These days it's easy to forget how in the 1980s nuclear annihilation felt so inevitable, even imminent. Back in 1986 when Alan Moore was writing Watchmen (which I have never read), I was at school being taught that the world's superpowers had nuclear arsenals sufficient to destroy the planet a hundred times over, and there was a good chance they would do so before I was old enough to buy beer. On my more cynical days I suspect this is why my generation is so lazy in the face of global warming: we grew up with this nuclear spectre only to have the entire problem go away seemingly by itself, overnight.
The story of Watchmen is rooted in this tale of nuclear superpowers and imminent armageddon. To me this is the movie's greatest flaw. In sticking to the original story so closely it fails to acknowledge that the human race did find a way to survive, and even the conceit of an alternate history doesn't protect the plot from being constantly informed by the fact the whole audience knows we made it through in the end, on our own, without any glowing blue men to help us.
Still, that said, the movie has a lot to recommend it. It is ambitiously nuanced, telling the stories of a group of masked vigilantes coaxed out of retirement, as they might exist outside of the convention that a costume and a mask will either turn you into a force for good or a villain intent on ruling the earth. Refreshingly it is not shaped like a traditional movie plot, allowing the stories of its characters to unfold through the course of the film. It is not a superhero movie as much as a collection of character studies spotted with occasional ultra-violence.
And ultra-violence there is. I am not particularly squeamish, but there were a few occasions during the movie where even I was wondering if perhaps some particular mutilation might have better been implied than shown. Once again, we can marvel at the amount of media attention Dr Manhattan's oft-seen large blue penis is receiving, with no mention at all of the relentless, graphic depiction of a man having his hands cut off with a circular saw.
The direction is occasionally inspired, giving a complicated plot that is obviously not built for the motion picture format room to tell its story, but more often trips over itself looking for the most obvious shot, slow-motion sequence or musical accompaniment to drive home its point.
I'd give Watchmen a reasonably solid A−. I was entertained, it made me think, I was inspired to one day get around to reading the comic books, and I'll watch it again when it comes out on Blu-Ray.