by Phil Kehres
Watchmen was a groundbreaking graphic novel, lauded as a revolution in super hero comics. Fans of the book, then, will be glad to know that the movie adaptation stays faithful to the source material in virtually every way. Unfortunately, the film suffers in struggling to bear the weight of that hefty source material.
Director Zack Snyder, of 300 fame/infamy, does an admirable job meticulously recreating Alan Moore and David Gibbons’ seminal work, right down to camera angles that mimic panels from the novel. Snyder sticks to his patented slow-mo for the heart-pounding action sequences, but applies it much more efficiently. With Watchmen, the technique slyly accentuates the action rather than acting as a crutch to prop up otherwise unwatchable sequences as it did in 300. The action sequences are fantastically brutal, the visuals are dazzling, and the atmosphere is dark, gritty and oftentimes disturbing — just like the book. Moviegoers may be surprised to learn, though, that the action sequences are few and far between. Watchmen is, at heart, a series of character studies, following the lives and exploring the often twisted motivations of regular people who serve society as masked vigilantes (only one of the heroes, the glowing blue god-like Dr. Manhattan, has so-called “super powers”). The backdrop of a bleak, alternate-reality 1985 — one where Richard Nixon has abolished term limits and remains president, the U.S. won in Vietnam, and the superpowers are on the brink of nuclear war — plays second fiddle to the personal journeys of the masked heroes and anti-heroes as they try to unravel the mysterious murder of one of their kind. This dynamic makes for an enthralling story in print, but the formula loses something in the transition to the big screen. The lengthy, character-driven segments in between the stylish action sequences will seem like deadweight to those who haven’t read the novel. The incredible attention to detail and respect paid the source material will be lost on the uninitiated.
What keeps the nearly three-hour film afloat is the excellent casting choices. Jackie Earle Haley steals the show as the sociopathic but misunderstood Rorschach/Walter Kovacs. Jeffrey Dean Morgan shines as the brutal, amoral Comedian/William Edward Blake and Patrick Wilson captures the adventurer-gone-soft and searching for meaning as Nite Owl II/Dan Dreiberg. Billy Crudup turns in a decent performance as well as Dr. Manhattan/Jon Osterman, despite spending most of his time on screen as a motion-captured, computer-generated, blue demi-god. The only casting that falls flat on its face it Malin Akerman as Silk Spectre II/Laurie Jupiter. Akerman’s acting is embarrassingly wooden in some parts, which is fitting in a sense, considering Silk Spectre II was easily the most poorly written character in the graphic novel.
In the end, Snyder’s Watchmen does an admirable job of visualizing Moore and Gibbons’ journey into a darker world of masked heroes. Where Snyder fails, however, is in finding something compelling to bring it all together. You can credit him with staying true to the source, but must also acknowledge that he doesn’t take any risks. Hardcore fans have often said a Watchmen movie would be unfilmable. Snyder proves, with great flair, that the movie is, indeed, filmable. The irony, however, is that the movie stands to satisfy those devoted fans while alienating the more casual filmgoer.
(Phil Kehres also is the co-author of Excuse Me, Is This Your Blog?)
(For more background on Watchmen, please see: "Films: Watchmen, The Darkest Night." and "Video Game Review: Watchmen, The End is Nigh, Part I.")
(The promotional graphic for Watchmen is from Warner Brothers. To see a trailer for the film, please check below.)
Jackie Earle Haley
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by Phil Kehres