Owain Paciuszko 09/03/2009
20 years in the making, the tangled production history of Watchmen is as fascinating as any film adaptation. Screenplays have been drafted by many hands over the years, including Sam Hamm who penned Tim Burton's Batman, most-fascinatingly Terry Gilliam who ultimately decided Watchmen should be apporached an epic mini-series, the director of The Wrestler Darren Aronofsky was in the pipeline for a while but he wished to update the 1980s setting in favour of dealing with modern conerns, and finally Paul Greengrass got well into pre-production, starting to put a cast together and even, allegedly, interviewing Simon Pegg about playing Rorschach.
Finally we have the cinematic version of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' comic book series-cum-graphic novel under the directorial eye of Zack Snyder who, in my opinion, produced a successful if simple remake of George Romero's Dawn of the Dead and a very bland but pretty adaptation of Frank Miller's 300. Here he works from a script by X-Men writer David Hayter and Alex Tse that has managed to successfully condense much of the graphic novel's grand, wandering and multi-stranded story into a cinematic running time. It has 'controversially' (amongst fans) altered some aspects of the story's climax but, for me - having done a little post-film research - seems to make sense in a cine-literate kind of way.
So, I must first state that I have not read the graphic novel, and I'm not of the opinion that all of Hollywood's attempts to adapt Moore have been unsuccessful; in fact generally I think Moore seems quite crotechety and maybe a tad egotistical, but he is also a great story-teller and in some cases great art comes hand in hand with self-important grumps. Whilst The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was a dull, hollow piece of work there was the Hughes brothers' From Hell that worked well despite Johnny Depp's wobbly accent and the Wachowski brothers scripted production of V For Vendetta that I thought was absolutely brilliant. Watchmen has constantly been referred to as unfilmable though, it's a deep, confusing, layered work that uses pop-culture and Mythology as much as it does the superhero to tell a tale about an alternate future for post-Cold War humankind whilst speaking about very contemporary fears and paranoias.
Snyder has proved here that Watchmen is not unfilmable, but the success of this adaptation teeters on a see-saw. Whilst it is a slavish reproduction of the comic book, using Gibbons' illustrations as storyboards for the most part and keeping the speech-bubbled dialogue as much as possible. Whilst this will please purists it does, at times, just go to illustrate the differences between two different means of telling a story; a comic book and a film speak a different language, and whilst in something as hyper-stylized as Robert Rodriguez's uber-faithful adaptation of Sin City it can work beautifully, here it occasionally clunks.
What really saves Watchmen though are the performances, whilst Snyder can put together a beautiful visual sequence and fills the film with vivid, 80s-noir imagery he has a few key members of his cast to thank for the true success of Watchmen. Most notably Jackie Earle Haley as masked anti-hero Rorschach is a revelation, though his voice - at first - sits uncomfortably close to Christian Bale's Batman, he is a far more well-crafted, entertaining, morally ambiguous and dark character; and when the mask comes off he loses no impact, in fact, those scenes are some of the film's finest. Earle Haley came to prominence thanks to a disturbing and heart-breaking performance as a convicted paedophile in the film Little Children, and his co-star from that film Patrick Wilson here plays Nite Owl II (aka Dan Dreiberg) and is the warmth and heart of the film. The distinctions between how Dreiberg feels in and out of his rubber suit are superbly fleshed out, and without this performance the film would generally be quite cold, harsh and difficult for an audience to engage with.
Elsewhere Jeffrey Dean Morgan plays the pivotal role of Edward Blake (aka The Comedian), making his presence resonate throughout the movie. Billy Crudup is wonderful as Doctor Manhattan even when the CGI that turns him into a naked blue man lets him down a little, the sequence where Manhattan flashes back through the events that caused his transformation will probably be one of the year's finest sequences.
Unfortunately Malin Akerman as Laurie Jupiter (aka Silk Spectre II) is a touch bland and Matthew Goode as Adrian Veidt (aka Ozymandias) doesn't seem to get sufficient screen-time to really make the required impact until it's too late, and his accent seems to shuffle from English to German!? As a result of these flaws some of the plot twists lose impact as a result and the film's climax, though successfully altered from the graphic novel, doesn't have the power that it needed. Those are the problems of Snyder's adaptation, his slavish devotion to putting the comic book up on the screen means that the pacing and the cinematic punch of some sequences (or even how the story is told) falls flat or sits awkwardly, running at a speed that probably would've better suited Gilliam's idea of a mini-series.
But, these flaws are the flaws of a cinemagoer looking for perfection, expecting to see the greatest story ever told, the ultimate superhero movie etc. etc. Watchmen is not those things, it is a bold attempt to bring an extremely complex text to the screen without compromise and it is, I was glad to see, an 18 certificate; a very brave move on the studio's part. So, in the end, not a masterpiece but a fine adaptation and a very interesting, strange and different approach to the superhero genre.