Film Review: Watchmen

After numerous false starts, Alan Moore's supposedly unfilmable graphic novel arrives on the big screen. Unfortunately, Zack Snyder's stylish but substance-challenged adaptation only skims the surface of this groundbreaking book.

It's important to note right off the bat that this review of the new comic-book blockbuster Watchmen is penned by a critic who first picked up Alan Moore's seminal 1986 graphic novel in high school and has read it at least once a year in the decades since. I'm mentioning this because it's difficult, if not impossible, for those of us who know the book inside and out to evaluate how Zack Snyder's film version will play for the uninitiated. That's true of most book-to-film adaptations, of course, but Watchmen remains a special case because of the fierce passion it inspires among its fans, who will be going into the theatre with a mixture of anticipation at seeing the book brought to life and fear of the changes Snyder may have made in the process. Viewers who aren't familiar with Watchmen will face a separate challenge: keeping up with a complex story that spans decades and involves dozens of characters.

These very different viewing experiences should result in some fascinating conversations after the credits roll—conversations that, I'm sorry to say, will be more interesting and thoughtful than the film itself. Speaking from the perspective of a Watchmen fan, I can confirm that Snyder has preserved the style of the original comic, recreating many of artist Dave Gibbons' (who, unlike Moore, has given the film his seal of approval) compositions with remarkable precision and detail. Absent from the movie, though, is any indication that the director really understands the deeper substance of Moore's book. Despite sticking closely to the epic narrative arc of the comic—even lifting much of the dialogue directly off the page—Snyder and his screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse miss the subtleties, rich world-building and playful subversiveness that distinguish Moore and Gibbons' creation, thus transforming an extraordinary comic book into an ordinary comic-book movie.

Funnily enough, everything that's right and wrong with the film is encapsulated in its first two scenes. As in the book, Watchmen opens with the murder of one Eddie Blake, who once struck fear into the hearts of criminals as the costumed hero known as The Comedian. Surprised in his apartment late one night by a mysterious assailant, Blake is soundly beaten, then tossed out the window of his high-rise apartment building. Where Moore and Gibbons chronicled The Comedian's final moments in only seven stark frames, Snyder blows the scene up into a full-fledged action set-piece, filled with the same over-the-top slow-motion that made his 300 a hit, but feels distinctly out of place amidst the gritty realism that defines the Watchmen universe.

This inauspicious beginning is immediately followed by Snyder's masterstroke, a terrific opening credits sequence that presents the history of the film's alternate America—where colorfully clad crime-fighters roamed the streets until they were outlawed, where the Vietnam War ended in a resounding victory for the U.S. of A, and where Richard Nixon was re-elected to the Presidency five times—in a series of still tableaus (not unlike the frames of a comic book), scored to Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'." Aside from handily dispensing with the need for any additional exposition about how Watchmen's world differs from our own, the sequence also pays loving homage to the film's source medium, which has only recently started to acquire the widespread artistic respect it deserves.

If only the rest of the movie were this conceptually bold. Snyder has repeatedly stated in interviews that he set out to remain devoutly faithful to Moore's work, but that approach immediately limits the film's creative ambitions. As exciting as it initially is for fans of the comic to see the images and characters we know so well realized onscreen so precisely, the thrill wears off and it becomes easier to pick apart the things that Snyder doesn't get right, starting with the script, which has to recount in 160 minutes a story it took Moore 12 issues to tell. Ironically, the problem with the screenplay isn't that the writers leave too much out—it's that they cram too much in.

If you boil the plot of the comic down to its purest essence, it's a basic detective story in which a group of forcibly retired heroes with names like Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) and Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman), plus one Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), investigate the murder of their former colleague and stumble onto a major conspiracy involving a powerful businessman. Oh yeah, and one of these heroes—that would be Dr. Manhattan—is a genuine superhero, with God-like powers and no apparent weaknesses.

In the book, Moore embellishes this straightforward narrative with a complex chronological structure, an ever-shifting point-of-view and numerous subplots that offer significant insights into the character's psychologies, as well as the real-world political situation at the time the comic was written. All these elements mesh brilliantly on the page, but translated so literally to the screen, they render the film's storytelling clunky and unfocused. No doubt Snyder was loath to leave out any detail lest he incur the eternal wrath of fanboys everywhere, but a more judicious pruning of the comic would have made this a stronger adaptation. For one thing, it would have forced Snyder to really consider how to how to turn it into a movie that remains faithful to Moore's ideas while also being relevant to the present day. As it is, Watchmen offers very little in the way of coherent social commentary, largely because Snyder doesn't seem to grasp what the book is fundamentally about.

Nowhere is the director's confusion more evident than in his depiction of Watchmen's most iconic character, Rorschach. As written by Moore, Rorschach represents the urban vigilante taken to the absolute extreme—a maladjusted, loathsome sociopath with a perverted sense of justice that's meant to horrify, not to defend. But in a profound misreading of the text, Snyder presents the character as the ultimate crime-fighting bad-ass, someone the audience is encouraged to cheer and applaud for when he douses one evildoer in hot grease and shatters another's bones. (It's worth pointing out that Haley gives the most vivid performance of the film's otherwise unmemorable ensemble.) The reason the movie version of Watchmen disappoints isn't because the book is unfilmable, as Moore would have us believe. Snyder was just the wrong choice to bring this particular story to the screen.