I liked it. Some minor quibbles, some significant problems, but also some really great, gorgeous stuff, and on balance I definitely liked it. But I would not recommend this movie to anyone who isn't already seeing it this weekend, and I certainly would not recommend this to anyone who hasn't read the book. This isn't meant to be an elitist thing. I just don't know that it has anything to offer people who aren't already familiar with the story and characters.
As a companion piece to the book, it's very good, and maybe that's the best a Watchmen movie could have hoped for anyway. You've probably heard this from all corners lately, but it's true enough that it bears repeating: What makes the book so great are specifically the tangents, the action happening at the margins, the small character touches. The movie gets some of them (the McLaughlin Group; Dr. Manhattan pretty much entirely), but it would have had to be five hours longer to get them all. So it's only Watchmen readers who will get the impact of the news vendor and his best customer clutching each other, seconds before Armageddon. Or the Gunga Diner blimp's constant presence (which I did find a bit indulgent, to channel my inner Simon Cowell).
But there are some aspects to the film that are unquestionably triumphs. The opening credits sequence is a gem, achieving probably the best balance between "love letter to the fans" and "doing what a standalone movie needs to do." During the course of Bob Dylan's "Times, They Are A-Changin'," we're presented with an alternative version of history, from about 1920 onward.
It's glorious to look at too, don't you think? The Silhouette re-staging the V-J Day kiss with another woman was definitely a highlight.
The whole movie, in fact, is a visual gem, achieving the heightened feel of a superhero world without taking the easy way out and making it all look like an actual comic book. All due credit to Zack Snyder there.
More credit, also, to a trio of really fine performances by Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Haley, and Billy Crudup. Crudup gets Manhattan's otherworldly malaise exactly right, Haley actually adds notes to the Rorschach who was on the page, and Wilson is able to sell Dan as a beaten-down schlub without the benefit of prosthetics. Which, I'm not sure if you've noticed, but Patrick Wilson is kind of a handsome man. I also want to shout out Carla Gugino, who is totally gaudy and hilarious and in a completely different universe than everybody else in the movie. Which is kind of how Sally Jupiter is, so it works. Though, again, for those unfamiliar with the book, I can see her being really irritating.
As for my problems with the movie, as I said, they fall into two categories: quibbles and issues. I want to keep the quibbles seperate, because they really aren't dealbreakers and are more just the nitpicks of a fan who wants to do a bit of armchair quarterbacking.
The issues, however, are my actual, substantive problems with the movie. There is a manner of dialogue that you can get away with in a comic book (particularly a superhero comic) and it works -- broad, obvious language where everyone talks like they're in a John Wayne movie -- that just grates on a movie screen. It doesn't pervade Watchmen, but it pops up often enough to be a problem. Edward Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is a monster on the page, but on the screen, everything he says is so on-the-nose that he just becomes an exposition machine.
My other major issue was that the structure of the film hewed so closely to the book that it felt very episodic. Blake's story, followed by Rorschach's story, followed by Manhattan's story, et cetera. It gave the whole film the feel of a miniseries ... and that doesn't help dissuade from the opinion that this might have worked better as a multi-part HBO series. (Also, not to pile on with what everyone else has been saying, but Malin Akerman wasn't very good (with a neutered Laurie character), and Matthew Goode, much as I love him, was probably miscast as Ozymandias. And his accent showed up about halfway through the movie and never left.)
As for the quibbles: The fight sequences, while uniformly great and exciting, were probably too slick. At the very least, Dan and Laurie's alley fight functions as a way to remind them how exhilarating crimefighting was in the old days; it would have been nice to have that altercation take on a more old-timey feel. I also missed Hooded Justice's digusted "put on some clothes" after Sally's near-rape. Such a great, nasty bit of color. I also think we could have done without so much Nixon. He'd have been just as effective (probably more so) shrouded in shadowy long shots. The film's oppening scene could have done with, maybe, one lingering close-up on the smiley-face button rather than three. We get it, Zack, you're a fan. Similarly, while I thought 80% of the pop-song music choices were fairly inspired ("Ride of the Valkyries" and "Unforgettable," especially), I don't think there should have been so many of them. Things began to take on a Gump-style sonic wallpaper feel. Snip "The Sounds of Silence" and "All Along the Watchtower" and go from there.
My biggest quibble ends up being the least consequential one. But it drives me crazy. I had read a few weeks ago that Warner Bros. brass had passed down the order from on high that Laurie, and indeed all characters, would not be able to smoke onscreen. This was apparently a dealbreaker, because in a movie where people rape, kill, molecularly disintegrate, and break shin bones seemingly at will, smokers are just beyond the pale. Blah, blah, it's hard out there for pack of Marb Lights. Whatever. But then, imagine my dismay during the movie when I realized that one of my favorite scenes in the book, when Laurie accidentally sets off the flamethrower on Dan's owl blimp, is robbed of its greatest punchline -- Laurie hit the button with the flame on it because she was looking for the cigarette lighter. Damn you, anti-smoking mafia!
But enough quibbling, Like I said, on balance, I really liked it. Characters like Nite Owl and Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan were brought to life on celluloid, and I'm not sure if I ever quite thought that was possible. I liked the new ending (it manages to give Manhattan an even bigger stake in the story, for one thing). Billy Crudup's big, blue CGI wang didn't pull too much focus (though Patrick Wilson's butt, as always, did). And the geeks in the movie theatre only geekily applauded mid-movie a couple of times. Good stuff.
But seriously, if you're not already a fan, I probably wouldn't bother.