Dir: Zack Snyder
Many reviews of Watchmen have begun with a list of the critic’s ‘qualifications’ to review this film. “I read the book forty-six times in college, it’s my favourite novel, I’ve been waiting for this for X years”. Well that’s all well and good, but frankly it’s also all bullshit. People told me when the Lord of the Rings films came out that if I had read the novels I’d have liked them more, that too is bullshit. Saying ‘you have to read the book’ is just another way of saying ‘the movie doesn’t work’. I don’t know, with Watchmen, if I would like it more had I read Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ acclaimed novel, but one thing I do know… the movie doesn’t work.
“From the visionary director of 300” say the posters. We really are downgrading the qualifications for that description when Zack Snyder and his slavish devotion to someone else’s vision, be it Frank Miller’s in his previous film or Moore and Gibbons’ vision here (in both cases he’s on record as saying that he used the graphic novels not just as raw material but as storyboards) is the best we can come up with. Look, I didn’t hate 300, and I actually liked Snyder’s take on Dawn of the Dead a great deal, but he’s basically a hack; a hack with plenty of money to throw around on special effects, sure, but a hack all the same and it shows in nearly every scene of Watchmen; a film as devoid of imagination, as lacking in magic, as any I’ve seen lately.
With 163 minutes of breathing space Watchmen has the time to be all sorts of bad; it manages to be by turns pretentious, ponderous, tedious, obvious and hilarious. The most baffling part of it all is that running time, who thought that this film needed to eat up almost three hours of my life, and why? The film doesn’t seem certain, other than to make sure that it packs in as much stuff as possible, to avoid (presumably) cutting something that would have the fanboys up in arms but so much of it feels completely superfluous to what can only generously be called the plot that it will go as completely over the heads of most casual cinemagoers as it did mine, and bore them as thoroughly as it did me. The film’s middle hour is guiltiest, weighed down by flashbacks that have little impact on anything (including endless asides filling us in on The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who dies perhaps three minutes in to the film). Another thing that might bring the film’s preposterous running time down would be to force Snyder to stop using slow motion. Every fight scene is the same; a few fast (too fast actually, most of the fighting seems unnatural) punches and kicks, followed by a slo-mo moment to dwell on a nice gory bit. This is fine to do a few times, to perhaps emphasise a couple of really important, or really cool, moments, but Snyder hammers the slo-mo button like it’s the only trick in the book.
The odd thing about the film's colossal overlength is how compromised it still feels, and how much is still so apparently missing. For example, where is the explanation of why superheroes are outlawed? How did the Watchmen get together? And why the holy hell does Matthew Goode’s Ozymandias get afforded such limited screen time, given his key role in proceedings? I’m sure all these things will be addressed in Snyder’s DVD cut, which will apparently run another hour, but I don’t believe I care enough to watch that.
Watchmen, to be fair, does have a few interesting ideas, but they are marooned among so many terrible ingredients that they never really get to play out with the import due them. The look of the film is, generally, one of its more impressive traits. Dr Manhattan - the godlike naked blue guy played by a motion captured Billy Crudup - is brilliantly realised, right down to the jiggle physics on his often visible penis, everything involving Manhattan; the Mars sequence, the things he manipulates, and every single shot of the doctor himself, looks amazing, but it seems that the entire effects budget was used up by CGI, because there are some laughable moments elsewhere. The old age make up makes the work in Back To The Future look state of the art, it’s so unconvincing that whenever Nixon (or was that just a really old Pinocchio?) appeared I burst out laughing.
I laughed a lot during Watchmen, but almost never when I was supposed to. The old age make up is hilarious, but so is the soundtrack. Tyler Bates’ score is generic, but the songs had me howling, each one feeling like it had been picked from a playlist called obvious song choices r us. Need a montage covering 40 years of history? Here’s The Times They Are a Changin’. Got a ‘Nam sequence needs scoring? How about Ride of the Valkyries? Want two characters who have been circling each other the whole movie to get it on? Play Hallelujah. That sex scene, incidentally, is both the worst and the funniest scene I think I’m likely to see all year. It’s like something out of bad 80’s softcore, with Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) and Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman), endlessly grinding away in slow motion. It climaxes (pun intended) with the silliest shot of the movie, as Silk Spectre hits a button that sends a jet of flame out of the front of Nite Owl’s ship. What could Snyder be getting at? It’s so very stupid that it almost makes the rest of the film look better by comparison. Almost.
Zack Snyder may know his way around special effects, but he’s no actor’s director, because most of the performances on show in Watchmen are dreadful. The worst offenders are Goode, boasting an accent from nowhere on Earth, and completely lacking the authority needed to carry off his role and Akerman, who has a lot of complex emotion to portray, but struggles to convince us that she’s a person, let alone feeling something. This completely neuters the love triangle between her, Nite Owl and Dr Manhattan, and makes the seemingly endless screen time given over to it some of the dullest of an often powerfully dull film. Patrick Wilson does better as Nite Owl, but his character is boring. The idea of Batman as an overweight guy who can’t get it up is interesting and provocative, but the film never really explores it on anything but the most base level. Billy Crudup is an interesting case as Dr Manhattan; he comes off as blank and emotionless, but that’s likely on purpose, and faithful to the character, but even if that’s true it doesn’t make it interesting to watch, particularly when he’s playing against the automaton that is Malin Akerman. The smaller parts; Morgan as the sociopathic Comedian and Matt Frewer in an oddly touching bit as a retired supervillain, work better, but can’t save the film.
One thing, though, does come close to saving Watchmen. Whenever it’s on screen the film becomes a hundred percent more engaging, its every appearance thrills, and makes you want more. That thing is Jackie Earle Haley’s outstanding performance as Rorschach. Haley’s Rorschach is this movie’s Joker (not that it will win him an Oscar, even if he dies), only this time the praise that it’s attracting is entirely justified. Haley brings incredible detail and layering to Rorschach, making him infinitely more compelling than any of the other, rather one note, characters. His narration of the story, through his journal, is also a real highlight, offering up the film’s finest line, perfectly delivered, just ten minutes in, and when Rorschach is imprisoned, and for a brief time the movie switches to focus almost entirely on him, Watchmen becomes the film that it should have been all the way through; dynamic, intense, riveting, smart and funny. It doesn’t last, which is a crying shame, but Haley’s performance will stay with you, it will make you wish you could see a whole movie about this character, whose backstory is only sketchily filled in. This isn’t that movie, had it been it could well have been great. Instead Watchmen is a bad, bad movie, with one piece so outstanding that it nearly makes it recommendable. Nearly. But not quite.