Finally, a non-vested, stand-up professional critic unblinkered by geek allegiances — Variety‘s Justin Chang — has weighed in on Watchmen and more or less called it a half-and-halfer.
“Auds unfamiliar with Alan Moore‘s brilliantly bleak, psychologically subversive fiction may get lost amid all the sinewy exposition and multiple flashbacks,” Chang says early on. “Though it cries out for equally audacious cinematic treatment, the novel has instead been timidly and efficiently streamlined by David Hayter (X-Men, X2: X-Men United) and Alex Tse, who struggle to cram as many visual and narrative details as possible into the film’s 161 minutes.
“From the clues and in-jokes embedded in Larry Fong‘s widescreen compositions and Alex McDowell‘s vaguely retro Gotham-noir production design to the meticulous narrative framework and whole chunks of dialogue lifted from the novel, there’s no question that Watchmen reps some sort of ultimate fanboy’s delight. Whether it’s Dreiberg’s flying owl ship or the staggering glass palace Dr. Manhattan conjures up on Mars, the filmmakers have spared no expense in their mission to visualize every last frame.
“Yet the movie is ultimately undone by its own reverence; there’s simply no room for these characters and stories to breathe of their own accord, and even the most fastidiously replicated scenes can feel glib and truncated. As Watchmen lurches toward its apocalyptic (and slightly altered) finale, something happens that didn’t happen in the novel: Wavering in tone between seriousness and camp, and absent the cerebral tone that gave weight to some of the book’s headier ideas, the film seems to yield to the very superhero cliches it purports to subvert.
“While [director Zack] Snyder still exults in gratuitous splatter (sawed-off limbs, dangling human entrails, a very random display of adolescent vampirism), he demonstrates a less oppressive directorial hand than he did in 300, avoiding that film’s ultra-processed digital look and shooting almost entirely on carefully mounted sets (pic was shot in Vancouver). William Hoy’s editing is fluent and measured, even when it cross-cuts rapidly in an attempt to echo the jumpiness of Gibbons’ comicbook panels.
While none of the actors leaves an indelible impression, Jackie Earl Haley‘s feral, ferrety Rorschach (narrating most of the film in gravelly voiceover) makes the most of his few unmasked appearances; Patrick Wilson is touching as a man emerging from physical and psychological impotence; and Matthew Goode is appropriately fey as the self-styled Veidt. Robert Wisden appears in a few scenes as Tricky Dick himself, complete with comically elongated nose, but doesn’t quite give Frank Langella a run for his money.
“After a victorious opening weekend, the pic’s b.o.. future looks promising but less certain.”