Despite the intriguing plot, Watchmenis dull and sometimes tasteless, writes DONALD CLARKE
TO THIS point, Alan Moore, the Northamptonian comic-book visionary, has proved prescient in his decision to disassociate himself from all film adaptations of his work. From Helland V for Vendettawere disappointing, and dung beetles still camp outside cinemas that once showed The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
Enter the Watchmen. Whereas Moore’s name was – much against its will – nailed to the title sequences of those earlier films, Zack Snyder’s adaptation of the writer’s most influential comic is, according to its credits, based on the “graphic novel illustrated by Dave Gibbons”. Moore does not even accept Hollywood’s cheques. One assumes, therefore, that he will never be forced to sit through the blasted film. Lucky old Alan.
Watchmenis, to be fair, not a disaster on the scale of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but it has turned out to be as dull as Out of Africaand as unsatisfactorily structured as Back to the Future II. Snyder, director of the unsubtle 300, has squinted hard at the source material and turned it into a colossal animated storyboard, augmented by indifferent performances and moronically obvious music cues.
Again, to be fair, some tiny (tiny, mind) portion of the blame should be put the way of the original comic. Published in 12 monthly issues beginning in September 1986, Watchmenimagines an alternate US in which Richard Nixon, having triumphed in Vietnam and successfully annihilated his domestic critics, still squats malevolently in the White House.
Nixon was assisted in his military triumphs by Dr Manhattan (Billy Crudup), a staggeringly powerful, blue super-being, once a nuclear scientist, whose continued existence has heightened tensions with the increasingly bellicose Soviet Union.
When he wasn’t furthering the cause of American imperialism, Dr Manhattan fought crime with a group of superheroes, deliberately ludicrous in their outrageous garb and lack of real superpowers. They included Rorschach (noir villain in ink-blot mask), Nite Owl (avian- themed tech-wizard), and Silk Spectre (scantily clad token woman). But, following a public outcry against “Masks”, the President banned superheroes and sent them into grumpy retirement. When The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), the oldest and meanest of the gang, is murdered, Rorschach sets out to investigate.
Twenty-three years ago, when Moore first pondered the notion of dysfunctional superheroes coping badly with real life, the concept seemed fresh and surprising. Since then, following redeployment in everything from The Incrediblesto Hancock, the unsatisfactorily domesticated caped crusader has become an unavoidable cliche.
This is not to suggest that Watchmendoes not contain the makings of a great film. If either Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky or Paul Greengrass (all touted as directors at some point) had managed to complete Moore’s version, then the combination of an original cinematic brain and a rich story might have delivered something worth attending. Instead, we got Zack bleeding Snyder.
This Watchmen, following on from similar devotional tools such as the Harry Potterfilms and that ghastly Da Vinci Codefiasco, cowers fearfully from fanatics on the internet and dares to make only one significant change (it’s towards the end, so we won’t say what) to the holy text.
The comic’s episodic nature allowed Moore to explore the back- stories of each character. But when such diversions take place in a film, the audience will, understandably, wonder where the spine of the story has gone. The origin of Dr Manhattan is, for example, handled with some elan, but the central conspiracy ends up being sidelined to a few brief conversations and a perfunctory denouement that downplays the apocalyptic nature of the final reversal.
In truth, Snyder has brought nothing of note to his adaptation. Some of the performances will do well enough. Patrick Wilson is dry and ironic as the Nite Owl’s cerebral alter ego. Jackie Earle Haley is nicely seedy as Rorschach. But there is no escaping the fact that this major movie is getting by with a second-string cast and a third-string director.
Nothing illustrates the smallness of Snyder’s imagination more than his thumpingly unsubtle choices of music. A decent opening montage showing the alternate history of the 20th century plays out to The Times They Are a Changin’. A moment of misery brings forth The Sound of Silence. Showing that he doesn’t know the difference between homage and larceny, he dares to play Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyriesas Dr Manhattan is laying waste to Vietnam.
The less said about the gruesome, tasteless scene that takes place to Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah– a song now so overused that I swear it plays whenever I open the fridge – the sooner it will be gratefully forgotten.
What we are left with is a hugely overlong film that will divert many Watchmenfans, but that will, surely, bore, annoy and tranquillise those unfamiliar with Moore’s fine comic.
Well done, Alan. You did the right thing by keeping your distance.