CAPSULE: After years of its fans waiting, Alan Moore's mammoth graphic novel WATCHMEN has come to the screen. This is a film of violence, sex, breaking glass, and spattering blood--dark both literally and figuratively. Zach Snyder (director of "300") gives us a more-than-ample 163 minutes in this gaudy, ugly world. If you are looking for a highly digitally enhanced, noisy, explosion, hot-grease-in-the-face, fighting, meat-cleaver sort of film with plenty of people being thrown through plate glass windows in slow motion this could be one of the biggees of the year for you. Rating: -1 (-4 to +4) or 3/10
I expect this to be one of my unpopular reviews. Your mileage may well vary on WATCHMEN. Roger Ebert gave it four stars, his highest rating. I have friends who were really looking forward to this film. I read the graphic novel years ago and it did not stick with me. I saw the film minutes ago and it did not stick with me much either. Much of that is by choice. This is a cold, ugly, violent film. The characters are more than one-dimensional, but I hesitate to say they made it half way to two-dimensional. Besides the bizarre problems that the plot hands them, their personal problems are melodramatic and cliched.
The original comic book of the story was twelve issues long and set in an alternate 1985, though it was released in 1986 and 1987. The Watchmen are a team of superheroes centered on Dr. Manhattan (played in the movie by Billy Crudup), the only one of their number who actually has super powers. And his powers are almost god-like due to his having received a lethal dose of strange radiation. Other heroes seem more Batman-like with natural, if exaggerated, skills. They are the Comedian, Nite-Owl II, Rorschach, and Silk Spectre II. Actually, the film begins with the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) being murdered. The other Watchmen to varying degrees think about their relationship to the dead less-than-super not-really-hero and try to find his killer. All this is told against a backdrop of rapidly escalating Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. Somewhere in there manipulating events is Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger.
Speaking of Richard Nixon let me add an aside here. Having Nixon as a character might have been an interesting touch in the comic book. As bad as I found watching the film, it always got worse when the storyline visited Nixon. Robert Wisden plays the ex-President in what looks like a satirical Halloween mask. It features a big Cyrano nose. Seeing Nixon played this way is a lot like hearing a song you never liked in the first place sung so off-key as to send chills down your spine. The design of the superhero costumes may have come from the comic but look just horrid on the screen. Night Owl II (Patrick Wilson) comes off the best looking like a parody of Batman. The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) looks like a middle-aged cigar chomping version of Robin the Boy Wonder. Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman) looks to be dressed in vinyl in a style you generally see only in the wrong part of town. Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) wears a mask with black Rorschach-test-like symmetric black splotches that constantly move around and re-form themselves. It quickly becomes a major distraction. Dr. Manhattan is big and can grow to giant proportions while he gives off a Messianic-looking blue glow. He actually has too different costumes. One is no more than a revealing thong. That is the one he wears for serious occasions. Later in the film he seems to decide that is overdressed and just lets it all hang out. This film earns it R-rating and then some. (Side note: A family in the row ahead of us would let their four- ish son watch scenes that graphically show someone having hot oil thrown in his face or getting a meat cleaver embedded several inches into his head, but covered their son's eyes when characters were nude and having sex.) Zack Snyder's world of 1985 is dark and rainy portrayed with a subdued color pallet. It is deeply oppressive, which is probably precisely the idea. Something creative and original could have been expected from the Tyler Bates musical score given the pretensions of the film. If it was there, I missed it. Mostly what I heard was unimaginative "texture" music with dull chords and no attempt at any melody. Where they use source music it generally is badly chosen. A sex scene (in a flying thingee without wings, no less) to the tune of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah"??? Feh!
The adapted screenplay by David Hayter and Alex Tse is trying to delve into what being a superhero is really all about. They give us some standard mother-daughter tensions, an obnoxious man whom you know not to like because he smokes a cigar, and lots of violent fights. A world-threatening plot is uncovered that might have graced a lesser James Bond film, but with a few tweaks for superheroes. Like THE RETURN OF THE KING the film seems to have multiple endings, in one of which Night Owl II tells us nothing ever ends, which for me was precisely the message I did not want at that moment.
This was a big disappointment. Watching it I found very quickly my wristwatch becoming my closest companion. With a film featuring all this violence and with superheroes the last thing you would expect is a film so dreary and tedious. WATCHMEN is overlong, painful to watch, and occasionally pretentious. It is intended to give us insights into the experience of being a superhero. So far nobody has stepped forward to endorse the accuracy of those insights. I rate WATCHMEN a -1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 3/10. Reportedly Alan Moore has not allowed his name to appear on the film. I know I wouldn't want my name on it.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0409459/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/watchmen/
Mark R. Leeper
Copyright 2009 Mark R. Leeper