From Page To Screen, 'Watchmen' Arrives DOA

Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan i i

Press Conference: Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) is a superhero with a government contract. Warner Bros. Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Warner Bros. Pictures
Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan

Press Conference: Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) is a superhero with a government contract.

Warner Bros. Pictures

Watchmen

  • Director: Zack Snyder
  • Genre: Action, Adventure
  • Running Time: 163 minutes

Rated R: Violent scenes

The Comedian i i

Emergency Exit: The murder of The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) inspires The Watchmen to regroup. Warner Bros. Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Warner Bros. Pictures
The Comedian

Emergency Exit: The murder of The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) inspires The Watchmen to regroup.

Warner Bros. Pictures

Watchmen is the most faithful film adaptation of a comic book ever, and many of its fans will be thrilled by every frame. They'll say, "Wow, this is so much like the original!" I think they'll be more thrilled by the fact of its fidelity than by the movie itself. On the other hand, nonfans might wonder what the hullabaloo is about.

Now, I'm a fan — of the comic, anyway, which is splashy and blood-drenched, and induces a kind of delirium: the reader's eyes race forward, circle back, and dart around the panels while the brain labors to synthesize the data. Writer Alan Moore and illustrator Dave Gibbons give us every kind of superhero crusader, from Nite Owl, the old-fashioned idealist in a cape, to The Comedian, a paramilitary sociopath, to Silk Spectre, a curvy femme. They try to solve a murder mystery and forestall nuclear Armageddon, but the narrative is always jumping ahead and doubling back. There are several narrators, among them Rorschach, the unkempt right-wing nihilist in a stocking-cap mask; and Dr. Manhattan, an iridescent blue giant in a cosmic funk who flees Earth for Mars, where he stews and sifts through old memories. There are flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks. There are fat chunks of prose. There are back stories that are literally that — they play out at the rear of the frame.

Moore and Gibbons used every tool they could invent to push the comic-book medium to its limit and to make their storytelling leap from the page. So when I read that Zack Snyder, the director of the $125 million movie, had vowed to stay true to the original's spirit by moving the camera as little as possible on the premise that comics are laid out a frame at a time, I had a premonition of doom. Capturing the headlong spirit of Watchmen would call for a director to push the film medium to its limit, not cast off many of the medium's best tools.

Watchmen is dead on the screen, but I gotta admit it's some corpse: huge, loud and gaseously distended by its own dystopia. The martial arts action scenes are full of computer-generated slow motion capped with hyperfast smash-and-splatter, and there's a lot of gore and cracking bones. The novel's narrative jumble has been meticulously preserved. In the movie's overture, a dark figure heaves aging superhero The Comedian, played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, out a skyscraper window, and members of the vigilante collective the Watchmen — which had disbanded — dust off their costumes and get back in touch.

One of the first flashbacks is of how they joined forces. The Comedian was a cynic, but billionaire Adrian Veidt, whose superhero persona is called Ozymandias and is played by Matthew Goode, thought they could make a difference.

The prospect of annihilation looms large in Watchmen. This is still the Cold War, the '80s, and Richard Nixon has somehow managed to be re-elected to a third term: He watches the Soviets amass on the Afghan border and orders his bombers armed. The comic book was conceived at the height of the '80s disarmament movement, after Ronald Reagan's election inspired waves of fresh doomsday scenarios, and its resolution — which the film reproduces — has dated badly. It was outlandish then; now, on film, it seems both insanely pessimistic and insanely naive, an anticlimactic bummer. Watchmen is just short of three hours, and as you watch the surviving characters slink away, you might long for the relative giddiness of The Dark Knight.

Almost every character is weighed down by hopelessness, but some of the actors come through amid the special effects. Jackie Earle Haley gives Rorschach a great soulful rasp, and while Dr. Manhattan is a special effect laid over actor Billy Crudup's face, Crudup's melancholy registers; his scenes on Mars have a chill beauty. But numbness settles over the movie. Director Snyder's reverence isn't the kind that gives life. It's an embalmer's reverence: It preserves, but it drains out all the blood.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.