Movie News & Reviews

'Watchmen' nearly as good as the novel

So who here was cool enough to have read the Watchmen graphicnovel before we'd all heard they were making a movie out of it?

Not me! That stuff's for nerds. In fact, I don't even know how toread, and when it come to looking at pictures, they may as well behieroglyphics. Nope, no nerds here — I'm as buff as Aragorn, as wittyas Gimli, and as wise as Gand — aw hell. Yeah, I read it. I read ittwice! Then I spent the last several months alternately fretting andscoffing over the possibility of a movie capturing even a fraction ofits vision, beauty, bleakness, ultra-good-artness, etc.

To my way of thinking, remaking a great movie or adapting a belovedbook to the big screen is a no-lose proposition. If the movie's good,then hooray for everything. If it ends up bad, then you get to adjournto the Hating Parlor and hold a Hate Party, which is a lot like a teaparty but with more lace. Despite that, I went into Watchmen aheavy skeptic.

When a botched and unrepeatable experiment turned an American man intoDr. Manhattan (played by Billy Crudup), a godlike being of almostunlimited power, the world changed. Soviet aggression stopped cold.The U.S. won the Vietnam War. With the arrival of an actual superman,the masked vigilantes — normal men and women who anonymously foughtcrime — became obsolete.

It's now the mid-'80s, and one of the old heroes has been murdered.His former associate Rorschach (played by Jackie Earle Haley)immediately suspects a conspiracy against masked adventurers, asuggestion the others take about as seriously as all his crazy ideas.

When Dr. Manhattan is forced into leaving Earth, the others changetheir tune. Suddenly, nuclear war with the Soviets looms large. Andsomeone seems bent on removing the rest of the masks before they cando anything to stop what may be Armageddon.

There was essentially no way for Watchmen the movie to live upto Watchmen the book. It's too complex, too much a product ofits medium, too good. If tasked to convert the book to thescreen, Dr. Manhattan himself would have thrown up his bright bluehands, embedded himself in the couch, and declared it Miller time.

Amazingly, director Zack Snyder comes danged close. His secret: anadaptation so faithful it exposes all other book-to-film translationsas like the lying, adulterous scum they are.

His cast looks like 3D photocopies straight off the pages of thenovel, and incredibly, these comic-clones can act, too. Without theirtalent, one of Watchmen's greatest strengths — the psychologicaldepth of its heroes — would have gone squandered. Though the movie canfeel slow as it's establishing who and what these people are, thepayoff is worth it.

That depth is built through a lot of weirdness, perversion, and whatsome would call "grit," which is critical shorthand for "messed up,disturbing stuff that will leave you wanting to make a tent out ofyour blankets and then live under that tent until you run out offood." Even by modern superhero standards, this movie is dark. Let mebe the first to say: awesome.

It all looks outstanding, too, both the world and the scenes ofass-whompery. Big surprise. With 300, Snyder proved he couldmake a movie so pretty you'd want to take it into international watersand marry it. Now it looks like he can tell a good story, too.

Yet for those of us who swoon over the book, his hyper-faithfulapproach, successful as it is, is a reminder of all the small thingsthe novel did better. Among other things, that nervous Cold Warparanoia never really comes through, making it possible to lose trackof just what the heroes are fighting for.

It also makes it incredibly damn hard to separate the one from theother. The book is a masterpiece, so if the movie is the book put intomoving pictures, but not quite, does that make the movie not quite amasterpiece? I don't think it works that way. The heart's there, it'ssome of the spirit that's missing. But give it extra credit for anending that's in some ways better than the original, and yeah, it'spretty close.

Grade: B+