Upon finally seeing the forever-delayed movie version of Alan Moores seminal 1986 comic series Watchmen, its hard not to think of that old saying about watching a dog ride a bicycleyoure not applauding because youre seeing it done particularly well, youre just amazed to see it done at all.
Notoriously unadaptable, Moores landmark doorstop is something like the Finnegans Wake of superhero comics, a brainy monolith that deconstructs itself while youre reading. Its often cited, alongside Frank Millers Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, as the moment comic books came of age, thereby forcing insecure folks to coin the despicable term graphic novel so theyd never be caught dead speaking seriously about something as silly as a comic book.
Potential big-screen adaptations have been percolating for decades. Terry Gilliam owned the property for eons, until he finally threw up his hands and declaredperhaps correctlythat its impossible to make a movie out of Watchmen (this coming from the guy who figured out how to film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). Darren Aronofsky and Paul Greengrass came and went in recent years, eventually leaving the job to Zack Snyder, a juvenile technician who scored an unexpected box-office bonanza with 2007s odious 300a doggedly loyal, CGI-enhanced rendering of Frank Millers hymn to Spartan fascism that felt a bit like what might happen if Leni Riefenstahl ever tried directing gay porn.
Snyders m.o. of replicating comic book panels in fetishistic detail serves him well here. For better or worse, this is Watchmen, however condensed and crammed into two hours and 40 minutes. As fanboys are no doubt already clogging the Internet harping on the various errors and omissions, well leave the wanking to them and get down to brass tacks.
Starring: Billy Crudup, Malin Akerman, Jackie Earle Haley
Director: Zack Snyder
Opens Fri., March 6
Set in an alternate 1985, one in which Nixon is serving his fifth term and the Cold War aint all that cold anymore, Watchmen posits a world in which costumed avengers are so common theyve actually been outlawed by congressional decree. The title team is a long-dormant band of caped crusaders spurred back into action by the murder of one of their own. The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) gets tossed from a skyscraper window, much to the paranoid consternation of Jackie Earle Haleys Rorschacha psychotic brawler who spends most of the movie hidden behind a mask of perpetually shifting inkblots.
Donning ridiculous costumes once more and reclaiming these mean streets cures the erectile dysfunction of Patrick Wilsons Nite Owl, but not even an impending nuclear cataclysm can perturb the cool detachment of Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup)a brilliant scientist who, after a freak accident, became a pulsating blue naked guy with godlike powers. Former team leader Ozymandias (Matthew Goode, pretending to be David Bowie) has hatched a rather unique plan to bring about world peace, and as in Moores original comic, all traditional notions of heroism are questioned and eventually upended.
Snyders stuck with the tricky task of wrestling Watchmens meaty monologues and epic backstory into a blockbuster entertainment, and he gets about halfway there. Visually dazzling, every shot looks like a Dave Gibbons drawing come to life. At its best, the movie evokes that totally 80s brand of jittery atomic paranoia, subversively scored to Nenas 99 Luftbaloons, bringing back not-so-fond memories of a party-crazy era when the end of the world always seemed to be just one phone call away.
But the screenplay, by David Hayter and Alex Tse, is undone by the stubborn density of the source material. I cant help but wonder if the movie will even make any sense to anyone who hasnt read the comic. This is such an obsessively detailed, richly realized universe, it takes the film well over an hour to establish all the players and their histories before the story can get started. Characters too often pause to deliver lengthy monologues that played great on the page, but stop the movie dead in its tracks. For a flick so chock-full of apocalyptic ultraviolence, Watchmen often feels strangely inert.
Theres much to admire here, particularly Haleys snarling performance as the bone-snapping Rorschach, and Snyders heroic hard-R commitment to adult weirdness. The truth is that its probably about as good as a movie version of Watchmen could possibly be, but maybe Terry Gilliam was right and some things just defy adaptation.