Here we are in the worst economic crisis since the Depression, with the government expanding its power, and along comes Watchmen, a comic book-based epic about a band of avengers in a quasi-police state. This heavily promoted thriller might have been remarkably relevant.

Instead, Watchmen is one of the worst movies ever made. You cannot blame the studio for banking on the same person who directed its hugely popular picture, 300. But it suffers from the same problem. Watchmen is a horror movie without a plot—a bloody, mindless wreck.

A group of anti-heroes from the Forties provides transition to a similar group in an alternate version of the Eighties. Richard Nixon is still the President. The Cold War with Soviet Russia looms and supposedly threatens worldwide destruction. All of this set-up takes place amid a noir-ish mystery. The narrator, voiced and played by Jackie Earle Haley in the picture’s only strong performance, spins a tale about a secret plan to destroy the team (and, possibly, much more).

It’s like watching paint dry. At three hours, the clock ticks in slow, agonizing motion. For one thing, the cronies—trying to remember who’s who is a chore—are useless; they don’t do anything remotely interesting. There is radioactive Dr. Manhattan—as intelligible as the latest Obama economic plan—a woman in vinyl with bangs (someone named Malin Akerman in a pitiful performance) and a diabolical businessman (of course, businessmen are evil, here, too) in a bad, blond wig and others. They pose, do the green screen thing and spout some of the worst dialog written for the screen. But they do not matter. Not one bit.

The primary problem appears to be (since I never read what the press notes dubiously describe as “the most celebrated graphic novel of all time”) the total absence of any socio-political context. How can one become involved in the affairs of these clowns without any knowledge of who or what created and moves the murky, government-run society?

The broad theme that heroes have feet of clay plays like an endless loop of a Ron Paul speech, droning on and on and signifying nothing. Add to that a Luke/Vader subplot (complete with obligatory “Nooo!” scream) with the typical religionist Hollywood implication that abortion is the moral equivalent of mass murder. What’s left is a bad, bloated soap opera. Only in this era of post-Pulp Fiction/Sin City/No Country for Old Men blood porn could you wind up with a blood-spurting movie that sanctions rape while preaching hippie traditionalism in folk songs.

Characters are dolts. One of them (Patrick Wilson, wasted) is so dim that he doesn’t know enough to use an umbrella, chronically standing in the pouring rain, wiping his eyeglasses. This anti-intellectual character is perpetually paralyzed, whether watching a pregnant woman get mowed down by a comrade or standing by while the population of New York City is obliterated. Who’s watching the watchers? In a movie this awful, who cares?

The script is alternately tedious and laughable. The man sitting next to me was snoring and there were bursts of unintended laughter, admittedly coming from me, too. After the pregnant woman is killed, one of the Watchmen pauses, and, melodramatically and disapprovingly, declares: “she was pregnant.”

Besides multiple unexplained plot points—pointy ears, a self-induced forehead dot, a magical mask—and a character named Wally Weaver, there are such hooters as a groaning girlfriend’s line that “it’s all quantum mechanics and parallel realities with him,” and the not-so-profound observation that, facing imminent catastrophe, “everyone will die.”

With daddy issues from Star Wars, a snow beast from The Golden Compass, and the preposterousness of Hudson Hawk, Watchmen is an absurd, incomprehensible movie trimmed with cynicism, vulgarity and the most revolting sights on screen since last week’s slasher. If seeing Richard Nixon look like The Elephant Man turns you on, head for the nearest theater. Otherwise, avoid this gasp of our dying civilization like an income over $250,000.

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