MOVIE REVIEW -'Watchmen', a Tale of Two Movies

Watchmen Trailer

So here's a simple question - Can you adapt the once-considered unadaptable?

We're talking specifically of course about Warner Bros.' big screen version of writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons' landmark 12-issue 1986 comic book series Watchmen, ambitiously directed by 300's Zack Snyder.

The simple answer to this question is yes

and no.

Is that answer a cop-out? Maybe, but bear with us. If nothing else, Watchmen really is a tale of two movies.

The first movie, the one that gets the "yes" response, is a technically and artfully brilliant piece of auteur moviemaking that proves Snyder is no one-hit wonder. This is a major up-and-coming filmmaker announcing his presence to the world.

For comic book fans, or at least those who've read the original story, it’s a near flawless interpretation given its time restraints. Sure, some purists may quibble with certain elements of the story that out of necessity never made it into the script or were left on the cutting room floor, and there is the question about the dramatically re-imagined ending, but it's hard to imagine fans finding that much to criticize about Snyder's faithful vision.

From the script to the cinematography to editing to the performances of the cast (with Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach, Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan, Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the Comedian, and Patrick Wilson as Nite Owl II standing our particularly), everything about Watchmen makes it abundantly clear what Snyder and his cast have been saying to fans for months - the graphic novel was held in the highest of reverence.

If Watchmen is the holy grail of comic books, the movie prays at the altar at which is lay.

The question that's going to be providing some restless nights for Warner Bros.' production executives over the next several weeks, however, is will Watchmen play to everyone else – the moviegoers without any familiarity with not only the source material, but the decades of superhero and comic book mythology the source material deconstructs. After all, how much sense does that make to someone without a working knowledge of the construction?

The over four-hundred page comic book story overcomes that shortcoming brilliantly. Like any great work of literature, Watchmen the novel reads like a rich, expansively-detailed, self-contained world that might register on an elevated level to comic book fans, but still plays on very high level to anyone with the ambition to give themselves over to the unusual narrative.

But a roughly 150-minute movie adaptation of a 400 page story is a different animal altogether, and this is what defines the second Watchmen - the one that looks and sounds dazzling and might hold some interesting ideas and themes, but runs the huge risk of confounding those unfamiliar with or unprepared for its vast scope.

It's not that the storyline doesn't make any sense. Snyder and his screenwriters do a yeoman's job of unifying the original story's various plots and storylines into a fairly straight forward narrative – who is killing former superheroes and what does it have to do with impending nuclear Armageddon between a mid-1980's United States and still-Communist Russia?

The breadth of the narrative and some of the imagery, however, is a whole other story. Moviegoers have made it clear they're willing to accept costumed superhero minus any camp-factor given a consistent internal logic. But this might be Watchmen's fatal flaw - it just doesn't have the time to establish an internal logic of its own, and moviegoers can't borrow an experience from any other film to use in its place.

What will the unfamiliar make of a story that in a matter of moments jumps from a brutally violent maximum security prison escape scene to a metaphysical conversation about the miracle of life between a naked blue god and his ex-girlfriend on the surface of Mars? Or juxtaposes a masked, trench-coated vigilante taking a meat cleaver to a child killer's skull in an urban slum to same said masked trench-coated vigilante trying to prevent nuclear holocaust in a giant fortress in Antarctica?

What will "general audiences" make of a film that earns a well-deserved hard R rating by uniting cartoonish superhero nostalgia with brutal violence and graphic sex?

Watchmen the comic book story asks a lot of readers without a working knowledge of superheroes but ultimately rewards them with a deeply satisfying and thought provoking experience as well as something of an education.

Watchmen the movie asks the same of moviegoers without the same working knowledge, but just by the pure limitation of its length, can't provide the same education or provide much in the way of context for its wildly varying elements, not to mention its jumping around in time (and for that matter, space).

So the answer is "yes", fans can rest easy - it's the movie they've wanted and waited years for. For them it is adaptable. But for everyone else, the answer may be "no". Watchmen might be fated to being a very good piece of nobly-intended filmmaking that through no real fault of its makers will go ultimately unappreciated.


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