Ever since Terry Gilliam abandoned the project in the early nineties, Watchmen has widely been regarded as “unfilmable.” The complexity of the story and its characters, a rabid, cult following, its place among TIME’s All-time 100 Best Novels–these are just a few of the factors heaping pressure on the latest effort from Zack Snyder (critically acclaimed director of 300), now in theaters everywhere.
Now, let's be honest. Watchmen is not a film for everyone. There will be those who love it and those who hate it; few will be in-betweeners. Those unfamiliar with the source material will most likely be confused. Those familiar with the source material are destined to forever debate the success or failure of the film among the small alcoves of retaildom in which few ever step foot: comic-book stores.
For those in the former category, a primer might be of some use. Watchmen immerses us in an alternate 1985 in which the United States has seen victory in Vietnam and the election of Richard Nixon to an unprecedented fifth term as President. However, much like the real 1985, the United States is embattled in an extremely tense Cold War with the Soviet Union, and time is quickly ticking down to nuclear holocaust between the two superpowers. Crucial to all of this is the existence of a small band of vigilante crimefighters, originally tagged The Minutemen. The Minutemen evolve into a later iteration, deemed The Watchmen, until the Keene Act is passed, prohibiting vigilante crimefighting.
As the film opens, one of the original Minutemen, Edward Blake, also known as The Comedian (played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan), is murdered. Rorschach (played by Jackie Earle Haley), a former Watchman, begins investigating and uncovers a conspiracy to eliminate other "masks," causing the other team members to come out of retirement. What follows is a whirlwind experience that is stylized, violent, and sexy.
Snyder does a remarkable job transferring the look and feel of the graphic novel to the big screen. Unlike most book-to-film adaptations, Snyder had the distinct advantage of working with a source in which the world is right there before you, rather than left to the imagination of the reader. However, this can also be a disadvantage, as success or failure is based on getting it "right." Snyder, an obvious fan of the source material, succeeds on this account. The art direction, costumes, and cinematography are all visually stunning, faithful representations of the graphic novel. Fanboys and fangirls will certainly applaud the director in that area.
The story, however, is a bit trickier. Watchmen the graphic novel is a dark, complex, brooding tale that has as many layers as it does characters. Not only is the story deeply complex, but its characters are also some of the most complex characters in literature. Snyder's task in translating such an intricately woven tale and cast of characters to the silver screen seems insurmountable, and his efforts bring mixed results.
Snyder appears to have put a lot of work into the development of Rorschach, arguably the most complex character of the lot. Here, there is some success. Jackie Earle Haley's performance accurately conveys the lonely, disillusioned, stick-to-his-principles-at-all-costs character from the novel. Haley's is the brightest piece of acting in the film, and Rorschach the brightest attempt at character development by the director.
Another bright spot is the portrayal of Dr. Manhattan (played by Billy Crudup). Though this is a superhero film, the only character with superpowers is Dr. Manhattan, the tragic victim of a physics experiment gone wrong, which transforms him into something beyond human that can manipulate the environment around him in any way he likes. Crudup does a fine job bringing to life a Dr. Manhattan that grows ever more distant from humanity, retreating into himself and away from the turbulent world that humans have created for themselves.
The other performances, sadly, fall much flatter. The biggest disappointment is Adrian Veidt, aka Ozymandias (played by Matthew Goode). In the film, there is little to no development of this character, which is strange considering he's a pretty big deal in the overall plotline. Another disappointment is Laurie Jupiter, aka Silk Spectre II (played by Malin Akerman), who gives a flighty, clueless, emotionally weak version of the character from the novel. Granted, some of this may be due to the writing, but decent actors can often overcome less-than-stellar writing. Unfortunately for much of the cast of this film, that just doesn't happen.
As far as the story itself goes, the self-conscious attempt of the director to remain as faithful to the source material as possible may have hindered him a bit. Snyder manages to hit most of the biggest plot elements, though even at just under three hours, it seems a bit rushed. The flashback scenes are handled well, and Snyder brilliantly weaves in the songs that have cameos in the graphic novel. But the multi-layered, multi-faceted tale that those familiar with the source material know and love just isn't there. Much of this has to do with what was left out (though understandably so with time constraints), including the highly important sub-story, "Tales of the Black Freighter."
Instead, what the audience gets is a stylized, effects-driven comic-book movie that will leave most wondering what they just sat through for three hours, and why they should have cared in the first place.
Is Watchmen unfilmable? Though Snyder put up a valiant attempt and got many things "right," the film lacks the depth and profundity of the revolutionary graphic novel. So while there may not be a definitive "yes" to that question, it certainly appears that way at the moment.