Currently playing at theatres around the country, the film adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' 1986 graphic novel, Watchmen, directed by Zach Synder (300), is so faithful to it's source that it fails to establish any outstanding qualities of it's own. Basically, the movie is just a re-enactment of the novel, almost like a play shot on film, with Moore and Gibbons' book used as stage directions.
The plot of Watchmen was pretty radical when it's first installment was published by DC Comics in 1986. (All twelve issues of the mini-series were collected into one volume in 1987 and can be reserved from the library here.) What would happen if there really were costumed super-heroes in the real world? Moore and Gibbons explored the various social and political upheavals that would ensue as a result.
It's 1985: The US, through the radioactive-charged, all-powerful Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), has already wiped out the Viet Cong in the 1970s, winning the Vietnam War, but also causing rival countries like Russia and China to build up their nuclear arms out of fear. Richard Nixon gets to be president for five terms. (Listen to a line uttered in the film that implies how the "Watergate" scandal was dealt with.) Martial law seems to constantly be enforced in the US, especially after the "masks" (as the costumed heroes of the film are referred to) are outlawed.
The heroes themselves, the "Watchmen" of the title, are a pretty sad bunch. Besides Dr. Manhattan's increasing detachment from humanity, there's the psychotic Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), whose single minded obssession to punishing criminals has cut him off from any kind of normal social outlet; the Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman), who dutifully followed in her mother's footsteps and is haunted by childhood memories; the Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), an out-of-shape, depressed super-hero wanna-be; and Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), the so-called "World's Smartest Man", who, despite being successful in business, seems to have an agenda of his own. As with Dr. Manhattan, all these characters have outstanding talents (even Rorschach is pretty self-reliant in a fix), but are otherwise socially inept misfits, unable to fully engage their surroundings (or even their own self-esteem) without wearing their masks.
Thanks to Rorschach 's investigation into the death of 1940s' hero The Comedian (Jeffery Dean Morgan), the heroes are plunged into an amazingly complex plot involving what appears to be a conspiracy to discredit and destroy the masks. And that's where the movie becomes problematic.
The (very) overly faithful screenplay by David Hayter and Alex Tse, plus the director's blocking of the various dramatic situations and actors, follows the original novel practically scene-for-scene (although some characters and subplots -sorry Black Freighter fans- are condensed or just plain eliminated to accomondate the two hour, forty-one minute running time). Following the serial progression of the original 12-issue miniseries (including various cliffhangers) results in a choppy, episodic pace. There's almost too much going on to take in at one sitting. The few non-Caucasian characters that appear in the film are not portrayed in a good light (they're either victims or predators). The actors (Haley and Morgan are the only stand-outs) give what basically amounts to rote recitation of their lines, taken verbatim from the novel.
But the film does express some interesting ideas about the social and political underpinnings of society -what would it take for us to put aside our differences and work together?- , which doesn't make it easy to dismiss. Fans (like me) of alternative reality science fiction plots will get a kick out of the movie's take on historical events. There are also some well-chroreographed (and disturbingly violent) action scenes. Sexual themes are handled in an adult (R-rated) manner (though one flaw of the novel not fixed by the filmmakers is how the female characters are depicted as "Madonna-whore" types with little self-introspection; they're just there for the guys). And did I mention the subtle metaphor the novel and film both make about how comic-book superhero fans (represented by the title characters) need to put aside their hobby in order to grow into mature and responsible adults?
A mixed bag artistically, but Watchmen, despite it's fussy reverential tone, is worth taking a look at.