The year is 1985.
Richard Nixon is president for life.
A group of ex-heroes, the Watchmen, have reconnected following the killing of one of their own, The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan).
We, the audience, are thrust into this alternative America, birthed originally as a graphic novel of stellar repute.
In the hands of director Zack Snyder ("300"), "Watchmen" occasionally dances so close to brilliance that it's nearly breathtaking. More frequently, however, "Watchmen" succumbs to its own self-importance, a suffocating reverence for the source material and, most fatally, abysmally weak performances by Malin Akerman as Silk Spectre II and Matthew Goode as Ozymandias.
"Watchmen" starts of brilliantly, raising hopes that 2009 might continue the uprising of the superhero film following the critical acclaimed films "Iron Man" and "The Dark Knight." To the tune of Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'," "Watchmen" opens up with a full-on, stereophonic sensory experience that is mesmerizing and wondrous.
Unfortunately, "Watchmen" is never better than these opening moments. Given the film's nearly 3-hour running time, this becomes more and more noticeable as time goes on.
The heroes themselves are intriguing...Only one of them is truly "super" in any supernatural sense, Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), who is able to transcend space and time with ease.
The rest of our heroes are, for lack of a better definition, rather normal with the exception of their former lives as superheroes before superheroes were outlawed by Nixon. Ozymandias is the world's smartest man, while Silk Spectre II is your average young woman trying to live up to her mother, the original Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino). The Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) is a techno wizard, while Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) is, you guessed it, one who excels in the interpretation of patterns and such.
"Watchmen" is a film destined to be loved and hated, by both those unfamiliar with the source material and devotees of the material.
It is clear, quite clear, that Zack Snyder has absorbed the graphic novel and is trying like hell to create a film that lives up to its magnificence.
It's a grand vision and, in all honesty, Snyder doesn't really succeed. He also doesn't fail.
Alan Moore, who wrote the source material, has been outspoken in his skepticism regarding "Watchmen" and one can hardly blame him. This script has been tossed about Hollywood for quite some time, and has baffled directors with far greater reputations than Snyder's.
While "Watchmen" falls short of Moore's multi-layered, comprehensively provocative novel, it is surprisingly successful and more watchable than one might believe.
In fact, take away the dreadfully miscast Akerman and Goode and "Watchmen" may very well have been a darn fine film.
Instead, "Watchmen" is a film I'd give a modest recommendation to for fans of Snyder's other works and those who get a full geek on with this type of action/sci-fi flick.
Jackie Earle Haley, who only recently returned to Hollywood with his brilliant and Oscar-nominated performance in "Little Children," provides the emotional center and gravitas needed in "Watchmen" with an involving and compelling performance as Rorschach. He is matched by Patrick Wilson, who nails Nite Owl with a performance that will have you reflecting long after you've left the theatre.
Snyder is, in fact, rather controlled with the way he uses visual effects in "Watchmen," a bit surprising given his gift for excess that manifested so freely in "300." While "Watchmen" is an intensely graphic and gore-filled film, the visual effects for the most part are used to enhance the film and its storyline rather than to simply dazzle the audience.
The film's soundtrack, as well, is used to marvelous impact with tunes ranging from the aforementioned Bob Dylan to Simon & Garfunkel and circling back to the avant-garde wizardry of Philip Glass.
The truth is that "Watchmen," with its dizzying audio and visuals, most likely requires a second viewing to fully integrate it all. Even as I write this review, I find myself wanting to delve deeper into the universe of the film.
While Alan Moore is, perhaps, right on a certain level in his skepticism of this film, "Watchmen" is far more successful than I'd have expected and will undoubtedly please many who have long awaited it.
Others, of course, will cry foul and failure and give their holy wrath to Zack Snyder.
The truth, I'd offer, is somewhere in the middle.
Better than expected but too often falling short of its opening promise, "Watchmen" isn't the travesty that many will proclaim but neither is it up to the lofty standards of "Iron Man" and "The Dark Knight."
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic