The Nite Owl stands before Archimedes, his high-tech flying machine.

The Nite Owl stands before Archimedes, his high-tech flying machine.

(Warner Brothers) Malin Ackerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Carla Gugino, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Patrick Wilson, Matt Frewer, Stephen McHattie, Laura Mennell, Rob LaBelle, Robert Wisden. Directed by Zack Snyder

Watchmen is perhaps the most honored and revered graphic novel of all time. Originally written by Alan Moore (who has refused to let his name be associated with the film version, although don’t let that fool you), in many ways it changed the way graphic novels – and superhero-based ones in particular – are perceived.

The year is 1985, although not the one we remember. Richard Nixon is still president, having been elected for an unprecedented fifth term. The Soviets invasion of Afghanistan has brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. And the American superhero squad known as the Watchmen has been forced to disband due to a government ban on masked vigilantes.

The film opens with one of the former Watchmen, a super-conservative psychopath called the Comedian (Morgan) being murdered. He won’t be missed much – he was a wretched human being. However, Rorschach (Haley), a strange and possibly deranged man whose mask constantly changes into a series of inkblot-like patterns, thinks there’s more to the crime than the attempted robbery story the police say is what happened. He thinks that there might be a killer going after the ex-Watchmen, so he visits his former partners – the second Nite Owl (Wilson), who visits the first Nite Owl (McHattie) and commiserates over the life of a retired masked crimefighter. The second Silk Spectre (Ackerman), who lives with the god-like Doctor Manhattan (Crudup) and whose mother, the first Silk Spectre (Gugino), was once assaulted by the Comedian.  Finally, there is Ozymandias (Goode), the world’s smartest man, who has gone public with his secret identity and has become a very wealthy industrialist.

The world has become a mean place, and gangs rule the streets of New York. Most people believe that nuclear annihilation is inevitable and act accordingly. The former superheroes are depressed, fatalistic and have issues of their own. The kindest is Nite Owl, who has grown a bit timid over the years, although basically a decent man. Rorschach is nearly psychotic, narrating a series of journal entries that make plain his belief that humanity is essentially a genetic cesspool that has more in common with vermin than with higher life forms.

Dr. Manhattan, a former nuclear physicist who became able to manipulate matter at will in a horrifying accident, is becoming less and less connected with the world and its inhabitants. His affection for Silk Spectre is almost all that keeps any sort of caring for humanity in his nature, but that all changes when he discovers that he may have caused cancer in those closest to him. Shocked and horrified, Manhattan exiles himself to Mars. With America’s most powerful nuclear deterrent out of the way, the path is cleared for the Russians to begin building to the inevitable climax of assured mutual mass destruction. Can the costumed heroes, once hated and reviled, pick up their masks and save the day one more time?

The original graphic novel was cerebral on the one hand and visceral on the other. There is brutal violence and explicit situation, all elements preserved in the movie. Director Snyder and writers David Hayter and Alex Tse have done a magnificent job of translating a work thought unfilmable to the big screen. The subtleties of the original graphic novel are for the most part, retained here. The movie is rated “R” and there is a good reason for it; impressionable kids shouldn’t be seeing this. There is graphic sex, realistic violence and adult themes. This is no Super Friends to say the least.

The cast is excellent, mostly comprised of character actors who have started to develop a reputation for solid work. Haley, who was nominated for an Oscar last year, might bag another nomination this year for his work as the tormented Rorschach. Dogged, cynical, bitter and brutal, he is constantly underestimated by those who oppose him but winds up on the brink of solving the crime at the heart of the story.

The world presented here is gritty and nasty. You feel like you’ve stepped into a sewer, and the film is darkly lit to go along with its dark tone. Special effects abound – in fact Dr. Manhattan is mostly a special effect himself. Far above the need to wear clothes, the bright blue Billy Crudup spends most of the movie with his package dangling for all to see. The fight sequences are pretty nifty as well.

However, this is a fairly long movie as action films go and there is a lot going on in terms of plot. Snyder tries to follow the storytelling methods employed by the original comic (which started life as a 12-issue maxi-series) by showing the various backgrounds and viewpoints of the main characters, which can sometimes be confusing. An excellent opening titles sequence really tells you all you need to know about the world of the Watchmen. Familiarity with the source material is a plus but not a requirement in order for you to follow the story.

I was hoping for something along the lines of The Dark Knight in terms of quality and it isn’t quite there, although it is very good. I wanted to like it more, but I still liked it plenty. In that sense, Watchmen is a victim of its own excellence. I doubt somewhat that any motion picture could truly equal the scope and the complexity of the source material, as hard as Watchmen tries. It must be said, however, that I think it captures those elements about as well as any movie could.

In that sense, I can easily recommend Watchmen for general audiences without any qualms, just in terms of overall quality. Parents should be aware that some of the scenes are extremely rough when it comes to language, violence and sexuality, which I believe I have harped on sufficiently here. For my money, I think that lovers of action movies, superhero fanboys and aficionados of complex, compelling cinema are all among those who should be watching the Watchmen.

WHY RENT THIS: Hey, it’s the ever-lovin’ Watchmen! Compelling performances by strong character actors make well-written characters seem real and vital. Terrific (although not groundbreaking) special effects keep the wow factor high.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the course language, extreme violence and graphic sexuality can be off-putting.

FAMILY VALUES: Not for children. Adult themes, graphic violence, nudity and explicit sexuality may be too much for even some adults.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Watchmen has been in development for almost 20 years at various studios. Among the directors at one time or another attatched to the project: Terry Gilliam, Paul Greengrass and Darren Aronofsky.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The director’s cut edition includes 24 minutes of additional footage, mostly revolving around Hollis Mason, the original Nite Owl who compared to his involvement in the original graphic novel gets little more than a cameo appearance in the theatrical release;


TOMORROW: Henry Poole is Here

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