The image of the doomsday clock is an apt metaphor for the film adaptation of "Watchmen" (* * out of four).
Over the course of two decades, several celebrated directors were involved with some version of the movie, from Terry Gilliam to Darren Aronofsky to Paul Greengrass.
As the film bounced from one studio to another, a host of actors, including Tom Cruise and Jude Law, expressed interest in roles. Some, including Hilary Swank and Joaquin Phoenix, signed on early but left with the change of directors. Lucky for them.
The highly anticipated "Watchmen," as directed by Zack Snyder ("300"), seems poised to self-destruct. It starts out powerfully, with a brutal but inventively offbeat action sequence, to the tune of Nat King Cole's "Unforgettable." As the story proceeds, however, it grows plodding, convoluted and forgettable.
Based on Alan Moore's cult graphic novel, Watchmen is an action-adventure mystery set in the mid-1980s, in a mythical USA, where a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union looms large. Government-controlled, costumed vigilantes are an accepted segment of society, but independent crime fighters are no longer allowed to work their magic.
When a retired masked crusader known as The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is viciously murdered, his former colleague Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) uncovers a plan to eliminate costumed heroes. As he pieces together the conspiracy, Rorschach reunites with his fellow vigilantes, known as the Watchmen, in an effort to dismantle the plot.
Only one member, Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), actually has superpowers, acquired after a science experiment went horribly wrong. He struts around buck naked, bathed in a startling shade of indigo from head to toe, resembling a radioactive and NC-17-rated member of the Blue Man Group.
There are plenty of additional distractions, including Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman), whose black-and-flesh-colored latex outfit and thigh-high boots connote dominatrix more than good-natured comic-book heroine. (Carla Gugino plays her mother, Silk Spectre.)
Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson) is a techno-geek who eventually teams up with Silk, who had been Dr. Manhattan's girl. A sex scene meant to be steamy comically recalls a Showgirls moment that is best forgotten.
Moore has famously disavowed the screen adaptation. Little wonder. For all its special-effects feats, Watchmen is a pretentious and overheated mess. Not many stories require 2½ hours to be told effectively, and this is not one of the rare few. Throughout its protracted length, an intrusive narration grates more than it elucidates.
Most disturbing is the almost sadistic quality to some of the film's violence, especially in scenes involving the killing of a little girl.
"V for Vendetta," based on another Moore graphic novel, was more intellectually stimulating and morally complex. What Watchmen does have going for it is its cinematography. If only the story were as dazzling.
In the canon of comic-book movies, it's not as campy bad as the "Batman" starring George Clooney, but nowhere near the caliber of the "Spider-Man" movies or "The Dark Knight." It may have more style, but it's only a jot more entertaining than "Catwoman."