"At two and a half hours, Watchmen is enough to test patience and possibly bladders, while, on the other hand, it's not enough time to appreciate the rich, complex world of Moore's diseased creation."

The Watchmen graphic novel is a masterful piece of storytelling - go and read it as soon as you finish here. Its movie adaptation, long considered "unfilmable", is about as good a success as we had hoped for - it hasn't been botched - but falls short in several important ways. As a nuts and bolts adaptation of the book, Watchmen is pretty damn good. It entertains, it passes the time, and is made with competence and skill. There is action, but it is usually brief and hyper-violent.

Watchmen is set in 1985, in an alternate parallel history where Richard Nixon has won his third term, Vietnam was a victory and masked vigilantes have been outlawed for upholding their own sense of justice in an urban cesspit. One of these former vigilantes, The Comedian, has been murdered, and a fellow Watchman, Rorschach, follows the mystery of his killer which leads us to a larger conspiracy.

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All the while, the threat of nuclear war is omnipresent, but America's greatest weapon is an unmasked blue-skinned superhero, Dr Manhattan (created after an accident with an "intrinsic field subtractor") , who can manipulate matter, and has a godly vision of time and space. The Doomsday clock is getting ever closer to midnight, but is there some way to avert humankind's annihilation?

I can moan about little details not being up to snuff - I'm a fan, and I care about this stuff - but most of Moore's plot is in there in one way or another. It's the tone that's the problem. The movie is missing a pervasive vein of black ironic humour other than the obvious (a reference to "a cowboy in the White House" is especially pointed, post-Dubya and Reagan), and a vicious, unsentimental flavour of insidious horror.

What's in its place is a hyperactive, immature and seriously violent power-trip, which reminds us of the cheesy excesses of director Zack Snyder's 300. Power-tool gambits and bone-crunching assaults do not make a movie dark or disturbed, just rather adolescent and unpleasant.

This isn't always the case, they get it dead on with Dr Manhattan's exile on Mars, which is a beautiful and awesome (in the sense that it inspired my awe, not the braindead one-size-fits-all catchphrase it has become) scene, which translates the essence of the novel.

I remain unconvinced that a Watchmen movie was required, or could be an improvement. Yes, there are structural enhancements to the adaptation - jettisoning the Pirates subplot is a very good thing and streamlining the doomsday finale plot a welcome compressive technique. But the medium is so different, movies have a defined pace; on the silver screen, there can be no opportunity to re-explore the panels at our leisure with a flick of the wrist. This is essential to the graphic novel, it lends the novel much of its power. Re-reading Watchmen gives something new and interesting every time, I doubt there shall be the same experience for moviegoers. Other than to absorb the in-jokes placed there to appease the fans, angered by the loss of plenty of backstory. (Yes, there is a home video Director's Cut, and Ultimate Cut. Each of them restore plenty of cut backstory. Clever or obvious marketing?)

At the two and a half hour theatrical cut, Watchmen is enough to test patience and possibly bladders, while, on the other hand, it's not enough time to appreciate the rich, complex world of Moore's diseased creation. This compromised pace, combined with a desire to mix Columbus-era Harry Potter faithfulness to the text leaves the movie at a strange, half-way point that will fully satisfy few. I think Snyder's tried too hard to be respectful to the source - and brings nothing fresh to it, a subservient policy that does neither film or book many favours. Certainly, one wonders, at least for the first hour, when the film will pick up the pace.

I confess myself fascinated in the potential of seeing Moore's story and world through more individual eyes. Imagine Terry Gilliam grasping this material, fresh from Brazil. A mouthwatering thought, isn't it? Is Snyder's professional, polished work interesting because it presents a boiled down and well-made Watchmen, or is he simply uninteresting as a director for hire, however competent he is?

Either way, this is a terrific looking film, borderline obsessed with replicating the comic panels. Spielberg regular production designer Alex McDowell does superbly, the set decoration and costumes are fabulous. The same cannot be said of the makeup - indeed, there are some scarily bad efforts at age makeup - and Robert Wisden is miscast as Nixon, with mask-like prosthetics doing nothing to help suspend disbelief.

I really can't help but think that a more freeform adaptation of the book would have made for a more satisfying movie - there's a lot of backstory to get through before we get to the meat and potatoes of the plot. Lots of moments are in there only because they're in the book, not because they fill a dramatic need in a screen adaptation - and their contribution to length and the complex narrative structure is not justified. A good 30 minutes of the film is languid setup, full of slow, meaningful voice overs, completely ignoring the screen rule, "show, don't tell".

With this inability to effectively compress the storytelling, the characters are short changed - Rorshach's past wastes an upsetting abusive setup - although Jackie Earle Haley's psychotic portrayal fits the character perfectly and grabs your attention every time he's onscreen. Aside from Haley and Morgan's crass monster of a Comedian, the leading cast lack charisma. Nite Owl and Adrian Veidt fill space. Dr Manhattan, a god that was formerly a man, is weakly delivered. Billy Crudup, with a healthy dose of digital Gollumisation, certainly looks the part, but utterly fails to convey the novel's tragic figure, tortured with his inability to rejoin or fully remember his humanity.

Ultimately, this is still Watchmen, but it lacks the real dynamo momentum and conscientious entertainment of a terrific adult-friendly comic-book adaptation like The Dark Knight. Did I like watching the Watchmen? Sure, but I can't help but be annoyed at the dumbing-down of its intellectual qualities while delivering little else.

Reviewed on: 15 Mar 2009
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Watchmen packshot
An adaptation of the acclaimed graphic novel in which self-proclaimed heroes fight for the good of humanity - or for what they interpret as such.
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Read more Watchmen reviews:

Anton Bitel ****
Stephen Carty ****

Director: Zack Snyder

Writer: David Hayter and Alex Tse, based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.

Starring: Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Patrick Wilson, Carla Gugino, Matt Frewer, Stephen McHattie, Laura Mennell, Rob LaBelle

Year: 2009

Runtime: 160 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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