© 2009 Ray Wong
Alan Moore's Watchmen is often regarded as one of the best novels of the 20th Century. "Unfilmmable" as well. That didn't stop director Zack Snyder from bringing the celebrated graphic novel to the big screen.
The story begins with Edward Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) being brutally murdered by a mysterious assassin. Blake works for the government, headed by three-term President Richard Nixon, in a time when the world is deep in the Cold War in which the U.S. and the Soviet Union are on the verge of an all-out nuclear war. Blake, known as the Comedian by his peers, was also part of a now-defunct group of superheroes called the Watchmen.
Blake's murder gives reasons for the Watchmen to be concerned about their own safety. Headed by Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), a blue, radioactive "superhuman" with tremendous power to change anything including time and space, the Watchmen have been inactive a few years and the members are now in hiding as normal citizens. Previous members have been oppressed, persecuted and locked up by the Nixon adminstration. All except Adrian Veidt, a.k.a. Ozymandias, now the world's smartest and richest man. The other members include Walter Kovacs/Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson), and Laurie Jupiter/Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman). Rorschach believes they're all in danger unless they find out who is behind Blake's murder. The mystery leads to a discovery that would test their faith in humanity and their own conviction of right and wrong.
Billy Crudup (The Good Shepherd) is mostly seen as the proxy of a CGI-generated blue giant. Dr. Manhattan is cool, calm, and disinterested in the human race. There's really not much for Crudup to do except for a few scenes where he plays Dr. Manhattan's former mortal self, Jon Osterman. Matthew Goode (Brideshead Revisited) also has only a few key scenes, especially toward the end, and his portrayal of the world's smartest man seems a bit weak.
Jackie Earle Haley (All the King's Men) is awesome as Kovacs/Rorschach. He has the right intensity, toughness and bad-ass attitude required for the role. His odd looks are also perfect. Jeffrey Dean Morgan (P.S. I Love You) is wonderfully slimy and gruff as the morally ambiguous Blake/Comedian. Patrick Wilson (Lakeview Terrace) is interestingly droll as Dreiberg but dashing as his alter-ego Nite Owl II. He has some really good scenes with Malin Akerman (27 Dresses), who plays Jupiter/Silk Spectre as sweet, vulnerable, sexy and tough.
Adapted from Moore's novel by David Hayter (X2) and Alex Tse (Sucker Free City), the screenplay is complicated, given the complexity and layers of Moore's original. The story starts with a murder mystery, then slowly unveils within the context of a noir-style dystopia and alternative history in which Richard Nixon is the President in 1985. The story has two main threads going on at the same time: one, the mystery and two, the back stories about these "retired" superheroes. It's an interesting way to introduce these characters and tie that to the theme of "the world still needs superheroes." Moore has a fascination with alternative history and dystopia, evident in his other works such as the superb V for Vendetta. Here, the writers continue to explore those themes as well as the moral ambiguity: is something inherently right or wrong? And is it okay to do something extraordinarily horrible for the greater good of mankind?
The dialogue and action are very typical of comic book movies, however. And sometimes the writing seems bogged down by all the back stories, flashbacks, and exposition. It feels tedious at times, even as we appreciate the character development and explanations -- trust me, we need them. Often I feel that the writers are saddled with the huge responsibility of working everything in, all the layers, complexity, character relationships, themes, messages, atmosphere, expositions, etc. The result is a movie that feels long and tedious at times, exhilarating and stunning at others.
Director Zack Snyder (300) has established himself as a stylish director with his unique visions. He doesn't disappoint with Watchmen. Snyder, like some of the major action directors such as John Woo, favors slow motion and extreme camera angles. His visual styles are arresting, busy, and dark. His use of popular music is time- and content-appropriate, which at the same time creates an odd juxtaposition to the visual style.
Snyder also doesn't shy away from extreme violence, sexuality and language. The film is rightfully hard R-rated. At times, however, the abundance of Dr. Manhattan's nakedness and big, blue appendage are rather distracting. Still, in many ways, I applaud Synder for staying true to his vision and the source material (unlike, say, Robert Zemeckis's shameful and silly coverups in Beowulf).
Watchmen is not the masterpiece we came to expect, nor is it a disaster. Over all, it is a cinematic tour-de-force and fans of the graphic novel would be pleased. For the mainstream audiences, however, this could be a hit or miss depending on their tastes in comic book movies. It is definitely not The Dark Knight or even Spider-Man, but remains very watchable by every standard.
Stars: Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Patrick Wilson, Carla Gugino, Matt Frewer
Director: Zack Snyder
Writers: David Hayter, Alex Tse (based on Alan Moore's graphic novel)
Distributor: Warner Bros.
MPAA Rating: R for strong graphic violence, sexuality, nudity and language
Running Time: 163 Minutes
Script – 7
Performance – 7
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 9
Editing – 8
Production – 9
Total – 7.8 out of 10