Dir: Zack Snyder. US. 2009. 162 mins.
Rife with its own rich backstory, including a complicated development history and copyright infringement lawsuit involving several Hollywood heavy hitters, Zack Snyder’s sprawling adaptation of the ground-breaking 1986 graphic novel Watchmen arrives in theatres with perhaps the loudest buzz of any spring release. A vividly re-imagined Cold War-era drama about a group of former masked crimefighters grappling with intrigue against a backdrop of the soured American dream, the film is a lesson on the perils of overstuffed big screen translations. Fitfully touching on a variety of complex issues, but never entirely satisfyingly so, Watchmen is shockingly devoid of natural narrative pull — a beautifully constructed rocket that never quite gets off the ground.
The rabid, sizeable fan base for Alan Moore (not credited for the screen adaptation) and Dave Gibbons’ respected, award-winning graphic novel, combined with the boutique allure of IMAX presentations should guarantee Watchmen a successful theatrical run, with steady repeat business among its core demographic. It goes without saying that the 162-minute running time is a commercial hurdle, but Snyder’s ultra-violent, hyper-stylized 300 was a worldwide smash, grossing more than $450 million, and it’s hard to imagine this doing any less. An already announced three-hour-plus DVD version will only add to Watchmen’s considerable haul.
The film unfolds in an alternate reality where Richard Nixon has been elected to his fifth term as president, and the threat of potential nuclear annihilation from the Soviet Union is drilled into the American public’s consciousness in a symbolic ‘Doomsday Clock’ counting down toward midnight. In the opening scene, the Comedian (Morgan) is murdered, and masked vigilante Rorschach (Haley) comes to the conclusion that someone is out to kill and/or discredit all former crimefighters, who are now banned under law. Trying to convince his fellow former Watchmen of the threat, he reconnects with Nite Owl (Wilson), Silk Spectre (Akerman) and Adrian Veidt, aka Ozymandias (Goode), a super-intellectual who made an entrepreneurial fortune trading on his masked persona.
The only ex-Watchman with actual superpowers, though, is Dr. Manhattan (Crudup), a physicist transformed by a nuclear lab accident into a giant blue demi-god who sees past, present and future all at once, and can control matter itself. Dr. Manhattan grows more aloof, and disillusioned with humanity. Rorschach is imprisoned, then sprung from jail. Finally, details about the Comedian’s murder start to come into focus.
Snyder knows how to match image and music for maximum mood impact, and here he has a huge budget, which means a stunning rendering of the luminous Dr. Manhattan, who trips to Mars when he gets bored with Earth. As with 300, Watchmen offers more frame-speed-manipulated action; more brooding and colour-saturated posing. The problem is that there’s not much of a natural arc to these super-stylized bursts.
A lot of what made Watchmen a landmark achievement in the comic book realm — its imaginative density, philosophical grappling and embrace of different modes of storytelling - helps make the film feel bloated and unfocused. David Hayter and Alex Tse’s script seems faithful to a degree that handcuffs any substantive exploration of the chief narrative dilemmas, and the curious result is an exercise in tension-free antics and noir styling. For all its considerable visual accoutrements, this is still a movie that, in its home stretch, finds need for a villain’s long-winded declamation, a staple of so many B-grade actioners of years past.
Given that, apart from the almost all-powerful Dr. Manhattan, Watchmen’s characters aren’t imbued with real superpowers, the film would seem to be most interested in addressing the psychological pressures of inaction in a world gone mad. However, apart from an effective opening credits sequence, the film’s social canvas feels both thin and misshapen. Over an hour into its running time, it grinds to a halt to mete out individual backstories.
The audience doesn’t really know the Watchmen as a cohesive unit, so the mystery of the Comedian’s murder struggles to take root, especially for those unfamiliar with the source material; it certainly doesn’t help that for much of the movie Rorschach is the only one seemingly concerned with it.
Furthermore, the notion of dystopian chaos is conveyed mainly through glum soundtrack choices (TheSound of Silence) that work as disconnected emotional prods, but fail to engage on a grander story level. We’re told that the United States and Soviet Union stand on the brink of imminent nuclear war, but any reason for this supreme conflict is never illustrated within the confines of the film.
The film’s performances are also uneven. Crudup, working mostly through a flattened voice, wonderfully conveys the melancholic nature of his character, while Haley’s Rorschach gives Watchmen a growling, vengeful heart of darkness. Akerman and Wilson, however, fail to register - problematic since their characters share a love story - while Goode comes across as too arch.
Warner Bros. Pictures
Warner Bros. Pictures
David Hayter and Alex Tse
Based on the graphic novel co-created and illustrated by Dave Gibbons
Visual effects supervisor
Visual effects producer
Jackie Earle Haley
Jeffrey Dean Morgan