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Watchmen

Year: 2009
Studio: Warner Bros
Director: Zack Snyder
Producer: Deborah Snyder/Lawrence Gordon
Writer: David Hayter/Alex Tse/Save Gibbons/Alan Moore
Cast: Patrick Wilson, Malin Ackerman, Jackie Earle Hayley, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Carla Gugino, Matt Frewer
2009's most anticipated out-of-blockbuster-season film arrives, and it's time to see if Watchmen creator Alan Moore is a grumpy old sook whining about these newfangled times where they'll make a movie out of anything, or if he has the last laugh after telling everyone who'll listen in no uncertain terms what crap Zack 300 Snyder's iteration of 'the Citizen Kane of graphic novels' will be.

Turns out he's right and wrong. At least, he's less wrong than he was about V for Vendetta, the other film adaptation of his work which he vowed never to see but which was actually a great movie.

Watchmen is well executed and imagined on screen, but ironically (given the amount of reverence it obviously has for the source material), it has a terminal case of being too in love with its own sense of grandeur, every line of dialogue a world-beating platitude, every action a supreme sacrifice or character-defining moment. Although the running time does a good job of jamming in so many backstories and in-the-moment action - introducing almost every main character via a flashback or memory sequence - at two and a half hours the constant grandstanding is exhausting.

It's the story of a troupe of retired masked superheroes in an alternate 1985 when Nixon is still in the White House and the nuclear annihilation of the Cold War is closer than it ever was in real life. When one of their number is murdered, another former member goes on the trail of the killer, trying to recruit his former team mates, convinced more than a simple murderer is afoot.

Much like saying Pulp Fiction is about a morning in the life of LA gangsters however, that doesn't even begin to cover such a multifaceted plot and cast of characters. In fact, some of it you'll find confusing if you're coming to Watchmen with no knowledge of the comic series or the cult following it enjoys. For example, it's about how superheroes that enjoyed their heyday in the pre and post war years are now outlawed, but you'd have to be concentrating to get that from the film.

While there's a lot here, far too much is left out - what exactly is the electric Dr Manhattan (Billy Crudup) and what was the accident that created him? And are we supposed to be in a magical fantasyland, as Rorschach's (Jackie Earl Hayley) mask shifts and moves like a living Rorschach test, or one beholden to the laws of physics and nature we know?

And what exactly are we supposed to think about The Comedian, a superhero responsible for killing Kennedy, bashing a female teammate and attempting to rape her and gunning down a Vietnamese girl bearing his child? Somewhere deep inside here is a subtext that there's no black and white, that sometimes heroes are bad people, but as a movie it's ten years too late and countless other superhero films have said so in a much less ham-fisted way. When you discover what The Comedian's done in his life, you're glad he's the murder victim in the opening frames and it renders the whole rest of the movie somewhat redundant.

Snyder takes a nice approach with some beautiful filmmaking techniques and an interesting approach in particular to the music, with Simon and Garfunkel's Sounds of Silence and Bob Dylan's The Times They Are a Changing both on the soundtrack. But being a Hollywood movie, the effects budget is amply catered for and it's all about the spectacle. While aspects like Dr Manhattan are amazingly lifelike, some of the CGI is tired and flabby looking.

After some 20 years and a string of directors, writers, drafts and stars attached, Watchmen was one of Hollywood's great unfilmed projects. In this case however, Moore was mostly right, and if we had to wait this long for this, maybe it should have fermented in development hell a bit longer.

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