Review: Watchmen's faithful film adaptation may prove that Alan Moore was right after all

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

[We first posted this review, with the permission of Warner Brothers, on Feb. 24. We're republishing it here now to coincide with the movie's release today.]

Alan Moore has famously said that he opposed making a film of his seminal graphic novel Watchmen because it was essentially unfilmable.

"You get people saying, 'Oh, yes, Watchmen is very cinematic,' when actually it's not," Moore reportedly said. "It's almost the exact opposite of cinematic."

In another interview, Moore said: "I didn't think it was filmable. I didn't design it to show off the similarities between cinema and comics, which are there, but in my opinion are fairly unremarkable. It was designed to show off the things that comics could do that cinema and literature couldn't."

Well, I've seen Zack Snyder's pretty faithful movie adaptation of Watchmen. And I've come to a reluctant conclusion.

Moore may have been right.

Before I get into what doesn't work for me about Watchmen, though, I have to give credit where it's due. Snyder has crafted a beautiful, thoughtful, knowledgeably detailed movie out of Watchmen. I think it's safe to say that no one could have adapted the graphic novel better (with the help of writers Alex Tse and David Hayter), and that if you're a fan of Watchmen you'll love the movie, if only because it respectfully and faithfully brings to life the images, settings, characters and events of Moore and Gibbons' original book.

Kudos are also due to Warner Brothers, Paramount, Legendary Pictures and Lawrence Gordon/Lloyd Levin Productions for backing and defending a movie that sought nothing more than to honor Watchmen as accurately as possible.

But for me, that poses certain problems. Watchmen's strength and chief weakness is its fidelity to its source material (with a couple of notable exceptions, particularly the ending, which actually works better, in my opinion, than the one in the book).

The fault is not with the actors or the staging of the story. Jackie Earle Haley steals the picture as Walter Kovacs/Rorschach, even earning applause in a preview screening of usually hard-to-impress journalists. Jeffrey Dean Morgan, similarly, imbues the reprehensible Edward Blake/The Comedian with such charm and charisma that it's understandable why Sally Jupiter (an excellent Carla Gugino) could still find something to love even after a brutal rape attempt.

And Billy Crudup (unrecognizable as the computer-generated superhuman Dr. Manhattan) finds a balance between godlike aloofness and lingering humanity, allowing us to glimpse fleeting feelings beneath his otherwise impassive, glowing facade. (Praise also to Patrick Wilson as the aging boy scout Dan Dreiberg.)

No. The thing that makes Watchmen something short of a fully successful movie experience is probably the thing that makes it work as a graphic novel: Its multilayered, ironic, episodic, time-jumping narrative.

After a bravura opening sequence in which the Comedian is hurled out his high-rise window and a brilliant and completely original title montage in which Snyder mines pop-culture images and Bob Dylan to set up the film's alternate-universe 1985 New York, the movie collapses with a thud into an hour of exposition, flashback and dialogue that, while faithful to the novel, brings the film to a grinding halt.

From then on, the film adheres to the book's episodic storytelling, jumping from character to character, switching points of view and relying heavily on flashback to flesh out its story—again, faithful to the book. But where a reader can skip ahead, flip back a few pages, linger on a panel or two or read straight through, a film viewer can only be dragged along, whether the story registers or not. And it mostly adds up to a confusing and messy narrative stew that will leave most casual viewers lost by the time the real action begins.

It's been argued by others that Watchmen's non-traditional narrative structure nevertheless works, that it simply asks a lot of the audience while cohering into a crystal-clear story for the attentive. That may be true.

But movies exist in time as well as space, and to me, Watchmen lacks a certain sense of rhythm, which is as crucial to a good film story as it is to a good piece of music. I often feel a lack of urgency or suspense; it feels more like the obligatory march from one story point to the next.

It can also be argued that a film like this—a hodgepodge of action, romance and political satire—is inadequate to convey the essential moral, philosophical and intellectual ambiguity that is at the heart of Watchmen. Though the movie tries to embody the complexity of the book, it can also be seen as mushy, ineffectual and inert.

Which isn't to say that there aren't flashes of brilliance in the movie. I've already noted the opening scenes, which are arguably the best in the film. There's Rorschach's interview in prison, highlighted by Haley's terrifying performance. There's the prison rescue, which showcases Snyder's artfulness with action, as seen earlier in 300. There's the entire Dr. Manhattan sequence, lifted almost frame by frame from the graphic novel, which is deeply sad and elegiac.

Maybe I just need to see it again. And, of course, there's always the book.