Perhaps not since Kar Wai Wong’s 2004 “2046 have I feverishly anticipated any film as much as “Watchmen. Like millions of graphic novel enthusiasts, I’m an unabashed fan of Alan Moore’s 1986 masterpiece, and for good reason.
“Watchmen was the novel that changed the way comics are written and perceived; the first work to examine the perils facing crime fighters had they lived in the real world.
For more than 20 years, numerous producers, directors and writers tried to adapt the novel to the big screen. Several acclaimed filmmakers were attached to direct the film version at some point during the past 10 years, including Paul Greengrass (“The Bourne Ultimatum, “United 93), Darren Aronofsky (“Requiem for a Dream, “The Wrestler ) and Terry Gilliam (“Brazil, “12 Monkeys ).
Gilliam in particular deemed the novel unfilmable, an proposed a five-hour mini-series instead.
After the unexpected success of 2006’s “300, American director Zach Snyder was officially hired to helm what the producers promised to be a faithful adaptation of the book.
I was honestly skeptical about the choice of Snyder. I liked his 2004’s remake of George A. Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead and thought “300 was very entertaining, but “Watchmen was on a league of its own; a rich, complex novel only a real film auteur could do justice to.
But then I saw the trailer and it completely blew me off with its moody soundtrack, striking set and uber-gloomy atmosphere.
The subsequent mixed reviews and disappointing box-office performance didn’t deter me. I went to watch “Watchmen with a frantic anticipation and an open mind. And like a 10-year-old kid, I started shouting the names of my favorite characters as they emerged on screen.
I can’t say I was as excited when I left the theater as I was when I arrived. I did love the movie, enjoyed every single second of it and felt an urge to go back to Moore’s world. Yet I couldn’t help feeling that it’s indeed impossible to create a truly great adaptation of “Watchmen in 162 minutes no matter how reverential it is to the source material.
The movie starts with a sequence only referred to at the beginning of the book but never fully depicted: The murder of former crime fighter Edward Blake, aka The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan).
The superb sepia-toned credit sequence follows, chronicling the rise and fall of the Minutemen – the first wave of American crime fighters – and their descendants, the Crimebusters (the word Watchmen is actually never mentioned). The titles are set against famous historical events such as the Kennedy assassination and the Vietnam protests with Bob Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’ augmenting the sense of nostalgia and setting the mood.
Snyder replicates Moore’s story almost strand by strand, providing the background stories of his characters through a series of intricate, scattered flashbacks.
It’s the year 1985. America has won the war in Vietnam and has elected Richard Nixon for a third term. The Cold War is at its peak. In ’77, new legislation known as the Keene act outlawed all independent crime fighters. All but the government sponsored Dr Manhattan are forced into retirement. The Crimebusters inhabit a world that no longer needs them; a world heading towards a nuclear Armageddon.
While investigating the death of the Comedian, the contemptuous, pitiless Rorschach, known for his interchangeable ink-blotted mask blot, uncovers a plot aiming to get rid of the entire group.
The murder mystery function partially as pretext to explore the dysfunctional lives of Moore’s flawed, scarred protagonists.
Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), the naked, blue-glowing quasi god who was transformed into his current form following a lab accident, no longer feels connected to the human race, regarding the world in quantum physics terms and decides to abandon earth. His companion, Laurie Jupiter/Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman) attempts to distance herself from her past and lead a quieter life.
The Comedian is a mercenary, rapist and child murderer whose amorality reflects the bestial world he inhabits. Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) has uncovered his identity, exploiting his crime-fighting days to create a business empire. Dan Dreiberg / Nite Owl II’s (Patrick Wilson) failure to accept retirement has rendered him impotent while Rorschach has grown into an uncompromising, one-track-minded monster disdainful of human savagery.
Moore’s book was, in many ways, a social and political commentary on the Regan/Thatcher era; a deconstruction of the myth of heroism and a contemplation of the inescapability of time.
The narrative design of the story is unusual; the back-story is presented via news clippings, diary entries and official documents. Juxtapositions, recurring symbols and parallel narratives are heavily employed. A separate pirate comic entitled “Tales of the Black Freighter is intertwined into the main the story (“Black Freighter will be released as short animated movie next Tuesday on DVD along with “Under the Hood, a mock documentary on the formation and dissolution of the Minutemen. I just saw both videos and I highly recommend checking them out before watching the film).
Snyder’s film retains the spirit of Moore’s writing and noirish atmosphere, and I must confess, the film does look superb. With predominately dark cinematography, hip soundtrack, slow-motion action sequences and ostentatiously loud colors, Snyder has created a grand pop objet d art that will keep your eyes transfixed even during the lengthy dialogue scenes.
Yet, Snyder is no film auteur like Christopher Nolan and “Watchmen falls short of reaching the great heights set by last year’s “The Dark Knight. Several scenes feel clumsy, especially the excruciatingly corny love scene between Dan and Laurie that’s set to none other than Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ (Don’t worry though, our good Egyptian censors have cut the scene entirely, along with every single shot showing Dr Manhattan’s crotch).
Some of the characterization is inadequate. By robbing Laurie from her convoluted relationship with her mother and the exhaustive, overpowering need to live up to her expectations, Silk Spectre II comes off as a dependant young woman who can’t stand her ground. Dan fares better, although he occasionally appears slightly whiny and too idealistic.
Yet the main problem with the film is its running length. By compressing all these characters, plots and sub-plots into 162 minutes, the film doesn’t only feel rushed, but unkempt and overstuffed. If you haven’t read the graphic novel, you’ll probably spend the larger part of the film wondering what the hell it s all about. The story has little room to breathe; most characters (save from Dr Manhattan) aren’t granted enough time to thoroughly ponder their lives and the world they’re still learning to adapt to.
Like many film adaptations based on momentous literary works, the reason why the film succeeds is simply because of Moore’s brilliant story. And for me, Rorschach has always been its center.
In a chilling sequence in the book that left me shaken the first time I read it, Rorschach describes a grisly murder involving a little girl that wiped out the last cell of humanity in him.
At the end of the story, he says; “This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphorical forces. It’s not God who kills the children. Not fate that butchers them or destiny that feeds them to the dogs. It’s Us. Only Us.
Moore’s world is devoid of any goodness, sympathy or tangible meaning. All the ugliness, destruction and cruelty are created by our very own hands and no one else’s. Rorschach and co. are only humans like us, sometimes resorting to radical, questionable means to impose a temporary peace.
But even a god-like figure like Dr Manhattan can’t save an apathetic, imprudent world from self-annihilation. In retrospect, heroes are rendered futile agents who, no matter how grave their methods can be, cannot change the course of the world.
“Watchmen is the bleakest, most nihilistic comic-book adaptation to date.
And with the current global economic recession taking its toll on nearly every household in the world, you can’t help drawing parallels between Moore’s world and ours that doesn’t feel so distant.
The clock is ticking indeed, but who’s watching?