Movie Review: Watchmen

By Matthew Huntley

March 14, 2009

Newspapers can't be a dying medium if the Comedian reads them, right?

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At the time of The Comedian's death, the United States is on the brink of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Tension and paranoia envelop the country and America's only hope is Dr. Manhattan, but along with The Comedian, somebody is trying to rid the world of him. On a talk show, Dr. Manhattan is accused of giving his former lover and colleagues cancer, which causes him to go into exile on Mars. Somebody obviously wants the Watchmen out of the picture.

Like the graphic novel, the movie takes the time to flesh out its characters and provide them each a backstory and individual conflict, but screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse seem to only include events from the book because they were in the book. It's like they went through it page by page, simply copying the words into a screenplay and felt too afraid to make creative changes.

Don't get me wrong - the movie is ceaselessly watchable, but it's not an adaptation so much as a filmed version of the novel. The art of adaptation involves changing things and making them more suitable for another medium, and while there are considerable changes from the book, they don't seem to cater to the movie. The book (and screenplay) bring so much to the table, the movie should have either been longer to deal with it all or shortened so it didn't make the mistake of biting off more than it could chew. There are rumors of a director's cut, but even so, for a general release, I think Watchmen would have worked more as a series instead of a single picture (think Kill Bill) to properly accommodate all its content.

It sounds like I'm being hard on the movie, but that's only because the graphic novel was so good. It'd be interesting to gather the opinion of someone who saw the movie without having read the novel. I'm thinking it won't translate well for them, which is another problem. Director Zack Snyder (300) hasn't made a fully realized picture but one that's too self-conscious of its source. During production, I imagine he kept the book on-hand just to make sure he included everything so as not to disappoint fans, and not necessarily for the sake of cinema.


Still, as a movie, Watchmen offers plenty to get excited about, including an awesome production design, special effects, costumes and colorful characters. The Dr. Manhattan effects are especially impressive and could probably not have been done better. Some of the casting is spot on, too, including Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach, whose voice, tone, facial complexion and rough disposition make him seem like he was born for the role. I also liked the soft-spoken Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan, who embodies the detached, stoic figure who's about to give up on humanity.

The other actors are adequate, but not exactly memorable. Akerman and Wilson seem to merely speak the lines of their comic book counterparts, while Goode and Gugino are rather flat. Other nuances that don't quite work are the Richard Nixon parody (the makeup job is laughable, perhaps intentionally) and some of the music choices (just because they were mentioned in the book doesn't mean they work on film).

The makers of Watchmen must have known they would not get away with critics and fans comparing the movie to Moore's lauded novel. Would I have liked the movie as much without having first read the book? Probably not, but I can say with confidence it would have given me the incentive to read it.

When news broke of a Watchmen movie finally being made (it allegedly passed through several studios and directors over the past 20 years), many thought, and probably still believe, it was un-filmable. That's not entirely true. Snyder's current cut is still worthy of praise for its production values, but it needs help in the screenplay department. If anything, the movie deserves adulation for the enormous effort taken to at least try and do the novel justice, which may just be an impossible feat.

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