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Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
SMOOTH AS SILK:: Malin Akerman in 'Watchmen'

Nocturnal Proclivities

Watchmen: the most divisive film since they buried Kubrick.

By Richard von Busack

IN 2009, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists' clock is set at 5 minutes to midnight; the famous graph is used to suggest how close the world is to nuclear war. Contrast this clock with another round symbol, a blood-daubed smiley face: the perfect emblem of the Reagan years.

This clock and this inanely grinning button were the twin logos Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons used in their twilight-of-the-comic-book-gods graphic novel Watchmen (1986). There's nothing aged about Watchmen's sturdy mystery plot, its questioning attitude to force or its yearning for comfort in childhood stories in the face of Armageddon. While being a first-rate adaptation of the most serious fictional graphic novel ever, the film itself is probably a new classic of science fiction, although science-fiction films that go this large don't tend to be so morally complicated.

The action is set in a parallel world, where a group of costumed vigilantes became part of our national character right before World War II. Thus begins the rise of a brutally conservative America, which exists, in 1985, under Nixon's fourth term.

The U.S./U.S.S.R. Cold War has been held in check by an American atomic Superman, an increasingly disassociative demigod known as Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup). He can burst people with a glance or crush tanks with a gesture. But now the Cold War seems ready to flare up, right after Dr. Manhattan has a public meltdown in front of ambushing TV cameras. He vanishes, leaving behind his longtime companion, Laurie (Malin Akerman), a minor former vigilante.

Less noticed among all this narrative is the brutal murder in Manhattan of a 67-year-old former CIA assassin (Jeffrey Dean Morgan); he was once a sort of arch-sadistic version of Captain America. This murder is investigated by a dogged but disordered masked man called Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), and his former partner, the movie's good cop, an essentially gentle figure who once bore the nom de guerre Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson).

Following this plot, and trimming the subplots, director Zack Snyder does a better job than anyone who saw 300 would have ever believed. The action scenes are as cleanly cut as Gibbons' panels. Snyder's real drawback is going rather too large with the violence. Yes, Rorschach's David Fincher–style moments of violence fit the story. But Nite Owl should have been the kind of character who disables villains long enough to subdue them, not the kind that cripples them for life.

As I was writing last week, there are some people who will never take a comic-book adventure seriously (which is OK, considering the silliness of what they do take seriously). Certainly Watchmen is going to be the most divisive film since they buried Stanley Kubrick. The melancholy tone matches the burnished-looking uniforms, which have the gleaming soberness of funeral urns. Even the almost lunatic lines—I caught one that was something like "On Mars, you taught me how to live"—never sound campy.

The acting doesn't fail Snyder. Wilson's dweebishness, matched with the girlish salt of Ackerman, seen through a restaurant window during a dining scene, has some of the charm of the Clark and Lois romantic scenes in Superman II. (There's a graphic tangle of limbs later on, when their alter egos have at it. This moment in bed is probably as close as Nite Owl gets to thinking of himself as larger than life.) Ackerman has a lush pin-up girl face—she looks as right in this movie haunted by the 1940s as Sean Young did in Blade Runner. But you don't want an essentially untried actress having to plead the cause for the human race, as she must at the end of the film.

Crudup, who looks like an indigo Ben Kingsley, conveys all the power and remoteness of a deity. Snyder borrows some very heavy-weight film music to sum up the accident that unsticks Dr Manhattan in time: "Pruitt-Igoe" from Philip Glass's Koyaanisqatsi. This sequence has all the poignancy that was missing from Benjamin Button.

Haley's fury and oddity is also just right for Rorschach, a character representing all the worst of a "mask" and something of the best in a man. It actually seems fair enough that the film's final sick joke is on him; he would have wanted it that way.

Against this line up, Matthew Goode's ambiguous genius figure Adrian Veidt comes in a bit wanting. Goode's similarity to comedian David Foley becomes unignorable. Perhaps the most-missed scene from the book is Veidt scanning the world's TV stations and using the data to predicting the nuclear war to come. We don't get Veidt's contemplativeness, his watchfulness.

But then there is another serious drawback to Watchmen: Snyder focuses so much on superhumanity that humanity gets the short shrift. This could have been remedied during a rescue from a burning building. But we get less onscreen than artist Gibbons had on the page. (Back in 1986, I couldn't figure out how all of those rescued people could have fit in Nite Owls' floating orb "Archie" either; maybe there should have just been a few of them here, with memorable faces?) Incidentally, I saw Watchmen in a ratty urban theater, an old palace divided up decades ago and left to slowly rot. The 9:30am screening was proceeded by a lunatic movie ad for the National Guard. It insisted that a guardsman's life was a combination of Speed Racer and Sgt. Rock. A "song" by Kid Rock belted out, claiming that Rock was a warrior "giving all of myself ... and you?" Und du? Is the way the old Nazi propaganda poster put it. So Watchmen's "relevance" was readymade, right during the inspired title sequence, establishing the limits and darkness of the parallel universe. We glimpse a girl sticking a flower into a National Guardsman's rifle during a protest. The gun goes off, leaving floating petals in the air.

Movie Times WATCHMEN (R; 163 min.), directed by Zack Snyder, written by David Hayter and Alex Tse, based on the graphic novel by Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore, photographed by Larry Fong and starring Billy Crudup and Jackie Earle Haley, plays valleywide.

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