Rife with its own rich backstory, including a complicated development history and copyright infringement lawsuit involving several Hollywood heavy hitters, Zack Snyder's sprawling adaptation of the ground-breaking 1986 graphic novel Watchmen arrives in theaters with perhaps the loudest buzz of any spring release. A vividly re-imagined Cold War-era drama about a group of former masked crimefighters grappling with intrigue against a backdrop of the soured American dream, the film is an instructive lesson on the perils of overstuffed big screen translation. A thematic Whitman's sampler that fitfully touches on a variety of complex issues, but never entirely satisfyingly so, Watchmen is shockingly devoid of natural narrative pull — a beautifully constructed rocket that never gets off the ground.
Nevertheless, the rabid, sizeable fan base for Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' respected, award-winning graphic novel, combined with the boutique allure of IMAX presentations should guarantee Watchmen a successful theatrical run, with steady repeat business among its core demographic. Snyder's ultra-violent, hyper-stylized 300 was a worldwide smash, grossing more than $450 million, and given his nascent cachet and the source material's pedigree, it's hard to fathom another R-rated film in 2009 with more of a primed, built-in audience.
A lot of what made Watchmen a landmark achievement in the comic book realm — its imaginative density, philosophical grappling and embrace of different modes of storytelling, including faux primary documents — helps make the film feel bloated and unfocused. David Hayter and Alex Tse's script seems faithful to a degree that handcuffs any substantive exploration of the chief narrative dilemmas, and the curious result is an exercise in tension-free antics and alt-noir styling. The film's performances are also uneven. Billy Crudup, working mostly through a flattened voice, wonderfully conveys the melancholic nature of his character, while Jackie Earle Haley's Rorschach (above), an unchained id, gives Watchmen a growling, vengeful heart of darkness. Malin Akerman and Patrick Wilson, however, fail to register — problematic since their characters share a love story — while Matthew Goode comes across as too arch. For the full review, from Screen International, click here. (Warner Bros., R, 162 minutes)