WatchmenThanks to Hollywood’s continuing obsession with adapting comic books and graphic novels for the big screen, it was inevitable that one of its most famous, “Watchmen” by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons would eventually be made into a live-action movie. A figurehead of the phrase “studio development mess,” the picture finally ended up in the hands of director Zach Synder who had previously shown expertise in the genre with his brutally stylish “300.” Considering the fact it came with an R rating and had no star names were attached to it, the project was a success with older mainstream audiences as well as fans of the source material who praised Synder’s vision and retelling as particularly faithful and true to the original.

Set in 1985 at the height of the Cold War, the film presents an alternative history with super heroes, the “Watchmen,” who acted as humanity’s guardians and protectors but have long been disgraced and made political pawns in America’s struggle against the Soviet Union. In this dark and dreary world where it always rains (“Se7en” anyone?), Watergate never happened, Richard Nixon is still in power and the nukes are just a red button away, annihilation it seems, is ticking ever closer. In the midst of this carnage, a former superhero, Edward Blake also known as The Comedian (played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is brutally murdered. The masked Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) believes this to be a conspiracy, that all the superheroes are being targeted, and begins to investigate. In parallel, Matthew Goodes’ Ozymandias yearns for the good old days of the superheroes, and kindles a romance with troubled Laurie Jupiter (Malin Akerman) while Billy Crudup’s Dr. Manhattan is having second thoughts on whether earth is really worth it all. Synder tries to keep all these different story strands on a leash as they weave in, out and around but the finished product remains a confusing mess. The damning statements the screenplay wants to make about humanity’s fall from grace and doomed fate are all lost amidst the violent action and Rorschach’s gravelly monologues. These journal entires present a mood similar to T.S. Eliot’s dark “The Waste Land” but their spoken hoarse growl is more akin to Batman in the Nolan era and equally irritating.

Particularly in the last third, the film becomes increasingly unsure what it really wants to be about. Hovering somewhere between satyrical insight, serious message and apocalyptic action movie, “Watchmen” becomes a victim of its own weight, Synder labouring to hit his “300” stride again. It is of course perpetrated by a similar visual style: From a visual point of view, utilising some of the same bullet-time effects pioneered on “The Matrix,” the film is unique and indeed impressive, every location showing the consistent and fully fleshed out vision the screenplay so desperately lacks. The action set pieces meanwhile, as stunning as they may be to look at, merely present violence for violence’s sake. Perhaps it’s all supposed to represent man’s inhumanity to his fellow man or is a neat swipe in the direction of more conventional superheroes but the film never leaves room for such philosophising, so obsessed is it with trying to portray the violence as grotesquely as possible, be that with a butcher’s cleaver or a steel saw. If this was Synder’s intent, he’s clearly succeeded but even the most grossly choreographed punch-up feels tired, seeking an excuse for violence yet never, for all its stylishness, achieving in its satyrical portrayal as, say Tarantino might.

Watchmen OSTIconic songs such as Bob Dylan’s “The times They Are a Changing” are as important to Synder’s style as the visuals. Their placement therefore is prominent, much more so than the original score by Tyler Bates, Synder’s regular composer. Bates who caused a stir when it was openly revealed (by Warner Bros. in part) that large parts of his “300” score were in fact plagiarised, approaches “Watchmen” in much the same way that Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard did for both their “Batman” scores, namely dark brooding atmospherics. Regardless of your opinion of the pair’s work, Bates’ effort is little more than a cheap rip-off, failing to ignite any interest in the film or on the album. While managing to avoid a lawsuit this time around, Bates does borrow significantly from Danny Elfman and Don Davis’ “The Matrix” as well as the “Batman” pair leaving us with a very disappointing score overall. The song compilation, released separately, offers a much more satisfying listen.

Who watches the Watchmen? You shouldn’t, and certainly not more than once. As faithful as Zynder is to the graphic novel, the film is overlong and a mush of ideas that fail to gel. Praise it for visual panache if you will, “Watchmen” is nowhere as deep or as engaging as it’s made out to be. As far as superhero movies go, this is not one to recommend.

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