‘Watchmen’: The perils of staying too faithful

BY BRIAN DAU | MARCH 9, 2009 7:27 AM

Film Review: Watchmen
** out of *****

The opening credits for Watchmen is one of the coolest, most effective film sequences I’ve ever seen, and it sets a new artistic standard in movie openings. It quickly establishes the rules of a Cold War-inspired alternate universe, an existence in which Richard Nixon is serving his third term as president, the United States won the Vietnam War as a direct result of the intervention of superheroes, and numerous generations of costumed crime-fighters are dealing with their own inadequacies in the face of the godlike Dr. Manhattan (in all of his naked, blue glory).

It’s a crushing letdown, then, that the film plods along for another two and a half hours, dutifully hitting all the plot points of Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’ classic graphic novel without ever making a solid case for the necessity of the movie’s creation.

The crux of Watchmen’s problems hinge on director Zack Snyder’s reverence for the comic-book medium. In his effort to faithfully reproduce every back story and side plot in the 400-page graphic novel, so much of what makes Watchmen a mentally engaging tale is lost in translation. The theological implications of Dr. Manhattan, the psychological turmoil of a rape, and feelings of helplessness so often experienced by humanity become sidelined by awkward dialogue, sophomoric humor, and fight scenes ripped straight from the visual style of 300, Snyder’s other big screen interpretation of a graphic novel.

The difference is that Frank Miller’s 300 is a much quicker read at fewer than 100 pages (and that film still stretches out to almost two hours). What works in the straightforward, visually focused aesthetic of 300 simply isn’t suitable in a retelling of the more cerebral Watchmen. To do justice to Moore’s work in less than three hours requires a serious streamlining of the half-dozen major characters and their back stories, but Snyder’s attempt to leave nothing out results in a film in which nothing is explained adequately. Tough luck to the viewer who has no prior knowledge of the graphic novel, permitted to appreciate the impressive visuals but given no opportunity to think of the film as more than an aesthetically pleasing action flick.

Equally disappointing is the film’s overbearing soundtrack, which aims at creating a period atmosphere but lacks even a note of subtlety. If it’s not clear from the visuals of the opening credits that “The Times They Are a-Changin’” in this world, well, Bob Dylan’s right there to hammer the point home. “Ride of the Valkyries” thunders as helicopters do bombing runs over Vietnam in a far-too-easy nod to Apocalypse Now, and the use of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” during a sex scene is so inappropriate most of the audience burst into laughter.

In essence, the film as a whole comes off as too easy. What set the Watchmen story apart from the standard comic-book superhero retread was its focus on the characters’ humanity and a distinctly gray morality which refuses to “condone or condemn,” as Dr. Manhattan puts it. Sure, he’s a stand-in for Superman just as Nite Owl is Batman in a different mask, but the Watchmen feel so much more like real, nuanced human beings than their caped counterparts. Moore’s focus on realistic character development is diminished to nothing more than a way to string together ultra-stylish fight sequences and over-the-top gore in Snyder’s adaptation.

It may be too much to expect Watchmen the movie to do everything Watchmen the graphic novel does, but to ignore the challenging themes present in Moore’s writing in favor of cheap, though pretty, thrills is to do a total disservice to the source text. There’s a reason Moore distances himself from film adaptations of his work (his name does not appear in the credits); potential movie-goers would do well to distance themselves from this film as well.

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