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It's hard for me to imagine what seeing the new Watchmen movie might be like for someone who's unfamiliar with beardo Alan Moore's celebrated, world-changing comic book. As he's said himself, Watchmen was never intended to be adapted for the screen; the structure is just so Byzantine and there's so much alternate reality era-hopping action and dense supplementary material that, as my mom said (who saw the movie without having read the book), the experience can be very, very overwhelming. But for those of us who have read it, the film works as sort of an accompaniment, an abbreviated reminder of why we liked the graphic novel so much in the first place.

Watching the film un-spool, those of use who love the book can only base the success of the movie upon a mental check list of what they got right (keeping Dr. Manhattan nude, for one), what they got wrong (the miscast Malin Ackerman sounding like a ditz), what they kept (to my shock, the Comedian's heinous act in a bar at the close of the Vietnam war), and what they omitted (the octopus thing – which I actually think is okay). It's impossible to separate the movie from the source material, but I've come to the conclusion that they pretty much did the best they could within the confines of a three hour, mega-budget studio movie – particularly when you consider that previous productions (which nearly got off the ground) intended to move the story to the present day and replace the Cold War backdrop with George W. Bush era terrorism.

As you might have read, the adaptation that finally made it to the screen is extremely loyal to the comic. The opening credit sequence is a fantastic montage of an alternate history that fills in some of the back story for the uninitiated, setting up the Minutemen and imagining an America where costumed adventurers really do exist, but are as flawed – if not more so – than the rest of us; a central theme made abundantly clear as the film plays on.

Next comes the first of many literally hard hitting fight scenes between a mysterious dark figure and the now grizzled Comedian (who is played to perfection by Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Other commendable casting choices include, surprisingly, Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan, an actor who I've only found believable as a god-like unfeeling naked blue phenomenon and the voice of credit cards.

Patrick Wilson is fine as Nite Owl, though still not as middle-aged and soft as I imagined; Carla Gugino is great as a former pin up/crime fighter who eats up her hard boiled lines like a pro. But it's Bad News Bear Jackie Earle Haley who stands out the most, delivering spectacularly creepy gravel-voiced monologues (“Beneath me, this awful city, it screams like an abattoir full of retarded children. New York… The dusk reeks of fornication and bad consciences”) that put Christian Bale's Batman to shame. His freckled cheeks shake with anger and insanity and he gets all the good lines. When Rorschach's on screen, the movie is at its best: pure, albeit graphically violent, cinematic fun – or at least as fun as a movie that's message is that humans are destined to slaughter themselves and the only way to temporarily halt the self destruction is through deceptively crafted holocausts can be.

On the opposite end of the acting spectrum, every time Malin Ackerman was on screen, I cringed. She delivers her lines as if she has no idea what the words mean, and while she's a dead ringer for Laurie Jupiter in that wig (minus about fifteen years) she lacks the grit. We're denied the chain smoking, faded ex-crime fighter wryly working her way out of a stale long-term relationship and instead presented with someone who'd make an unconvincing entrainment news correspondent. And she doesn't even smoke those crazy cigarettes! The producers managed to keep in shots of penises, major full frontal sex scenes, a man's arms sawn off by a power tool, and an insane skull-shattering cleaver attack — but don't worry all you morons who took your little kids (and believe me there were tons of 2 to 11 year olds in the audience with us), while your impressionable offspring will go home with fodder for years of nightmares and lingering, soul destroying questions ('Who is Richard Nixon?' being the least of them), at least they won't think that women smoking cigarettes are glamorous.

In the end, I have the same issues with the film that I did the book; I never cared for the Mars scenes -– maybe just because I couldn't get my head around that crazy clock-like flying spiked palace thing, and the ending relies too much on exposition to whittle down the sprawling plot that it's just a bit of a let down. At the same time, I'm impressed they kept the ending (which is a downer, to say the least) intact. Heroes are supposed to save humanity, but here they act as self righteous mass murders (or complicit impotents) enacting some kind of cynical social engineering conceived to save us from ourselves. I thought it was surely too bleak a message to put on the silver screen, but there it was.

People were gearing up to dislike this movie from the get go, critics either hate it because it's too close to the book or balk that it's not faithful enough. Personally, I was pretty impressed and although the book could only properly be adapted in the form of a British mini-series made in the 90s (I'm referencing you, Neverwhere), for a big Hollywood movie, this is as close as we're going to get?Alan Moore, forgive me.

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Posted on March 16, 2009

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