The adaptation of the graphic novel 'Watchmen' lacks originality and vitality * 1/2

(1 1/2 Stars)

March 06, 2009|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,michael.sragow@baltsun.com

The ultimate question raised by the movie version of the celebrated graphic novel Watchmen may not be "Who watches the Watchmen?" but "Who will check their watches during Watchmen?"

Ticking in at two hours and 43 minutes, this slavish exercise in revisionist comic-book lore takes more than an hour to get started, and then never gets its scale or proportion right.

This is the kind of apocalyptic movie in which murder by meat ax delivers far more punch than a doomsday clock marking the seconds to the end of the world. That single killing, by the way, is not in the book, which had a subtler and more sadistic method for the masked psycho-vigilante Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) to rid the world of a depraved kidnapper and murderer. Rorschach chains him to an oven, hands him a hack-saw, sets his building on fire, then waits outside to see if he gets out. In the comic book's best line, Rorschach coolly states, "Nobody got out."

Too bad it never made it into the screenplay. It's one of the few lines that would have withstood the transition from comic book to big-screen spectacle. The script is full of dead verbiage that should have been left behind. The Watchmen movie proves that reading comic-book dialogue or narration outside a comic-book context is as disastrous as most rock lyrics would be without music.

The screenplay's purple mixture of disdain and despair makes your head ache within minutes: "The gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over all the vermin will drown."

For regular movie lovers, the film would simply die on the screen were it not for Haley tapping his gift for utter incorrigibility as Rorschach (this Bad News Bear of 1975 is playing the Worst News Bear). Billy Crudup, almost as good, delivers a cerebral cool and at times an unexpected gentleness to the character of the distinctly unjolly blue giant Dr. Manhattan. It helps that Haley wears a mask that changes patterns like the flip cards of a Rorschach test. Crudup sports a computer-generated body that's like a beautifully proportioned version of the Incredible Hulk's.

But the film's storytelling and image-making lack originality and vitality. Nothing sticks to your memory unless you come in with recollections of the book. The movie retells, with 90 percent accuracy, the acclaimed tale of a disbanded superhero team that regroups when someone seems to be killing them and the Earth appears to be on the brink of nuclear catastrophe. (Rorschach leads the search for the serial killer of superheroes.) The frame-by-frame adaptation may satisfy some fans of the original Alan Moore-Dave Gibbons creation the way the first two Harry Potter movies did J.K. Rowling's followers. Watchmen offers a faithful representation of a fanciful fiction.

Die-hards may use it to relive their initial Watchmen experience in a different form, as if going to the movie were just a slightly fresher version of rereading the graphic novel.

Abandon hope of coherency, all ye who enter this movie without exposure to the graphic novel. This movie exposes all the weak spots of a comic-book saga that was never intended for any other medium. If you absorbed Watchmen as it came out issue by issue in 1986 and 1987, author Moore's reticence to reveal his mysteries as well as his extravagance at spreading them out created an unusual sort of pulp suspense.

As readers made their way through stories within the main story, including an interpolated pirate adventure, they looked forward to swimming through a sea of colorful murk on their way to a far horizon. Laid out end-to-end, Moore's plot is as ugly as a squid: a bulbous head shooting out strangulating tentacles of exposition. (The novel's own squidlike creature is one of the few devices the movie leaves behind.)

And the whole fiction has an adolescent mixture of sourness and sentimentality - the sad-eyed cynicism of disillusioned teens - that pretty much scuttles comic books' traditional adolescent virtues of colorful bravado and esprit de corps.

Comic books, unlike most movies, are made for introductions: The whole superhero form is based on "origin stories." (As Sam Clay says in Michael Chabon's Pulitzer-winning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, the key issue for a comic-book creator was never "what" a superhero did or "how" he did it, but "why?")

Director Zack Snyder only approximates that bold-stroke zest in the opening minutes, when he offers tabloid-style tableaux of champions corralling arch-villains or meeting their own doom against a backdrop of American history from the 1930s to 1985 (when the story is set).

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