By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 5, 2009
"Watchmen" is a bore. Sad to say, after a wait of more than two decades, the much-anticipated adaptation of the world's most celebrated graphic novel is long, dull and subject to what might be called the "Lord of the Rings" problem: It sinks under the weight of its reverence for the original.
Scene by scene, this is "Watchmen" as you remember it, a complicated, many-voiced, bloody and cruel trip to the dark side of the comic book genus. Director Zack Synder, who has said he respected the original novel "like a freakin' illuminated text," even reproduces the pacing, the allusive visual language, the almost subliminal symbols and exact perspectives of the original artwork that made the novel so edgy. The gang is all here, the psychotically righteous Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), the dangerously smart and suspiciously dapper Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode) and of course the shape-shifting blue nudist with seemingly limitless power, Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup).
For a while, it's impressive. The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a maniacally patriotic brute whose murder sets the plot in motion, goes through a plate-glass window in exactly the same position, shattering the glass in the same pattern, spilling blood on the gritty New York streets in the same oozing puddle as seen in the opening of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's 1986-87 graphic novel, as if Snyder has discovered some alchemy for reversing the usual CGI technique. And when rain falls on the Comedian's coffin a few scenes later, the same, vertiginous perspective -- the drops seem to fall from behind the camera, from on high, straight down to the desolate earth -- is reproduced on film.
And yet as this continues, for 162 minutes, the usual question arises: Has the film added anything? Which forces one to confront the book, after more than two decades, with a little more critical distance. For years, people have wondered if it is filmable. But the real issue is whether the novel is worth filming at all.
When it first appeared, "Watchmen" was hailed as a revolution in comic-book artistry. It was dark and ironic, a wry speculation on what the "real life" of superheroes might be like, set in a dystopian 1985, during the constitutionally extended presidency of Richard Nixon. It was two books in one, a look at the twisted, tortured, sexually kinky underworld of vigilantes who like to fight crime in costumes grafted onto an ordinary, race-against-the-doomsday-clock tale of pugilistic heroes and arch-villains. It deflated the very form it celebrated.
But it was ambitious in its storytelling, filled with flashbacks, subplots, and obscure strands of narrative slowly woven together over 12 serial installments. The graphic design, by Gibbons, was manically detailed, hyperkinetic and worked out with the precision of a movie storyboard. The novel was cultlike in its appeal, a little illicit, always alluding to its own profundity, hinting at secrets, drawing you deeper into its self-consciously metaphysical world.
This was catnip for the fanboys, who can be as snobbish about their comics as wine lovers or opera geeks are about their fetishes. And it attracted critics eager to find genius in the dark corners of American pop culture. Time magazine declared it one of the 100 Best English-language Novels since 1923, in the same league with Faulkner, Orwell and Hemingway. The academically inclined found it a brilliant deconstruction of the superhero myth, multivalent, polysemic, densely imbricated and all that jazz.
Which was pure hooey. "Watchmen" was fun, but also incredibly pretentious -- a word that hardly applies anymore to high culture, but sure comes in handy when dealing with pop culture's more desperate efforts to be taken seriously. By treating the original text as a sacred document, the movie is laughably pretentious, too. Just as the film version of "Lord of the Rings" reminded everyone of something they had forgotten since reading the book in high school -- Tolkein was a turgid writer -- the "Watchmen" movie can't help but expose the glaring problem with the "Watchmen" graphic novel: The dialogue stinks.
Despite the intellectual name-dropping, the quotes from Nietzsche, Blake and Juvenal ("Who watches the watchmen?"), the level of Moore's writing rarely rises above B-movie fare. It is silly and dated, the faded gibberish of an old-fashioned noire stylist (the kind who now works for newspapers). And it is filled with cliches.
"We're all puppets," says the God-like Dr. Manhattan, the mysterious hero who looks like a blue version of Mr. Clean. "I'm just a puppet who can see the strings."
Over the years, multiple efforts to film "Watchmen" have failed. Terry Gilliam, director of "Brazil," was engaged with the project for a while, but that fell through. Paul Greengrass ("The Bourne Ultimatum") worked on a version that updated the story from its Cold War setting to the War on Terror, but that didn't go far either. All of which led to the farcical notion that "Watchmen" was unfilmable.
Proust is unfilmable. "Das Kapital" is unfilmable. "Watchmen" is not unfilmable. It is already a parody of the cinematic, from its rapid cuts and interwoven short scenes to the camera angles suggested by Gibbons's often surreal perspective.
"Watchmen" wasn't unfilmable, it was unreadable. A script doctor might have helped de-clutter the often incoherent story line and tart up the leaden chatter. The actors do what they can. Crudup offers a certain daffy detachment as Dr. Manhattan, who was once a scientist but now, thanks to the sort of high-tech mishap that is distressingly commonplace in comic books, a shape-shifting, teleporting one-man bulwark against communism. Malin Akerman is generically sexy as Manhattan's primary blue-man groupie, and Patrick Wilson is generically nerdy as the sensitive guy next in line for her affections.
Hard-core fans will lament a few losses, including the "pirate" narrative, an unrelated comic within a comic that gave the original novel a cool sense of layers and randomness. But given the movie's excessive length, nothing lost is really lamented. The most significant change between the movie and the novel is the density and immediacy of the violence. What was merely hinted at, or done off-stage in the book, is seen full on, with buckets of gore in the movie. Too bad.
The original "Watchmen" remains an interesting relic of the mood and politics of the mid-1980s. A lot of hagiography has obscured how controversial Ronald Reagan's eight years in office were, and even though Richard Nixon is still president on the fictional timeline of "Watchmen, " the novel is very much a reflection on Reagan's bellicose anti-Soviet rhetoric, and the sense (among his critics) that he had turned his back on the poor and unfortunate. The crack epidemic was in full swing, AIDS a looming disaster, and the urban revival of the 1990s was years off. New York could break your heart during the "Watchmen" years.
Some of that detail is dealt with in the opening scenes, a brilliant, fast-paced tour through Moore's alternate version of American history. This was the novel's great strength -- an imagined world, rich in detail, familiar but alien at the same time. When the movie lingers there, it entertains.
But when it marches in lockstep with Moore's tedious plot and recapitulates the leaden back and forth of his cardboard characters, the only watch that matters in "Watchmen" is the one on your wrist. It's telling you life is too short for this movie.
Watchmen (162 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for strong graphic violence, sexuality, nudity and language.