Watching the Clock 

“Watchmen” has everything but meaning.

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It was a dark and stormy night in Zack Snyder's adaptation of “Watchmen.” And then it was again and again. And again.

If pounding rain in a neo-noir detective story is a clichAc, Snyder, director of “300,” hasn't heard of it. Based on what we see in his adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' sprawling mid-'80s graphic novel about Cold War paranoia in an alternate America, he hasn't heard of kitsch either. Or irony.

“Watchmen” is full of stuff common to similar films, from slow-mo battles to neo-noir clichAcs, all amped up and rock 'n' roll driven to be sexier and excitinger than any others. There's hot fornication and lengthy martial-arts fights; philosophy about the universe and attempts to fathom the modern human condition; superheroes blowing up and sitting around feeling sorry for themselves. Rain pounds nearly all of it, and so does Snyder's direction, which never misses a beat but never modulates it either.

The plot is relatively simple, about a group of aging, out-of-work superheroes looking for a murderer who has killed one of their own. But the story evolves out of the characters' histories, and the film ends up a series of flashbacks — for so long that after a while the viewer might sigh at the introduction of a new person. The result is a film that seems always about to start, always in the heightened state where most movies' introductory credits roll. Until the final moments, past the point where many began wishing for the end.

Whether Snyder is being serious or funny is anyone's guess. It's impossible to tell, for instance, when a giant Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) rises over a battlefield during the Vietnam War, if the director intended to cleverly imitate “Apocalypse Now” or believes he is the first to combine such footage with Wagner's “Ride of the Valkyries.” Maybe he just thinks it looks really far out. It does, and perhaps for this kind of movie that's good enough.

As a revision of 20th-century history, “Watchmen” re-creates former presidents and other historical figures, but turns them into outlandish cartoon versions, with no more apparent purpose than Nite-Owl's (Patrick Wilson) thrusting bare buttocks when he's doing it with Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman), in a scene of lovemaking about as tasteful (and meaningful) as the one in “Team America: World Police.”

Like Snyder's previous comic-inspired work, “300,” “Watchmen” is mostly a faithful frame-by-frame adaptation crafted with all the technical wizardry money can buy. But there's not an ounce of honest feeling behind any of it. Perhaps never before has a movie so full of everything amounted to nothing. (R) 163 min. HIIII S



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