Directed by Zack Snyder
Written by David Hayter & Alex Tse
Starring Jackie Earle Haley & Billy Crudup
There is a scene in Watchmen, directed by Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead, 300), when Laurie Jupiter, the crime-fighting heroine of the story, pounds against an ornate glass structure in anguish at a horrific revelation, screaming “No!” with each impact. I too exclaimed “No!” in my mind while putting my face into my palms several times during the course of the 2 hour, 43 minute film.
I have to admit that I had high hopes for the movie, having read the graphic novel of the same name, written by Alan Moore (V for Vendetta, From Hell) and drawn by David Gibbons. Although I do not have the knowledge or passion of a Watchmen fanboy, I enjoyed the novel’s themes of unequivocal truth and the inquiry of human nature. The film, however, oversimplifies the complexities of the graphic novel, and instead, devolves it into a visual and aural exploitation with little intellectual weight.
The Watchmen are a group of masked vigilantes, who take after their predecessors, the Minutemen. In the opening credits, a photographic montage illustrates the Minutemen’s triumphs and downfalls, all set to a familiar Bob Dylan tune. At its surface, Watchmen is a murder mystery; someone has killed Edward Blake, a right-wing militant vigilante and government agent who serves with both the Minutemen and the Watchmen. The backdrop is 1985 Cold War America. The peril of nuclear annihilation is imminent with the USA pitted against the USSR. America has an ace in the hole with Dr. Jon Osterman, a.k.a. Dr. Manhattan, after a freak accident gives him the ability of atomic manipulation.
In the film’s exposition, many of the scenes mirror the novel with shots very close to the panels themselves. We find out that this masked vigilantism causes a police strike about a decade before, and public pandemonium ensues. A federal law forces the superheroes (which is a misnomer, since only Dr. Manhattan has true superpowers) to stop their acts. The Watchmen reveal their identities, except for a curious character named Rorschach — a renegade crime fighter with a mask that reflects his name. The well-acted Rorschach believes there is no higher virtue than justice. He notifies the other Watchmen; Night Owl (a middle-aged Daniel Dreiberg), Silk Spectre II (Laurie Juspeczyk), and Ozymandias (self-made billionaire Adrian Veidt) of a potential “masked killer.” The plot twists and turns; starting in New York City, then to Mars, a maximum security prison, Antarctica, and eventually ending in a small newspaper office.
The film lost me about a third of the way, despite a few good performances. The majority of the characters are physically well-cast, especially Rorschach. He is played by a strong Jackie Earle Haley, evoking a Dirty Harry or Travis Bickle character. Manhattan, Blake, Dreiberg, and Jupiter seem to be taken right out of the novel with fairly comparable dispositions.
However, the weak link is Adrian Veidt, played by Mathew Goode, who seems to be too thin, too effeminate, and too creepy to be the driving force behind the conflict at hand. His character is not only portrayed poorly, but his storyline also deviates from the original. It is this weakness that caused me to pound my face into my hands since the conclusion of the plot hinges upon Ozymandias’ story. The director also takes several artistic liberties to make the violent scenes in the novel especially gruesome, including the cleaving of foreheads, the sawing of arms, and the tearing of skin in painful detail.
The ears were also assaulted during the movie; I burst into laughter during a rather intimate scene when Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” played in the background. Several of the popular songs in the film are referenced in the novel; however, I had difficulty reconciling the fact that even though there were many scenes that mirrored the panels exactly, there were many scenes that were grotesquely incorrect. This inconsistency frustrated my viewing experience, along with the blatant manipulation of emotions reflected in the musical cues.
Watchmen, as a graphic novel, contains parallel plots, excerpts in between chapters, a comic strip within a comic strip, aliens (kind of), and a greater nuance of human character: aspects that would have been difficult to replicate on film. However, thematic elements have been the reason for the novel’s high praise. The qualms posed by Rorschach’s unwavering dedication for truth, Dr. Manhattan’s Just God/Apathetic God presentation, or even the value of sacrificing few for the benefit of many, are all cheapened by the film. Beyond the physical representation of most of the scenes, the film fails to embody the themes and intellectual impact of the graphic novel. So, who will watch Watchmen? Hopefully, not you.