Thursday, March 5, 2009


Directed by Zack Snyder
Screenplay by David Hayter and Alex Tse

Review by Dave Conkey

The graphic novel they said could never be properly adapted for film has finally made its way to the big screen. After years in limbo, bouncing back and forth between different writers and directors, including Terry Gilliam (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, 12 Monkeys, Brothers Grimm) and Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain), the Watchmen finally landed in the lap of everyone's favorite fanboy adaptation movie maker, Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead, 300.)

Where other creative teams endeavored to tweak and adjust and overhaul the story of a paranoid, dystopian 1985 America -- where Nixon is in his fifth term, dealing with a Cold War on the brink of nuclear eruption, and superheroes, or Masks, as they tend to call themselves, are outlawed -- to fit today's sensibilities and try to make it feel more relevant, Snyder looked at the job as a tribute. This is where Watchmen reaches its greatest heights, which I assure you are quite spectacularly high, and its biggest snares, which are wicked violent bear traps you wish you had noticed instead of stumbling into while marveling over the scene that came five seconds before it.

The same can be said of Snyder's overall directing style and David Hayter and Alex Tse's screenplay. The action is Snyder right out of 300, whose beautiful slow-mo fight scenes can feel strangely out of place and even in a little stuffy in the gritty New York City a fair chunk of Watchmen takes place in. Don't get me wrong, some of the scenes are positively exhilarating, leaving you begging for more, more, more! And then you actually get it and it just falls flat, picking up again two scenes later with another piece of fantastic violence or some beautifully detailed set piece that feels like it was torn straight from one of Dave Gibbon's panels. The screenplay comes off pretty much the same way, with most of the best bits pulled verbatim from Alan Moore's pages, as well as some of the most awkward. (Rorschach's journal, anyone?)

As far as the actual characters go, if you don't actually know anything about them or their stories going in, you may have something of a hard time growing to care. And it's not as if they didn't have enough time to let the viewer develop a rapport with the characters, they just didn't really take the time to, in the majority. Dr. Manhattan's (Billy Crudup) origin story/time-trip is one of the most appealing, beautiful, and well-written sequences in the entire film, while at the other end of the spectrum, the Comedian's (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) menagerie of back-story flashbacks bogged down the first hour of the film without really making you care that much about him. One of the strongest performances comes in the form of Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), but we still never really get any feel for where he came from, leaving the uninitiated to assume he was just an uneducated kid who grew up to brutalize baddies in a funny mask, which, ironically, he's not even wearing for his best sequence. Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman) and Night Owl II (Patrick Wilson) take up a ton of screen time, but the viewer never really learns enough about them to be truly invested in their outcomes. Although you can't help but to root for the slightly dumpy Night Owl when it looks like something may happen between him and the Silk Spectre. And Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) almost feels like he was in there as an afterthought, barely contributing anything to the movie, while being one of the most important figures in the overall story.

The story itself, with its uneven pacing and shuffled time frames which don't translate as well as one would hope from page to screen, sometimes comes across as convoluted and bloated. The time is never really taken to explore what was originally a deep, twisted, well-orchestrated journey into paranoid madness, ends up feeling a little like an excuse for unknown superheroes to run around and get into some wonderfully violent, sometimes baffling shenanigans. Which is not to say it is this wholly impenetrable mess or anything like that. By the end of the movie, you mostly get what it was all about and how everything linked together and why this and that mattered, it was just a long and winding road that could have spent a little more time at some points, and less at others.

Overall, Watchmen was an imperfect undertaking, maybe biting off more than it could realistically chew, but immensely enjoyable. It needed to be made and could have been much, much worse, and probably wouldn't have been nearly as good if someone else handled it. Could anyone have done it better than Zack Snyder? Maybe Zack Snyder in ten years with a little more experience under his belt, but no one else comes to mind. I think it would have benefited from being a well funded 4 - 6 hour miniseries on HBO. Outside of that, I don't think it could have been done much better, considering how unwieldy a beast the original graphic epic was.

Watchmen fanatics, go see it, just expect to be irritated at points and completely thrilled by others. If you've never read Watchmen before, take a friend who has or do yourself a favor and go pick up the graphic novel, devour it in an evening and go see the movie the next day.