In 1986's Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, rather than accepting the limitations of the graphic format, embodied and broadened the art form. By revitalizing and reinventing the superhero genre, the duo influenced an entire generation of writers, artists, and filmmakers. The acclaimed superhero tale garnered a Hugo Award, the only comic book to ever earn the prestigious science fiction prize, and the only graphic novel ranked on Time's 100 Greatest Novels.
Under the guidance of Zack Snyder, the director of the bombastic 300, Moore and Gibbon's groundbreaking vision makes its big screen appearance. Snyder crafts a film that rather than “revitalizing and reinventing” the genre, exemplifies some of the worst in comic book adaptation.
Set in an 1985 altered by the existence of superheroes, Watchmen relates a Cold War reality where Nixon is still the president, the U.S. won the Vietnam War, and the federal government has forced all masked adventurers to retire. The tale begins with the murder of Comedian, one of the two legal, government-sponsored heroes. The other legitimate superhero, an atomic-fueled being of immense power, Dr. Manhattan, helps America maintain an uneasy detente with the Soviet Union. Rorschach, an Objectivist's nightmare of Batman who refused to cease his illegal vigilante activities and uncovers a conspiracy to kill all masked heroes, retired or not. Through a complex series of events that foreshadow Armageddon, the other retired heroes eventually re-emerge to challenge the threat.
The overall look of the movie mirrors the original graphic novel. Scenes, character posing, colors, and even lighting are often lifted directly from the source. As is much of the dialogue. This obsessive attention to detail partially dooms the film. Comic book scripting relies on different machinations than films. The visual, silent nature of the graphical narrative creates a different flow than movies. Much of Moore's intelligent, thought-provoking words just sound stupid when spoken aloud. While the geek within screams with glee at seeing Gibbons art up on the movie screen, the scenes fall flat and gregarious when removed from the nine panel grid of the source material.
An adaptation relies on judicious culling. Not all elements need or should be transferred from one medium to another. Watchmen retains far too many pieces of the original. Several scenes become redundant, diminished, or just plain silly in the filmed narrative.
Under Snyder's inferior abilities, the legendary Owl ship sex scene between Nite Owl and Silk Spectre evolves from a beautifully rendered, character developing one page sequence to a fetishistic, sophomoric, and Cinemax-inspired 10 minute soft porn scene. Most of the graphic novel's violence remains intact, but as overlong, gratuitously bloody, slow motion action.
The insipid soundtrack further diminishes the film. Instead of relying on the lyrics quoted throughout the book, Snyder employs overplayed Eighties music (the English version of “99 Balloons” and Tears for Fears), a contemporary remake of Dylan music (My Chemical Romance on "Desolation Road"), and most egregiously Simon & Garfunkel's "Sound of Silence" during Comedian's funeral. As expected, Hendrix's rendition of “All Along The Watchtower” appears but only at the obvious, most stereotypical moment of the movie. Though referenced in the graphic novel, the songs of Elvis Costello and John Cale, eighties musicians far more appropriate to the subject, are noticeably absent.
Except for the physically fit Dan Dreiberg as Nite Owl, the casting choices embody Gibbons' renditions. The mediocre acting, especially from the wooden Carla Gugino (Silk Spectre), further deteriorated this dreadful film. Though most likely, Snyder and the flawed David Hayter and Alex Tse screenplay are to blame.
At first glance, Snyder's use of a montage during the opening credits to recap this alternate history appears intelligent and well-conceived but even that falters. The simplistic selection of Dylan's “The Times They Are A-Changin'” and the use of color rather than black-and-white, weaken a potentially powerful opening.
Rorschach's ever-changing mask and the at-times beautiful scenery (especially the Martian landscape) offer some of the few quality moments in this otherwise overly-long, 163 minute atrocity. Sadly, Zack Snyder's warped vision of Watchmen ultimately plays like an inferior parody of the classic graphic novel.