USA. 2009. Directed by Zack Snyder. Screenplay by David Hayter and Alex Tse. Based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Starring: Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Patrick Wilson, Stephen McHattie, Carla Gugino, Matt Frewer, Laura Mennell, Rob Labelle and Gary Houston.
You cannot blame Zack Snyder's long-awaited movie version of the graphic novel, Watchmen for straying too far away from its highly acclaimed original source but in this adaptation, it is strangely not a plus. Yes, the movie is almost slavishly faithful to the inspired, award-winning graphic novel (save most notably for a couple of key plot points towards the conclusion) but the key word there is slavishly. It is one thing to see a movie really cinematically interpret the material onto the screen and quite another to see one like Watchmen that just utilizes the graphic source novel as a superficial blueprint.
Now I did thoroughly enjoy the original 1986 graphic novel created by Alan Moore (who is so vehemently opposed to any of his works being filmed that he asked his name be removed from the credits) and illustrated by Dave Gibbons. It portrayed an alternate universe in which the Vietnam War was won through the use of superheroes, former President Richard Nixon was hence elected for four more terms until 1985 when the story is set and nuclear tensions between the US and USSR have only heightened. The film project was passed on through a couple of studios and several filmmakers including Paul Greengrass and Terry Gilliam who wanted to film it as a mini-series (which I would have preferred considering the multitude of back stories). As the director, Zack Snyder has now made it, the movie only disappointingly underscores his fanboy-appealing obsession with employing the same surface theatrics that he used in his last film, 300 rather than seriously depicting the more flesh-and-blood and less archetypal characteristics required for this story.
As in the graphic novel, the movie opens with one past superhero, Edward Blake aka The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) being viciously attacked by an even stronger assassin and finally thrown out of his high-rise apartment. It may seem like a random killing but Rorshach (Jackie Earle Haley) believes there may be a larger plot to target the other Watchmen consisting of Dan Dreiberg aka Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson), Laurie Juspeczyk aka Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman), Adrian Veidt aka Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) and Jon Osterman aka Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), whose skin radiates blue and whose superpowers helped him almost singlehandedly win the Vietnam War for the US. Despite that victory, it also ultimately propelled Nixon to outlaw superheroes after years of endorsing the Watchmen and the previous group they took the place of, the Minutemen that included Hollis Mason aka Nite Owl (Stephen McHattie), Sally Jupiter aka Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino), who is also the mother of her later predecessor, Silk Spectre II and The Comedian who stayed active throughout the span of both clans while being generally a hedonistic, vicious, uncouth lout.
Rorschach, who gets his name from his facial mask that keeps changing ink-blot patterns, pays a visit to each of the now retired Watchmen, as his diary presents his reflective musings and also serves as the voiceover narration throughout the film. The movie also keeps the same structure of inter-cutting various heroes' back stories at various points in the main present story; so much the same, in fact, that what worked in the comic occasionally becomes muted on the screen, as resorting to excessive flashbacks in movies often end up robbing some of the forward narrative momentum as it does here. In any case, the filmmakers have certainly scrambled to cover their bases within their 161-minute running time to try to get the fans to savor each character and the non-fans to come up to speed on the complicated, multi-layered story.
A story like this, however, needs standout performances at the center to bring the various dimensions of these characters to life and this is the part of the film that shows Snyder is far more interested in visuals than simply getting story and character interaction right first, which is quite apparently difficult given that the actors are in front of a blue screen throughout as in 300. Perhaps Snyder trusted the mostly first-rate cast including Billy Crudup and Patrick Wilson to let the acting take care of itself (except for Malin Akerman, whose acting skills everyone is picking on for good reason) but few of the actors ever seem completely at home in their roles. Only Jackie Earle Haley actually makes a lasting impression as he seems to truly absorb his character and reflect the tortured psyche that was permanently scarred by a heinous crime and thus propelled him to become a vigilante. Carla Gugino also adds in some sass and spice in her small role playing Silk Spectre as a 50s superhero vixen and later a 67-year old woman, although with Righteous Kill and this movie, she may want to take on a role that is somewhat less demeaning (with her character having a penchant for rough sex in the past one and almost getting raped here).
But one shocking disappointment is Matthew Goode, who had been good in past movies like The Lookout but comes across as a 90s pretty boy rapper type playing dress-up as opposed to the rich, confident tycoon he is supposed to be after being the only one who has revealed his true identity as one of the Watchmen to the world. As for Malin Akerman, well, her track record is not very good with past films like The Heartbreak Kid and 27 Dresses and seeing her faced with scenes here where she is called upon to strike some higher dramatic notes (as when she discovers a revelation about her origin late in the film) only underscores her decidedly narrow emotional range on screen. The Valley Girl speak she often inflects in her dialogue certainly does not help matters either.
To be sure, some of the visuals that copy directly off the comic book page are arresting particularly when Doctor Manhattan starts taking frequent detours to Mars after feeling increasingly detached from earthly human beings. But that is also part of the problem: The surface visual wizardry is way too glossy for its own good. The visual panache worked for a movie like 300 where the characters were all archetypes anyway as opposed to more human characters but here, combined with some lackluster acting, it repeatedly keeps us at arm's length to get into the personalities of the superheroes. Additionally, the endless freeze-frame zooms that Snyder employs to show some of the hard R-rated brutal impacts like a punch to the face or a graphic arm-break are getting quite tiresome now after 300. It also ends up actually lessening the full visceral impact of the violence itself and prevents the audience from feeling the physical and psychological pain and, within a story that attempts to explore the troubled and harsher psyche of superheroes, the splatter violence combined with the pyrotechnic flash becomes mindlessly quease-inducing rather than as appropriately unsettling or disturbing as the characters and the audience should be feeling.
It is all unfortunate that the visual whizzes and bangs get in the way of supplying a better dramatic backbone because actually the one thing that was admittedly improved in the film version was the ending. Some of the absurdities have been removed and the choices characters make seem a little bit more logical than in the graphic novel. But, by then, it is too little, too late. We are not fully engaged with these characters and the movie has not allowed us to ponder the moral balance in the brink of nuclear war to make the risky and audacious statement it wants to make at the end.
It may seem rather peculiar that a movie that stays so close to an accomplished work of art could end up being so mediocre and unmemorable but not when one considers what is really required in a real film adaptation. The fact that graphic novels practically provide moving storyboards to film can make a director think it might be enough to just lazily try to replicate the images on screen. True adaptation, faithful or not, is not just about visually filming the descriptions of its source but also about filmmakers providing their own personal interpretation to view the characters and story. Robert Rodriguez in his faithful film version of Sin City got it right because he treated the inherent drama in his operatic pulp story as seriously as his admiration for the pictures prepared for him by its source from Frank Miller. Watchmen, on the other hand, ultimately provides a textbook example of an adaptation where mindlessly faithful reverence of a comic book has drained out the greater potential for a singular, focused dramatic vision.