Unfilmable. That's how Alan Moore, who wrote the groundbreaking graphic novel Watchmen, described it. Technically, he was wrong. It was filmable. Whether it was worth doing is another matter.
Moore declined to have his name listed in the film credits for Watchmen, which is now somewhat perversely credited only to co-creator and illustrator Dave Gibbons. Director Zack Snyder (300) has made a faithful (if superficial) adaptation of Moore's intricately structured, deconstructionist graphic novel, changing a few small details, and leaving out certain tangential and background elements (like the comic-book-within-the-comic-book) that were critical to the dense narrative structure of the graphic novel (but which were not, Moore was right, amenable to the narrative structure of this conventional movie). The film contains little hints at those excised bits (which will be available in supplemental DVDs), but only someone familiar with the graphic novel will notice them, or care.
What is left, then, is the core narrative, a story of not-so-super superheroes living in an alternative history 1985 America. Richard Nixon is on the fifth term of his never-ending presidency, having won the Vietnam War with the help of Dr. Manhattan, the only character in Watchmen who has actual superpowers. Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) has all the powers though, having, through one of those unfortunate nuclear accidents ubiquitous in comic books, achieved some sort of quantum state in which his molecules are endlessly malleable, and he is able to see the past and the future and everywhere. He's also blue and hairless and nude. He could, if he wanted to, drape some clothing molecules around himself, but he's kind of past caring about such trivial things. And everything is trivial to Manhattan. With Dr. Manhattan on its side, the US has a strategic advantage over the Soviet Union (remember them?), but the world is on the brink of nuclear annihilation. Manhattan shuffles molecules and mopes around in a kind of post-human funk, an existential nihilism, the sort of imponderably massive boredom with humanity that must be the heavy burden of an omniscient and omnipotent being.
Dr. Manhattan's girlfriend is the less super Silk Spectre II, aka Laurie Jupiter (Malin Akerman), who has an uneasy relationship with her mother, the original Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino). Manhattan's disaffection and ennui have left Laurie feeling blue, and she turns for comfort and companionship to Nite Owl II, another second-generation supe whose alter ego is the nebbishy, mopey Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson). Dan has put all his costumed vigilante stuff in mothballs and spends his time reminiscing with the elderly Nite Owl the first (Stephen McHattie). These all-too-human heroes are a bored, mopey, world-weary bunch, but to call them brooding would be to give them too much credit and assume a sagacity for which there is little evidence. The only ex-hero enjoying his retirement (since masked vigilantes were outlawed by Congress) is the smooth Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), the smartest man in the world, a pacifist, and a wealthy industrialist who collaborates with Dr. Manhattan on eco-friendly alternative energy research.
Meanwhile, another old time masked avenger, a big thug called The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), has been murdered, leading his old compatriot Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) to suspect that masked heroes are being assassinated. Rorschach wears an eerie mask of constantly shifting inkblot shapes, and sees the world in black and white terms. True to his name, he's a masked avenger who imposes meaning and order on an otherwise meaningless and disorderly world. He's also a psychopath, and the most interesting, affecting, and complicated character in the movie (and novel). Haley gives an outstanding performance that deeply humanizes the deeply misanthropic Rorschach (and his equally crazy alter ego Walter Kovacs), in a movie that desperately needs genuine depth to counter its shallowness.
Watchmen originally came out in 1986-87, when it made more sense to set the story in 1985. 20 years on, it makes less sense, although the filmmaker acknowledges the anachronism in an opening credits montage set to Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'." The montage makes cheeky (and occasionally scandalous) use of reenacted and reimagined scenes from late 20th century pop and pulp culture, along with faux news footage, a faux Zapruder film, and more. It all made me wonder if Snyder actually listened to Dylan's song, or if he was being ironic. Maybe the latter, but it is just the first of several instances of noticeably weird, anachronistic, and/or cliched music choices, my favorite of which is Leonard Cohen singing "they sentenced me to 20 years of boredom" over the end credits, which pretty much expressed the way I felt at the end of the movie's plodding two hours and 40 minutes.
It would have been shorter if not for Snyder's injudicious use of slow motion effects (his trademark, I suppose, since he employed it equally indiscriminately and ponderously in 300). Snyder uses slo-mo to belabor the film's violence, and to fetishize it, but someone ought to tell him that slow motion no longer imparts instant profundity to moving images (a side effect of the wholesale cheapening of the effect in music videos, for which we can probably thank 80s phenom MTV, which kids these days might not realize used to show music videos). Well, okay, slow motion is very 1980s, and Watchmen is very 1980s, so I guess it makes some kind of nostalgic, artistic sense, like using black and white film stocks in a movie about the 1930s. Maybe. But I'm willing to bet that's not where Snyder is coming from in Watchmen, which uses the slow motion and slow-to-momentary-pause-motion to emphasize and linger on blood spatter, bone crunching, bullets exiting flesh, flesh being separated from bone, exploding fireballs, and flying, exploding, disintegrating bodies. Violence is the reductive raison d'etre of Watchmen, transforming a story that is violent into a movie that is about violence. I'm not griping in general about violence in movies, or movies about violence -- just griping about movies that are uninterestingly about violence and uninterested in thinking about violence.
Slow-motion is also employed, most annoyingly, to show Laurie's long hair flipping and whipping around. Laurie's distinguishing features as a superhero are her long hair and willingness to have sex with other superheroes (which latter is a problem I had with the graphic novel too), a shallowness of character exacerbated by Akerman's cutie-pie voice, which would make it hard to take her seriously even if the movie wanted you to look at something other than her flying hair and that formfitting latex bodysuit. Anyway, Laurie is party to the movie's risible sex scenes (sans latex), but it is cruelty and brutality that are meant to titillate in Watchmen. If deconstructing superhero mythology is what Watchmen (the graphic novel) was about (and it was, at least in part), then deconstructing bodies is what Watchmen (the movie) is about, in large part. And what else? A superficial nihilism and even more superficially reasoned moral subjectivism in which we are offered a choice between the logic of mass murder and the irrationality of mass extinction.
The Watchmen graphic novel was complex, layered, and intricately constructed, even if the ideas therein were not as deep as the novel's literary pretensions promised. The movie adaptation, on the other hand, has arty pretensions that capture, in great, bombastic detail, the surface layers of plot and action, and peel back the veneer just enough to reveal that there's not much underneath.