Eugene Weekly : Movies : 3.12.09


Mind the Plot
Watchmen delivers — and doesn’t
by Molly Templeton

WATCHMEN: Directed by Zack Snyder. Written by David Hayter and Alex Tse, based on the book by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Cinematography, Larry Fong. Music, Tyler Bates. Starring Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Jackie Earle Haley, Patrick Wilson, Billy Crudup, Malin Akerman, Matthew Goode and Carla Gugino. Warner Bros., 2009. R. 161 min.

Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman) and Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) in Watchmen

There are so many ways into a conversation about Watchmen that trying to choose one is almost as dizzying as trying to briefly explain the dense book on which the movie is based. The movie: The fanboys! The geeks having their moment! The unfilmable graphic novel! The violence! The endless coverage! The book: The giant squid! Under the Hood! The Black Freighter! The characters on the street corner! The Doomsday Clock! That damn smiley face!

That’s just the beginning.

But none of these things, of course, have explicitly to do with the movie itself. They just make it easier to talk around the movie, which can be as enjoyable as talking about it. Watchmen arrived with a truckload of hype and years of anticipation, not necessarily for Zack Snyder’s particular film, but for the very possibility of a film based on one of the touchstones of graphic novels. Everyone said it was impossible, one of the themes of the Watchmen buzz goes. As it turns out, it was quite possible, once the book was pared down to one key strand of plot: A retired masked vigilante, the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), is dead. Why?

The mystery of the Comedian’s death is of great interest to Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), whose ever-shifting mask is both nifty and distracting. Rorschach is crazy; Rorschach is onto something. He’s never given up fighting bad guys, yet his loathing for humanity’s failings comes off him like steam; Haley, even under a mask, radiates viciousness. One by one, Rorschach warns his old team members that someone, to his mind, is “picking off costumed heroes.” There’s Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias, the smartest man in the world (Matthew Goode, mumbling and distant), who’s made a fortune off revealing his identity; Dr. Manhattan, formerly Jon Osterman (Billy Crudup), the glowing blue superman created by a nuclear accident; Laurie Jupiter, the second Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman), who became a hero because her mother pushed her into it; and the second Nite Owl, Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson), the very definition of ordinary outside of his gadget-strewn suit and ship.

What follows Rorschach’s visits changes the relationships among these characters and, eventually, the world. What follows doesn’t, however, have a lot to say. Shrinking Watchmen to its most basic storyline makes it manageable, and the filmmakers make it astonishingly recognizable; in many places, Watchmen is the book come to life. It’s sumptous and strange and violent; it races from New York to Mars to Antarctica and pulls off Dr. Manhattan’s strange form and Nite Owl’s nifty ship with equal panache. But looks aren’t everything. Snyder’s devotion to the graphic novel makes it difficult to talk about the movie alone, yet the only one of the book’s countless ideas to really survive the transition to film is the question of who gets to decide what’s right for the world — and how they use that power. Snyder threads this theme around his characters, whose backstories and lives get token attention, just enough to tie them together as they move through scenes lifted lovingly from the book. At times, the recreation is enough: The image of a naked Dan Dreiberg standing stiffly in front of his Nite Owl costume evokes a vivid loneliness, the powerlessness of being just another person in a world where strangers decide everyone’s fates. But too often, it’s not enough, not least in the morally complicated conclusion, which has half the resonance of Dr. Manhattan’s flashback to the day he stopped being a man. In bringing the frames of the book to oversized, spectacular life, Snyder has created something visually extraordinary, but he’s also left behind the things that made the story so revered in the first place: the swirling ideas that lie not just within, but between, the panels.