How important is screen fidelity, when it comes to adapting serious fiction into an epic, special effects blockbuster? When it comes to bringing forth the critically acclaimed graphic novel, Alan Moore’s triumphant “Watchmen,” there are two major components that would be essential in a cinematic conversion – the book’s visual style, which is the fundamental reason why “Watchmen” is so accessible and popular, and universal politics and ideas that made it one of Time magazine’s 100 greatest novels of all time.
In the late 1980s, as the book was being prepped for the first time for the screen, the project’s director Terry Gilliam, (“Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”), deemed “Watchmen” as “unfilmable.”
That notion lingered for a long time, and Hollywood bosses put the book back on their shelves and set their sights on other projects. In 2007, Zack Snyder, a director whose only credit was the critically panned “Dawn of the Dead” remake, released his momentous visual stunner “300,” which was a huge success. Hollywood took notice and gave him the reins.
Two years later, the much anticipated cinematic adaptation of “Watchmen” has exploded onto the screen in all its big budget, promotional glory (this critic can’t lie – he’s purchased a few of the toys). Does “Watchmen” live up to the book? Well, it does … and it doesn’t.
The story concerns your not-so-average superheroes – unassuming, everyday people who are tired of the lack of justice in a world full of crime in an alternative 1985. The crew, known as the Watchmen, consists of the nerdy yet determined Nite Owl II a.k.a. Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson), the bigoted brute the Comedian a.k.a. Eddie Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), the calculating Ozymandias a.k.a. Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode), the vigilante sociopath Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), the sexy Silk Spectre II a.k.a. Laurie Juspeczyk (Malin Akerman) and the only real superhuman member, Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) – a radioactive accident turned deified American hero.
The days of costumed heroes have been brought to an end by legislation, but after the Comedian is brutally murdered, an investigation into the killing is initiated by Rorschach. He reunites the forgotten heroes, and as they set out to prevent their own destruction, they discover a deeper and far more diabolical plot. Their pursuit is to watch over humanity, but who is watching the Watchmen?
Visually, the film bears striking similarity to the book. Snyder has a talent for visualizing the book perfectly, rendering its memorable images exquisitely to the screen. Unfortunately, Snyder mixed both the book’s style with his unmistakable, over-the-top style of excess. Fight scenes last too long, the use of slow-motion is laughable and female roles are yet again demeaning. Snyder’s got talent for the action genre – he was just too overzealous a director for “Watchmen.” One can feel his fear of the subject matter throughout the whole movie. Instead of approaching the material with risky, experimental filmmaking, Snyder goes straight for the throat and just tries too hard to make it too faithful.
The biggest problem and an example of his misguided enthusiasm is the film’s uninspiring and clichéd soundtrack (except in one instance). Snyder uses great songs like Hendrix’s cover of “All Along the Watchtower” and Simon & Garfunkel’s anthem “The Sounds of Silence” in unnecessary, inexpressive ways. They’re meaninglessly used, and one can’t help but feel that Snyder was artistically blinded by excitement when his budget allowed their inclusion.
Another huge problem is the general “dumbing down” of certain aspects of the graphic novel for audiences who haven’t read the source material. In the book, the fear of nuclear annihilation is a lot less obvious and expressed through subtext. In the film, an entire subplot involving Richard Nixon (played like a caricature by Robert Wisden) is introduced and removes essential storylines from the book.
However, the film does have some treasures hidden among its flaws. The first 20 minutes are exemplary – there is a montage of the back story (originally offered between each chapter in the novel), set to the tune of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a Changin’.” Images of Ozymandias at Studio 54 and a recreation of the Kennedy assassination involving the Comedian (a notion not included in the comic, but a risk well taken) are both bold and exciting.
Haley, who has blossomed as one of the best modern character actors after his Oscar-nominated comeback role in the vicious “Little Children,” is the star of this film. Rorschach is a sick and twisted individual, and while David Hayter and Alex Tse’s script cuts out a lot of his back story and the dialogue that made Rorschach the best character in the book, Haley brings life to the masked maniac.
Also impressive is Morgan, whose Comedian is as brash and hotheaded as he was in the comic. Goode delivers the perfect Ozymandias, and Crudup does well enough as the detached blue giant. One can applaud Snyder’s knack for perfect casting – except in one case. Akerman is bland and annoying, although her character was slightly underwritten in the adaptation process (Silk Spectre II is a much stronger woman in the book).
While this isn’t the worst comic book film, it is far from the best. Snyder did the best he could, but this film really feels unfinished – an ambitious first draft. Moviegoers won’t be bored, but they may not get the “Watchmen” film they deserve. After a strong opening, the film dropped in the box office after its second and third week of release. Will anybody be watching the “Watchmen?” Maybe on DVD.