lenin. The original book was, by author Alan Moore's own admission, deliberately written as an anti-Reagan screed, but as an attendee at an early screening noted (as recounted by reviewer Alexandra DuPont at AICN),
"Watchmen's brand of dystopian misanthropy has been specifically refuted by events. It's one thing to worry about the evil U.S. policies of containment and mutually-assured destruction in 1986. It's one thing to paint a particular political party as being unconstitutionally obsessed with the possession of power and recklessly in pursuit of nuclear confrontation with an enemy who probably wasn't so bad.
"But as it turns out, that entire worldview was vitiated by events. In 1989 the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War ended. Reagan's strategic policy decisions vis-a-vis the Soviet Union were completely vindicated. MAD proved to be an effective deterrent. The conflict between the East and West was settled without a shot being fired. And, perhaps most importantly, the Truman/Kennedy/Reagan view of communism as an insidious ideology which led to violent, repressive authoritarianism was borne out.
"So Moore was wrong. His fears were wrong. His warnings were wrong. His fundamental view of the world was wrong. And 'Watchmen,' in particular, is left as a bizarre cultural artifact. A pretentious piece of commentary masquerading as philosophy."
Not only does Snyder's film fail to even remotely acknowledge how thoroughly wrong Moore's by-the-numbers leftism turned out to be, he lards on additional political cheap shots to go with Moore's 80's-era Reagan Derangement Syndrome, to the point of lauding an American-Soviet alliance at the end of the movie. Just what moral sense an alliance with the dictatorship that spent most of the 20th Century with its boot in the face of half the planet makes, is a question neither Snyder nor Moore ever bothered to ask of themselves.
One thing that the movie did get right in the aggregate was mimicking the comic's use of flashbacks to flesh out the backstory and major characters. It's a little like watching several episodes of the TV series "Lost" on fast-forward (now that I think about it, it wouldn't surprise me at all if "Lost" creator J.J. Abrams borrowed that recurring plot device from the "Watchmen" comic). The multiple flashback sequences add to the overall jumble of the story, and most should have been trimmed back (the Dr. Manhattan scenes in particular), but as a narrative device, but I think Snyder makes good use of that technique. Snyder did change Moore's ending slightly, but this at least was not to the movie's detriment, since Moore's ending was famously dumb. Snyder's, at least, is no dumber.
So, that's Watchmen. Like so much of Hollywood's effluence these days, it's a feast for the eyes, but rarely better than pablum for the heart and garbage for the brain.