March 13, 2009

Watch Out — Watchmen Disappoints

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Cult comic book nerds rejoice! The film rendition of your beloved Watchmen is at long last in theaters. Having been in development hell for over 20 years — suffering from a revolving door of directors, innumerable re-drafts and legal battles between studio backers — the 2009 Zach Synder-directed incarnation of Watchmen is finally upon us as the movie goes public. And to be honest, I would rather the film just go back to its dusty shelves, as Synder’s much-anticipated adaptation of the world’s most celebrated graphic novel is an insufferably interminable adaptation of the ’80s graphic stories, whose reverence for its origins suffocates nearly all the intriguing nuances of its parent novel.
This new superhero/anti-superhero movie (it serves both functions) is based on the tenaciously intelligent 12 issue DC comic series than ran from 1986-1987. Soon after republished into book format, the novel quickly cultivated a considerable and devoted following, which has multiplied ever since. And for good reason, as Watchmen the comic book — written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons — has the emotional resonance, character development and thematic substance of an epic novel. With one singular stroke of brilliance, Moore and Gibbons brought conceptual credibility to the disparaged medium.
If only director Synder could have shown a similar deftness for the novel’s adaptation. As is the danger with book adaptations, there is a tremendous risk when great graphic novels get made into movies. Ultimately, what Synder has come up with is a garishly gargantuan construct, a film that works wonderfully for the first 20 minutes or so only to fall utterly into disarray. By the film’s final third, you are left yearning for any sort of conclusion to be reached, as any sparks the film once flickered have long been extinguished by Synder’s maddeningly heavy-handed treatment of the original.
Set in an alternate reality of 1985, Watchmen tells the story of an America in which costumed superheroes are part of the fabric of everyday society. The major characters, however, exist in a world that has grown disenchanted by their former icons, are gamely portrayed by a diverse cast that delivers middling results. Malin Åkerman as Laurie Juspeczyk (Silk Spectre II) is irritatingly awful, delivering a performance that is as plastic as her latex leggings. Similarly, Matthew Goode is hopelessly miscast as Adrian Veidt (Ozymandias). In a role the comic creators characterized as a rugged, Robert Redford type, Goode suggests only a parody of the real menace he is supposed to embody, a sullen non-threatening entity rather than an ominous world-dominator.
Conversely, Billy Crudup as Dr. Jon Osterman (Doctor Manhattan) manages to convey the God-like figure’s majestic omnipotence with convincing results, despite the unnecessary full-frontal nudity 90% percent of the time and ridiculous white contact lenses. Nevertheless, by far the film’s most inspired performance comes from Jackie Earle Haley, whose interpretation of narrator Walter Kovacs’ (Rorschach) inner torment is hauntingly relentless. As Rorschach says to a prison full of convicts hell-bent on killing him, “I’m not locked in here with you. You’re locked in here with me.”
In spite of Haley’s effectiveness as the film’s narrator, there is a lot lost in translation here. Audiences are deprived the same narrative substance that is so rewarding on the page. While the dense involution of the narrative is exhilarating in novel form, it turns oppressively exhausting after a mere half-hour of treatment on screen. Snyder and his screenwriters, David Hayter and Alex Tse, maintain such a manic fidelity to the original that the tone of world-weary rage has been problematically preserved creating a film that is commercially crass and artistically depressing.
And here lies the film’s biggest flaw: watching Watchmen simply grows burdensome, as it quickly dissolves from having moments of promise into the metaphorical equivalent of being repeatedly whacked on the skull. While its fleeting flashes provide some stellar action sequences full of vigor and excitement, the film as a whole is plagued by many “overs” — overdone, over- ambitious and over-long ­­— confusing its constipated, schizophrenic storytelling for ambition and novel reverence. When we finally reach the film’s who-done-it climax, you are tiresomely forgetful of what the actual conflict in the film was, ambivalently annoyed that it took the film so long to reach its dreary destination. As Dr. Manhattan fittingly laments during the film’s 163rd minute, “It will never end. Nothing ever ends.” I could not agree more.