Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Movie Review: Watchmen

Beware: This review may contain minor spoilers

For years, Alan Moore has insisted that his comics are unfilmable. Moore’s pretentious posturing aside, the most notorious example he can point to is the wretched “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” a movie which veered so far from the author’s original intentions as to make them virtually unrecognizable.
Zack Snyder’sWatchmen,” at least, does not suffer from that aforementioned affliction. Indeed, his cinematic take on Moore’s most well-loved work exactingly duplicates the surface traits of the source material: The to-the-life costumes, gadgets and numerous shots of glowing blue genitalia should appease devotees. For a while, Snyder is even able to evoke Moore’s grim, nihilistic vision of a country going slowly mad.
The plot centers on an alternate history 1985 America where we won in Vietnam and Richard Nixon is a multi-term president. Professional heroes, once revered by the public for dressing up in funny costumes to fight crime, are now viewed as outlaws and vigilantes. Naturally, the city is sliding into hell, and the oft-reported nuclear sabre-rattling between the U.S. and Russia is doing little to improve anyone's mood.
At this point we meet slovenly ex-superhero Comedian, who after a Snyder-style bone crunching fight is thrown from his apartment window by an unseen assailant. Another “mask” (as the ex-heroes are derisively called by the public), the sociopath Rorschach, probes Comedian’s murder. The excellent Jackie Earle Haley (aka SamVox’s childhood hero Kelly Leak) narrates his investigation in a scotch-and-cigarettes voice with unintenionally hilarious film-noirish lines such as “The city screams like an abattoir full of retarded children," a direct quote from Moore's novel that screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse should have left on the paneled page.
As the plot unfolds we’re introduced to the rest of the retired superfolk: The dorky Dan Dreiberg (Nite Owl), who lives in Bruce Wayne-like wealthy isolation; Laurie Jupiter (Silk Spectre), who followed in her mother’s heroic footsteps before hanging up the latex fetish-wear; Adrian Veidt (Ozymandias), the “world’s smartest man,” now a billionaire corporate magnate; and Dr. Manhattan, the nude blue energy being who’s been shacking up with Laurie. It’s not spoiling anything to say that Rorschach’s investigation contrives to bring the heroes out of mothballs.
Moore populated his terrible world with morally complicated characters. Snyder compensates by peppering his narrative with flashbacks, which do a decent job of fleshing out character motivations.
However, no amount of cinematic backstory can recreate the deep nuances of the book. So I can’t quite pinpoint the moment where “Watchmen” lost me. As much as I liked the book, I’m no fanboy who cares about every niggling detail translating from page to screen. What Snyder struggles with in his translation is not look or atmosphere, but emotion.
“Watchmen” simply falls flat when it should have soared. Moore’s heavy themes of morality vs. ethics and the ever-popular man’s inhumanity to man get lost in the ponderous, confusing final act. A large part of this failure lies in the casting choice of Mailn Akerman as Laurie/Silk Spectre.
Akerman’s performance is at times painfully wooden, particularly in a pivotal scene where her character is supposed to represent the emotional linchpin to an important decision made by another character. I don’t mind Snyder choosing a relative unknown for the part, but I wish he could’ve gotten someone that does more than look good naked.
It’s not all Akerman’s fault: The final half hour of this near three-hour flick is agonizingly slow, and even with Snyder’s hotly debated changed ending and a few excised characters, it seems the director is trying too hard to stay true to the source material.
Instead of putting his own stamp on the proceedings as Peter Jackson did successfully with “Lord of the Rings” and Sam Raimi with “Spider-Man,” the “Watchmen” movie comes off as a faceless recreation of the thematically un-pindownable graphic novel. Ultimately, Snyder should have done more to make “Watchmen” his own movie instead of striving to get every peripheral detail just right.
I suppose “Watchmen” is going to become a polarizng affair for many viewers. While I didn’t hate this movie, there’s nothing here that makes me want to watch it again.

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