Director: Zack Snyder
Starring: Malin Ackerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Jackie Earle Haley
3.5 stars (out of five)

Watchmen, the holy grail of comic book movies. Not only have reverent fans of the Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons opus either passionately longed for or absolutely dreaded a film adaptation, it also seems to be of high interest to the general public. Weekend box office will tell that tale). but this seems to be the first comic book movie to make a real general-public splash that’s not based on a household-name character. Maybe it’s just that from the trailers alone — hell, from the posters alone — you can tell it’s not going to suck as much as Ghost Rider.

Also, it’s dark, moody, urban and sexy. That’s not a failing formula.

But is the damn thing — all two hours and forty minutes of it, any good?

Fans of the source material will be awed at how slavishly Snyder recreates the comic, from panel setups and dialogue to seemingly offhand background details, to dead-on casting and makeup. He trims judiciously, preserving as much of two stunning chapters (the origins of street-level sociopath Rorschach and nuclear god Dr. Manhattan) as the film needs. If you like the comic, it’s hard to not like the look of the film (make your own call on the revamped ending).

But for the civilian, then, what to say? It’s a good movie that misses greatness. For one thing, the story involves decades of alternate history, and the story is so dense and complex that if you haven’t already read the graphic novel, it’s hard to follow. Worse, the thing is just so cold. The movie, like the comic, is artfully structured, but in a way that distances the audience. This and the somber mood of sadness and failure that haunts our entry characters, former heroes Dan and Laurie, make it hard to really feel the story in your gut, to thrill to what’s on the screen.

In retrospect, I think the comic, with its complex thematic layers, narrative density and distancing formal structure was also a fairly cold, uninvolving piece of work, overall. But with the comic, the immersive experience is better. The story unfolds in your head, and you bring life to the characters. Movie-watching is a more passive experience, so the filmmakers have to work harder to bring the viewer in.

But, christ, this thing looks great. There are a lot of fine small moments, including almost every time Jackie Earle Haley gets to play Rorschach without the mask. Is the film weirdly unemotional? Is it long? Did they change the ending? Does Alan Moore wash his hands of the whole goddamned thing? Yes to all, but see it anyway.

See it to watch a beloved novel come to life, or see it to drown yourself in a dense and visually stunning world. Admire that, if you can keep up with complex alternate world being built before your eyes, the story moves — 2:40 rarely feels so fast, and keeps you so engrossed. Benjamin Button sure as hell didn’t.

I never would’ve thought that a movie even half this good could be made out of Watchmen. The book is an even more rewarding experience, and if you can read it before you see the film, you’ll get the best version up front, and a lot more insight into this cooly beautiful production.