WFTB Score: 7/20
The plot: A disbanded group of superheroes find themselves under attack from a mystery killer, the hunt for the assassin hindered by simmering tensions and shifting relationships within the Watchmen. But with the world on the brink of nuclear war, they had better be on the same side – and on the same planet – to save the day.
It’s not easy being a superhero in 1985, especially as long-time US President Richard Nixon (Robert Wisden) has banned vigilantes like the latest generation of Watchmen from their masked operations. Worse, one of their number, Eddie Blake aka ‘The Comedian’ (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) falls out of a window in suspicious circumstances, leading gruff-voiced, fedora-and-mask wearing vigilante Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) to investigate. He sets out to warn the old companions whose lives are, to a greater or lesser extent, in danger: Dan (Patrick Wilson), the second ‘Nite Owl’; Adrian (Matthew Goode) or ‘Ozymandius’, the smartest, fastest man in the world who merchandises his former superhero status; Jon (Billy Crudup), also known as Dr Manhattan, the victim of a nuclear accident which allows him to teleport, shape-shift, move matter with his mind (and thus kill with a glance) and see into the future; and Laurie (Malin Akerman) or ‘Silk Spectre II’, stuck in an unsatisfying relationship with Jon and missing the old, crime-fighting days.
As Rorschach shakes down enemies to find out who wants to kill the Watchmen, Laurie becomes involved with Dan, while Manhattan is accused of giving cancer to people he has been close to in the past, causing the all-powerful mutant to abandon the planet in favour of his own construction on Mars. His timing could not be worse, because tensions between Richard Nixon’s (Robert Wisden) Government and the Soviet Union are running at an all-time high. Surely a nuclear strike is in nobody’s interests?
Although I’m not a comic-book/graphic novel fan, I’m well aware of Alan Moore from the feature films his writing has inspired (and from which he always disassociates himself): From Hell, Constantine, V For Vendetta and so on. It’s not surprising, then, that Watchmen is dark, political, violent, and as far from the uncomplicated adventures of Superman or The Fantastic Four as it’s possible to get. The idea of an adult-oriented story set in an alternative America, where the superheroes made a moral compromise by winning America the Vietnam War, is fascinating; but Snyder’s film demonstrates at great length that there’s no such thing as an unfilmable story, only indifferent execution.
The chief problem with Watchmen is that it seems to have been made without considering the needs of the movie-watching audience, instead transferring the action directly from page to screen (I read that many shots are recreations of comic panels); and this is a problem because whilst the reader has time to absorb the implications of every frame on the page (originally over the space of a year), the same density of detail can overwhelm the viewer into submission, or boredom, as a two-and-a-half-hour-plus film*. The film of Watchmen is horrendously over-burdened with plot: is it about the history of the Watchmen, The Comedian’s dubious morality and his corruption of the original Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino), Laurie’s mum? Is it about Rorschach’s noirish hunt for a killer, resulting in a protracted spell in prison and a shocking discovery? Is it a simple love triangle, the methodical, unemotional Manhattan spurned by Laurie for a man who will give her a good seeing to his full attention? Or is it about the restricted freedoms of an overtly right-wing America?
The answer, of course, is that Watchmen is about all these things, and exhaustively so. As I say, in a comic it’s not a problem, but the lack of a clear, strong narrative thread – or a character the viewer can identify with on any level – is all but fatal in the movie. Since he narrates the piece, Rorschach’s investigations are the closest we get; but not only are the investigations long and winding, they are interrupted at great length by the other story strands. For example, though fans may have squealed, I can’t see that the film would have been harmed one bit by throwing out the backstory concerning Laurie’s mother, or by curtailing the sex scene which occurs to the strains of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ (the original and possibly worst version).
Watchmen also suffers other balance issues: Dr Manhattan is so powerful compared to his colleagues that their fighting skills seem irrelevant in comparison, not that they get to show them off very often. Indeed, domestic squabbles between the ‘heroes’ take such precedence that the sequences where they do take on ne’er-do-wells feel almost irrelevant. The climax, when it eventually hoves into view, is technically proficient but has the political rulers leaping to some strange, Octopussy-like conclusions. And it nicks Back to the Future’s joke about Reagan.
On a technical level, Watchmen looks the part. It nicely captures the warped atmosphere of an alternative 1985, although Wisden – prosthetic nose and all – doesn’t look much like Nixon and there’s not much of a sense of how society has been shaped by the alternative events (it’s stratified into politicians, vigilantes, businessmen and ‘the rest’, a vaguely criminal mob). Manhattan’s Spock-like otherness is brought out to the full and the CGI that brings him, and things around him, to life is effective, while Snyder’s trademark slow-motion violence (complete with bones breaking through skin) is satisfyingly crunchy. On the other hand, Nite-Owl’s binocular-shaped ‘Archie’ is a most un-1985-looking craft (okay, it’s a comic-book movie, but if that sort of tech is available why does Adrian have his data on a floppy disk?). The acting is perfectly fine, Haley making the most of being unmasked in prison to lend personality to Rorschach, Wilson dorkish and straight-laced, Crudup’s voice calm and other-worldly. It’s just a shame the story, with its philosophical pretensions (“humans are savage”), doesn’t allow any of them to bond with the audience.
I will have to read Watchmen at some point, and when I do I may well re-visit this review; for whilst a film has to stand or fall on its own merits, I believe an appreciation of the original work would enhance my view of the film. I believe Snyder has done his best to make a film of the comic, though this doesn’t mean he has made the best film possible. I found it over-complicated, uninvolving, poorly-paced and interminably indulgent, and my instincts told me that I’d be better served by the pulpy exploits of the snappier, though far from perfect, Sin City.
NOTES: There’s also a three-hour Director’s Cut and a 215-minute ‘Ultimate cut’, but you’d have to pay me handsomely to sit through them.