"Watchmen" is a fitting tribute to Alan Moore's fascinating graphic novel, even if he refused to let his name be used in the movie's credits.
Zack Snyder's sprawling film stays faithful to Moore's tale, cleverly trimming and reshaping it to retain essentials. It has all the metaphysical navel-gazing, blunt social commentary and grisly mayhem of the 12-part series, but with a more fitting ending. Snyder and his writers, David Hayter and Alex Tse, have jettisoned the unseen alien commonly known as "the giant squid" for a smarter kind of menace.
They've also stayed true to the often shadowy, sometimes resplendent visual style created by novel illustrator Dave Gibbons, who did want to be put on the poster as "co-creator." Anyone but the implacable Moore or rabid completists should be satisfied. Satisfied, yet perhaps not delighted.
Snyder doesn't always let go of a scene in time, and he thinks the violence in the source material wasn't gruesome enough. (This is like complaining about low humidity in the Brazilian rain forest.) Performances range in quality from vigor to rigor, with Jackie Earle Haley's riveting Rorschach at the top and Malin Akerman's stiff Silk Spectre at the bottom.
Yet the book described as unfilmable for 20 years turns out to be anything but that. For all its blemishes, "Watchmen" finds the proper three-dimensional complement for its revered 400-page source.
The story is set in 1985, with Richard Nixon serving a fifth term as president and America on the brink of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. (The "Watchmen" series began publication in 1986, so Moore and Gibbons were imagining a current alternate universe.)
Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), a freakish superman created by a nuclear mishap, is meant to be our ultimate weapon, but he's concerned about his failing relationship with Silk Spectre (Akerman). She, meanwhile, misses her crime-fighting days as a costumed hero; all such "vigilantes" have been banned by the federal government for years.
But someone appears to be killing masked crime fighters nonetheless. The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a right-wing thug wreaking havoc for Nixon's government, has just been tossed through a skyscraper window. A hit man has narrowly missed Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), often described as the smartest man in the world. (Alas the lightweight Goode merely seems like the smartest runway model.)
So Silk Spectre, the cruelly righteous Rorschach and the mild-mannered but determined Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) investigate the assaults. They uncover a plot linked to the almost inevitable nuclear war, with enigmatic Dr. Manhattan eventually taking a hand.
Fans of the novel - I'm one - will note the absence of the pirate ship story-within-a-story (not missed here but destined for the DVD) and the subplot about the prison psychiatrist whose efforts to heal Rorschach almost drive him mad (simply not missed).
More important, Snyder and production designer Alex McDowell create a world full of details that recall the novel, from glorious vistas on Mars to a rusted sign outside an auto junkyard, "obsolete models a specialty," a joke on aging heroes. (Nixon's war room, an homage to "Dr. Strangelove," made me laugh out loud.)
Except for small misfires, such as Ozymandias' herky-jerky pet lynx, the technical credits rise to the occasion - literally so, when Nite Owl's flying machine blasts out of the river alongside his lair. The sound waves seemed to shake my seat, an overwhelming effect I appreciated.
Snyder doesn't overplay his hand with those; he's comfortable with intimate scenes as well as grandeur. His only mistake is that he doesn't fully trust his audience. When we see Rorschach pursue an enemy into a prison bathroom, we know what's going to happen; blood streaming toward us beneath the closed door undercuts the creepiness our imaginations can supply unaided.
Yet fans leaving the sneak preview were already wondering what the director may add to the DVD cut, reported to be an hour longer than this one. I hope they're wrong: Snyder has already given us the best he can provide with "Watchmen." Given the odds against him, he should stop while he's ahead.