(director: Zack Snyder; screenwriters: David Hayter/Alex Tse/based on the graphic novel illustrated by Dave Gibbons; cinematographer: Larry Fong; editor: William Hoy; music: Tyler Bates; cast: Malin Akerman (Laurie Jupiter/Silk Spectre II), Billy Crudup (Jon Osterman/Dr. Manhattan), Matthew Goode (Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias), Carla Gugino (Sally Jupiter/Silk Spectre), Jackie Earle Haley (Walter Kovacs/Rorschach), Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Edward Blake/the Comedian), Patrick Wilson (Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl II), Stephen McHattie (Hollis Mason / Nite Owl), Robert Wisden (Richard Nixon), Matt Frewer (Edgar Jacobi / Moloch the Mystic), Laura Mennell (Janey Slater), Rob LaBelle (Wally Weaver), Ron Fassler (Ted Koppel); Runtime: 163; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Lawrence Gordon/Lloyd Levin/Deborah Snyder; Warner Brothers Pictures and Paramount Pictures; 2009

“Unimaginative direction.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A comic book flick shot in Vancouver that’s based on the legendary 1987 graphic novel written by Alan Moore (the screen credits go to David Hayter and Alex Tse, since Moore disassociated himself with the film believing it was impossible to film) and is illustrated by Dave Gibbons. The comic was published by DC in 1986 and ’87, and gained a loyal following. Lightweight hack director Zack Snyder (“300″/”Dawn of the Dead”), the former director of TV ads, keeps the $100 million budgeted action film looking graphically good and keeps it supposedly faithful to the comic strip (for commercial reasons Snyder cut the 12-part graphic novel down to 163 minutes), but provides unimaginative direction and provides only a lackluster and uninspired action story—one lacking freshness, energy and scope.

It’s nothing more than the usual conventional blockbuster action pic, but done in a more gratuitously crass gory way even though the source material was supposed to be superior and the violence in the comic book carried off in a more subtle way. I’m part of the uninitiated audience who walked out of the theater still not a convert of the cartoonish film that was concerned with the untimely cold war problems of the ’80s. Its large cult following, largely consisting of middle-aged men who survived the ’80s with fond memories of the comic and the usual suspect comic book geeks, eagerly awaited this most ambitious and acclaimed superhero comic book story to be a film, and though it never lights up the screen with excitement it at least never bombs completely. Snyder knows the comic book initiates who will flock to see this spectacle, and does whatever he could to please his targeted fanbase by keeping things faithful to the source (at least ninety percent of the time) and comic book friendly. Unfortunately, that’s not good enough for those looking for something more exciting, fresh and not so hollow. It’s also hindered because it demands prior knowledge to be fully experienced, as its sketchy characters and unexplored themes will probably not do the trick completely for the uninitiated.

It’s an apocalyptic sci-fi crime/romantic drama set in an alternate 1985 wavering on the brink of nuclear war, as a group of retired costumed superheroes reunite to track down a mysterious masked assassin who is trying to eliminate them. The superheroes are real humans, whose services have been terminated by the fifth term President Nixon (Robert Wisden), as he got an act of Congress in 1977 to banish costumed vigilantism. The main reason is because the star superhero of the Watchmen, a followup group of vigilantes to the Minutemen of 1940, Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) aka Jon Osterman, settled the Vietnam War in a week. The coldly scientific Dr. Manhattan is a mutated God-like atomic scientist due to a lab accident and the giant has a CGI naked body lit up in blue, is bald with bright white eyes, sports a bulls-eye symbol on his forehead and possesses vast cosmic powers—not the least being able to teleport. He’s the only Watchmen with superpowers.

The story unfolds with many of the conventions of a noir film, such as a voiceover narrator (provided by the misanthropic Rorschach aka Walter Kovacs-played by Jackie Earle Haley-who uses his notebook entries to address the audience), flashbacks galore (mostly covering the back stories of the superheroes), many rainy nights and cartoonish characters with flawed pasts.

The U.S. and Soviet Union are squaring off cold war style over Afghanistan, with a doomsday clock hovering over the conflict that’s permanently set at five minutes to midnight. In the meantime, a former superhero fascist type of soldier of fortune known as The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) aka Eddie Blake, the embodiment of the American Dream like Captain America, has been tossed out in slow-mo of his hi-rise luxury Manhattan apartment and his murder has been discovered by the sociopathic masked superhero known as Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley)—Haley is inspired casting and his mercurial performance keeps things watchable, as he sports a mask that always changes its ink blot patterns like the cards presented during a Rorschach test. The paranoid Rorschach, an abused child, comes to the conclusion that someone is plotting to kill all the surviving Watchmen and preparing to launch a nuke attack. But the world’s smartest man and most successful entrepreneur of the former Watchmen, Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) aka Adrian Veidt, and the depressed, impotent, shy and fearful partner of his known as Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson) aka Dan Dreiberg, do not buy into Rorschach’s theory and fail to join him in his pursuit of the assassin.

Nixon has entrusted Dr. Manhattan to find a way to deter the Russian nuclear threat, and he is busy at the task working on some lab formulas but pisses off his tight latex suit wearing superhero lover Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman) aka Laurie Jupiter by offering her his two avatar projections for foreplay instead of himself. Silk Spectre II then finds romance with Nite Owl II aboard his flying owl ship, as his dick becomes hard after fighting with some street thugs. But their sex is more comical than steamy.

When the media types accuse Dr. Manhattan of causing cancer among some of his colleagues, the angry blue giant teleports to Mars to hang out and cool down while in a self-imposed exile. Rorschach is then framed for a murder of a colleague and sent to prison, and the second generation masks, Nite Owl and Silk Spectre, put on their costumes to free their superhero colleague from a maximum prison cell.

The story builds to its climactic Armageddon as it follows along the lines of hipster Americana pop culture through the music of Bob Dylan, Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday, Simon and Garfunkel and Leonard Cohen—with the background music being the part of the film I enjoyed most, as the action sequences were too stilted—using a meat cleaver to split open a head or sawing off limbs or dangling human entrails doesn’t get me off (playing such violence for laughs is really a turnoff and a sign of a exploitative filmmaker). Following the bloody and the money trail leads the superheroes to the discovery of the surprise villain and to a convoluted peace that’s based on a lie.

Though it’s a grim and brutal film that is frozen in the ’80s prompting tableaus from Andy Warhol to Studio 54, it’s still marginally entertaining as an adolescent and geek fantasy film. Snyder, despite draining the film of its vitality, can’t completely sabotage the powerful source material. But as social satire or getting to say something subversive, which I’m led to believe is what the comic book accomplished at the time, the film doesn’t have it in its garbled storytelling or in its clunky comic book-like dialogue or in its relentless pornographic bloody violence to get over even if it might have it in its genes to tell it like it is.