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The Watchmen

The influential graphic novel finally gets its big-screen adaptation – and it's not the end of the world, after all

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Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) is annoyed by humanity.
  • Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) is annoyed by humanity.

Ordinarily I'm loath to waste space about how the movie failed to live up to the book -- after all, plenty of people will just be about the movie, which is its own entertainment entity. But two decades' worth of chatter and hype around The Watchmen has centered on the reputed impossibility of bringing that graphic novel to the big screen: Its transformation is -- to make a dreadful analogy -- the gigantic naked blue guy in the room.

Now, relative neophyte director Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead, 300) has opted to tackle Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' influential work, released in 1986-87 as a 12-part comic, and later bundled as a graphic novel.

The story is set in an alternate 1985, as the U.S. and the Soviet Union edge toward nuclear annihilation. The murder of masked crime-fighter The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) prompts other "masks," now retired after being outlawed, to search out his killer. Chief among them is the twisted Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), the broody Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson) and the ambivalent Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman). Assisting from the sidelines are the former Ozymandias, now super-smart businessman Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode); and Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), a physicist transformed by an accident into a matter-defying, hyper-powerful, naked blue guy-slash-weapon.

The award-winning novel was lauded for its dense multi-generational histories, overlapping narratives and meta-commentary that operated as a deconstruction of the superhero and his medium, comics. No mere action story, The Watchmen offered a mordant, nihilistic treatise on the Reagan-Thatcher era, with its disengaged citizens, too-engaged corporations and escalating Cold War.

As a fan of the book, I found Snyder's film to be an interesting intellectual exercise in seeing how the "unfilmable" material was adapted. The movie version is a well-told story that belied the film's nearly three-hour length -- even though it was still the disappointment I expected (though not as bad as I feared).

Snyder works very hard to be faithful to the original text while still delivering a coherent film experience for both newcomers and fans. Dialogue and images are lifted directly from the novel (including Dr. Manhattan's big, blue man-parts). Flashbacks cram in history, and scenes wink with in-references. Necessary cuts have been made for clarity and expediency: Most notably, "The Black Freighter" narrative has been jettisoned (along with the newsstand man's running commentary) and the details of the climax have been altered.

However, condensing the philosophical musings of Dr. Manhattan and the exploits and motivations of Veidt renders some pivotal plot points into hasty, just-because moments rather than fully developed logical shifts. (Additionally, I found the characterization of Veidt curious: He should be a golden, virile alpha male like his hero Alexander the Great, not a sniveling character on the verge of being a Dana Carvey caricature, as he is here.)

Ultimately, Snyder's slavish desire to get it all in becomes more distracting than satisfying, and the hurly-burly nature of the film gives short shrift to the irony, reflection and sense of impending doom that should hang over the story.

Ironically, what worked well on the page -- stylized dialogue, the occasional mask-versus-villain battle, the slow revelation of horror -- feels a lot cheesier fleshed out in three dimensions. Toss in whoosh-y sound effects, slow motion, CGI tricks, annoying pop songs, an embarrassingly bad sex scene, plus a couple of miscast actors, and it all conspires to make the film the very thing the novel railed against: a flashy, entertaining spectacle about costumed crime-fighters. Admittedly, this film does offer more intricate plotting and off-beat, cynical material than your standard caped-hero actioner. But it has little of the novel's heady, gut-punch impact.

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