Movie Review: Watchmen - A Cinematic Achievement In Adaptation

[This review is spoiler-free]Watchmen first appeared on my radar years ago when I'd heard that one of my favorite directors, Paul Greengrass, was slated to helm the big-screen adaptation. I'm not a huge comic book reader, but I'd heard so many complimentary things about the graphic novel that I was induced to buy myself a copy and check it out for myself. What I discovered was that the book lives up to all the hype: Moore's (and illustrator Dave Gibbons') 1986/1987 comic book series spun a gripping, dystopic tale of an alternate reality, one in which costumed vigilantes have taken to the street to quell civil unrest, and the U.S. and Russia are on the brink of nuclear annihilation, held back barely by the existence of the ultimate nuclear deterrent: Dr. Manhattan, the one "superhero" that actually possessed super powers.

While Moore's book has been referred to by many as possessing cinematic qualities, it's also repeatedly been referred to as "unfilmable." After all these years, a convergence of fortuitous events have allowed director Zack Snyder to take his vision of the graphic novel to the big screen. My appreciation for the book led me to eagerly anticipate this film's release, starting with the first trailer all the way up to the first 20 minutes of the film shown at NY Comic Con. Did Snyder achieve the impossible? Was he able to make cinematic sense out of Watchmen?

Watchmen opens in an alternate version of New York City, circa 1985, with the murder of the Comedian, AKA Edward Morgan Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a former masked vigilante turned government operative for President Richard Nixon, who at this point, has served more terms than our version of the Constitution would allow. Blake used to belong to a group of masked vigilantes, the Watchmen (itself a successor to a similar group known as the Minutemen) until all vigilantism was outlawed in 1977 by the Keene Act.  Blake's old Watchmen colleague Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) is unconcerned with these rules, and continues to roam around the city wearing his ink blot mask, bringing criminals to justice whenever possible. Rorschach is determined to get to the bottom of Blake's murder, and sets about warning/questioning his former colleagues, including Silk Spectre II (Laurie Juspeczyk, played by Malin Ackerman), Nite Owl II (Dan Dreiberg, played by Patrick Wilson), Ozymandias (Adrian Veidt, Matthew Goode) and Dr. Manhattan (Jon Osterman, played by Billy Crudup). As the conflict between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. escalates, Rorschach uncovers more details about the murder that may have global implications.

Before this review continues, make no mistake: Snyder has achieved something marvelous with this film adaptation. Working off a script by David Hayter and Alex Tse, Snyder has created a coherent, linear film that general audiences can follow, and despite any problems the film has, Snyder's is not an achievement  that should be downplayed. At this point I've seen Watchmen twice: Once in a packed press screening full of Watchmen enthusiasts and once more at a midnight IMAX showing. During the first viewing, I was absolutely stunned by the film. But upon viewing the film a second time in IMAX, more of the film's flaws started to come to light for me (more on the IMAX part later on in this review).

Much of the joy at seeing the film for the first time derived from seeing images once confined to the page brought to life on the big screen. Throughout, the film visually alludes to the graphic novel dozens of times, with many shots taken directly from the original panels; the result is a filmgoing experience that is visually exciting for both Watchmen graphic novel fans and people totally unfamiliar with the property.  The first 20 minutes of this film are among the most thrilling, entertaining, and visually spectacular opening 20 minutes of any film in recent memory. The Comedian's murder is a brutal and well-choreographed affair, while the opening credits, told almost entirely in slow-motion tableau, cram in loads of information about the history of this alternate reality. The rest of the film then proceeds as a standard whodunit mystery, while occasional flashbacks fill in the back story. The film zigzags around from character to character, and, like the graphic novel, there's no one person that the film follows exclusively, although Dan Dreiberg is probably the most sympathetic character of the bunch. Overall, as a murder mystery story that occasionally digresses and meanders, the film works, and that's a fact I marvel at for reasons I'll soon get into.

Within, you'll find a quartet of performances that makes this film remarkable for Watchmen fans and non-fans alike. As a special effect, Dr. Manhattan is mostly amazing, although occasionally there were times when I felt things looked "off." However, Crudup's monotone line delivery totally captures the frightening demeanor of a man whose attachment to humanity is constantly weakening each day. Patrick Wilson's great performance as Dan Dreiberg paints him as a nerdy, sympathetic guy who just happens to need to wear a suit and fight crime in order to feel like a man.

But the two actors that really stand out for me are Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the Comedian and Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach. Morgan's Comedian is a man whose "Fuck it all" attitude makes him equal parts compelling, dangerous, and charismatic. Clearly hardened by the atrocities he's witnessed and committed, yet also able to look back on everything and just laugh in the face of it all, Morgan still is able to shape the downfall/death of his character into a tragedy (no small feat). Haley's performance as Rorschach is a tour de force: Not only does he embody Rorschach's physicality, whether he's investigating a crime scene or butchering a criminal, but his gravelly voiceover grounds the film and proves that you can still be badass despite (or maybe because of?) the fact that you sound like you just swallowed a roll of sandpaper.

Sadly, the same cannot be said of the female performances. In particular, many might find Malin Ackerman's performance as Silk Spectre II to be totally unbearable. While she is amazing during the fight scenes, bringing a spectacular look and a great physicality to her role, her delivery and inflection is simply unable to measure up with the other talent on display here. Perhaps the best female performance is from a woman who is, unfortunately, barely in the film: Laura Mennell, who plays the thankless role of Janey Slater. Mennell isn't given much to do, but everything she does here, from her tears outside of the intrinsic field reactor to her walk-on at the Dr. Manhattan talk show, is all impressive.

I'd like if I can to take a look at some of the reasons why Moore and others didn't think the book could be successfully adapted to the big screen. The original Watchmen was a series of 12 comic books. Pages of text from fictional primary sources served as interstitial pieces to the books, but also filled in a great deal of background detail and enhanced the atmosphere and reality of the main story. Some of the chapters felt very much like self-contained units and focused exclusively on one character (e.g. Chapter IV, which told Dr. Manhattan's origin story, or Chapter VI, which featured Walter Kovacs' therapy scenes). Many other chapters hopped between storylines and characters, and even featured a comic-book-within-a-comic-book. In tone, the book rapidly vacillates between humor and horror, between action and suspense. But on the page, it all comes together marvelously, perhaps because of the nature of the comic book-reading experience.

Author Alan Moore has been oft-quoted for two things he said regarding the possibility of adapting his book for the big screen. In an interview with Variety's Danny Graydon, Moore commented, "You get people saying, 'Oh, yes, Watchmen is very cinematic,' when actually it's not. It's almost the exact opposite of cinematic...I didn't design it to show off the similarities between cinema and comics, which are there, but in my opinion are fairly unremarkable. It was designed to show off the things that comics could do that cinema and literature couldn't." In another interview with Entertainment Weekly, Moore expanded on this, saying, "With a comic, you can take as much time as you want in absorbing that background detail, noticing little things that we might have planted there. You can also flip back a few pages relatively easily to see where a certain image connects with a line of dialogue from a few pages ago. But in a film, by the nature of the medium, you're being dragged through it at 24 frames per second.”

I provide all these details so that you understand how daunting a task this adaptation must have been, and why any attempt to craft a film out of the book will result in a filmmaker being torn in two diametrically opposite directions: On the one hand, Snyder was confronted with the task of adhering to the book's vision, yet on the other, he had to make a good movie out of it. I submit that fidelity to one side of this equation is compromise on the other. In other words, to preserve elements of the book, like it's wildly uneven tone or it's meandering and leisurely exploration of some of the characters' pasts, is to make concessions that might hurt the film's storytelling; likewise, to make the film one that general audiences could enjoy and follow is to sacrifice certain elements of the book (e.g. Tales of the Black Freighter).

All this raises the question: How well did Snyder strike this balance? My answer: Very. Snyder's Watchmen is about as good of an adaptation as a 2 hour and 40 minute film can be. The murder mystery leaves the audience wondering who's responsible right up until the final scenes of the film. The flashbacks flow in and out of the narrative with ease. Each of the characters is given ample opportunity to define themselves. In short, Watchmen is a cinematic achievement in adaptation and a monumentally impressive one at that.

Still, as a film, it's not without its flaws. As already mentioned, the film's tone is wildly uneven, taking us from brooding pensiveness to brutal violence within the blink of an eye. Some people might find the way the story drifts from one setting and character to the next to be disruptive to the story's narrative cohesiveness. Most significantly, the film truncates rather crucial exchanges between characters, occasionally robbing these interactions of their emotional payoff. But these are all minor nits to pick in light of what Snyder has done here.

Speaking of Snyder, you can see his fingerprints all over the film, ways in which he gave his own personal spin on the book, mostly to good effect. Snyder's musical choices in the film alternated between pitch-perfect (e.g. "Unforgettable" playing underneath the Comedian's murder) to baffling (e.g. "Hallelujah" during a sex scene, essentially playing that scene for laughs); thus, while I occasionally got chills, I was also sometimes left scratching my head. Likewise, the choreography in the fight scenes, with Snyder's trademark speed-ramping, punctuate the film in a thrilling fashion. However, his use of excessive gore was occasionally off-putting to me, and sometimes served to disrupt, rather than enhance, my immersion in the film. I understand that the violence in the film is meant to be shocking, but the alteration of some scenes in the book to make them more violent struck me as overly crass. (Without giving anything away, I'll just say that a scene in the book in which Rorschach lights something on fire has been replaced with something far more gruesome in the film, to its detriment, in my opinion). There is also, of course, the ending, which is dramatically different than the one found in the book. A full, spoiler-fulled discussion of the ending will have to wait for another forum, but in brief, I thought that while the film preserved the spirit of the book's ending, it changed its emotional weight for the worse. Still, I understand why the change was made, as the final chapter of Moore's Watchmen does deliver one of the biggest "WTFs?" I've ever experienced while reading a book. But overall, Snyder's visual style seemed particularly suited to translating the panels of a graphic novel to the big screen, and despite my disagreement with some of them, you can feel that his personal touches were made with love, and weren't considered lightly.

Many of you will probably wonder whether or not this film is worth seeing in IMAX. I saw the film in IMAX last night and while I've been unimpressed with certain IMAX presentations in the past (e.g. The Day The Earth Stood Still, for both the image quality AND the movie quality), Watchmen looked utterly spectacular on the big, big screen. Every loving detail in the film is magnified by some insane multiple, and it's a technical wonder to behold. However, that being said, I actually preferred the normal theatrical presentation of this film for one reason alone: When you can easily see and explore the whole frame with your eyes, you can get a far better appreciation of the director and the cinematographer's composition. In an IMAX theater, the eye cannot take in the entire frame at once; the eyes move from one end of the screen to the other, from the top to the bottom, trying to drink in all the detail. While movies like The Dark Knight were specifically filmed with this in mind, Zach Snyder's style makes every frame of this film worth soaking in as a meticulously composed whole. So, for that reason, I'd encourage you to catch it in a regular theater before experiencing it in IMAX. Still, I know this preference may be particular to myself, so feel free to disagree with me in the comments, as I'm sure many will.

So much has already been written on this film, some of it very insightful, some of it decidedly not. I anticipate that much more will be written in the future as people continue to dissect the film and its success (or lack thereof) as an adaptation. My words today will only serve as a drop in the enormous proverbial internet bucket, but despite my problems with the film, I want you to know that for me, seeing Watchmen for the first time was a spiritual experience. In the film, that great line from the book is preserved, "The superman exists, and he's American." In the same vein, I feel like declaring today, "The Watchmen movie exists, and it is (wholly, completely, and successfully) Zach Snyder's."

/Film Rating: 8.5 out of 10David Chen can be reached at davechensemail(AT)gmail(DOT)com. You can also follow him on Twitter or Tumblr.