Most fans know about the unreleased Fantastic Four movie that was made by Roger Corman’s New World studio, or the unaired Justice League TV pilot starring David Ogden Stiers as Martian Manhunter. There are plenty of low-quality bootleg copies floating around conventions, and you can even find them posted on Youtube.
But the one fewer people know about, the real Holy Grail for hard-core comics fans and lovers of bad film, is Ivan Reitman’s adaptation of Watchmen, produced in 1989 for Universal but never released. Jess Nevins, author of Heroes and Monsters, the definitive annotated guide to Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, has said, “Lost and unlamented, its happy ending was an abomination made worse by Dr. Manhattan’s German accent. It’s no wonder Reitman has destroyed all available copies.”
But at least one copy survived, a tape apparently made from the final answer print (a print of the finished movie made for final approval before release prints are struck). I recently got a chance to borrow a rare bootleg from a writer friend of mine. The movie looks to have been digitized from a third or fourth generation VHS tape, so the quality sucks. I apologize for the few bad screencaps.
Producer Joel Silver and Lawrence Gordon had been developing Watchmen for 20th Century Fox, and had tossed around Terry Gilliam’s name as one possible director. Through a complex series of events, the project somehow ended up in turnaround and got snapped up by Universal, who (apparently thinking the project was a comedy, perhaps because of Gilliam’s name) somehow got Ivan Reitman to take the project on the heels of Ghostbusters II, another big-budget special-effects heavy comedy. The film was rushed into production immediately, and it shows.
The opening credits set the tone, with theme music by Elmer Bernstein that sounds like Wagner crossed with Mancini–bombast with bongos. The screenplay is credited to M.D. Hans, who has never received another credit. This has led some to speculate that it’s a pseudonym, perhaps derived from the “M. Hands” and “D. Hands” pseudonyms Marvel used when comics were inked by multiple people. If so, then the true identity of the screenwriter remains unknown, though speculation has ranged from Reitman to Harold Ramis to Neal Israel and Pat Proft to Alan Moore himself (which might help explain why he has so fiercely distanced himself from film adaptations of his work ever since).
The film opens with two bumbling police detectives, played by Jeffrey Jones (Howard the Duck) and veteran character actor Dick Miller, investigating the murder of Edward Blake, who was thrown from his window to the street below. They are harassed by a crazy street person wearing a sandwich board advertising the end of the world (Kevin Bacon).
The street person returns that night as Rorschach, now wearing a trenchcoat and fedora with a scarf covering his mouth and nose which bears a Rorschach ink blot. Bacon apparently demanded the change in costume, believing that his eyes were necessary to sell the performance, and Reitman agreed. This has led to Bacon getting a pretty bad rap, but let me just say, even though he’s kind of stiff in the role, he’s still better than Reitman’s rumored first choice for the role, Bill Murray. My God, you think it’s a train wreck now? Just imagine how bad it could have been.
Rorschach discovers that Edward Blake was none other than the Comedian (Burt Reynolds, seen in flashback), a retired hero himself.
So he begins by investigating the Comedian’s arch enemy, Moloch (Dean Stockwell).
Only as he’s questioning Moloch, he is interrupted by Moloch’s daughter, Jennifer (Jami Gertz), who angrily tells him that her father couldn’t be behind it, because he has terminal cancer and is too weak to throw a man through a window. Rorschach, clearly caught by surprise at the girl’s fierce verbal assault, apologizes and leaves.
He instead begins to visit his fellow heroes, all former members of a team called the Watchmen, of which the Comedian was a member. He first visits Daniel Dreiberg, a.k.a. Nite Owl (John Cusack), and warns him that if someone knew the Comedian’s identity, then the rest of them might be in danger.
Nite Owl accompanies him to a secret military facility to see Dr. Manhattan (Arnold Schwarzenegger, still maintaining the lean look he sported for Red Heat) and his fiance Laurie Juspeczyk, the Silk Spectre (Lea Thompson). It’s apparent that Dr. Manhattan neglects Laurie, and just as apparent that Nite Owl has a secret crush on her (not so secret, given Cusack’s stuttering performance).
Rorschach then goes to see Ozymandias, the world’s smartest man (Val Kilmer). He runs into Jennifer Moloch in the lobby of Ozymandias’s building. Jennifer, determined to prove her father innocent, has been tracking a company called Pyramid Investments, which seems to be connected to Ozymandias. Rorschach suggests they work together, and though reluctant, Jennifer agrees.
Rorschach and Jennifer meet Ozymandias, who admits a link to Pyramid, but dismisses their concerns. Kilmer’s performance as Oymandias is odd, even for him. He plays Ozymandias as slightly autistic, a savant who’s so smart, he can barely deal with people at all. Ozzy mentions that Sally Jupiter, the original Silk Spectre, might hold a grudge.
Laurie and Dr. Manhattan argue at a restaurant during dinner over how he neglects her. Laurie storms out and runs into Dan Dreiberg as she’s walking home. They fight muggers and end up kissing; the only thing funnier than John Cusack’s stunt fighting is Lea Thompson’s.
Rorschach calls Dr. Manhattan to ask for Laurie, but Manhattan tells him she is with Dreiberg. Rorschach and Jennifer decide to go themselves to visit Laurie’s mother, Sally Jupiter (Shirley Maclaine, in a hilariously foul-mouthed turn). Her alibi checks out, given that she is sick and lives in a nursing home.
And it turns out that her “grudge” against the Comedian was that he was Laurie’s father and had never been a part of her life. She wouldn’t have killed him over that; she was still hoping that he would come around and accept his responsibility.
As Rorschach leaves to get the car, Sally mentions to Jennifer that she should ditch the trench-coated creep for somebody better, like Ozymandias. He’s rich and has a good heart. His Pyramid Corporation does wonderful charitable work, helping rehabilitate ex-cons.
Meanwhile, Laurie is at Dan’s apartment, where they are making out preparatory to sleeping together. Things don’t go well, and Laurie ends up deciding not to. This is one of the better scenes in the movie, where the comedy actually works as intended. Laurie tells Dan she has feelings for him, but first, she needs to try to fix her relationship with Dr. Manhattan. Dan is unhappy, but understands.
Jennifer and Rorschach return to Rorschach’s apartment, which definitely needs a woman’s touch. She convinces him to take off his mask before convincing him to take off everything else. After they have sex, Rorschach gets a phone call from Moloch, who tells him he has new information, but he needs to come alone. Don’t bring Jennifer.
When Rorschach arrives at Moloch’s apartment, he finds him dead, shot through the head. A smoking gun lies on the floor near the door, but when Rorschach picks it up, the police burst in. There’s a fight and a chase over rooftops, but eventually, Rorschach is captured and arrested.
Laurie returns to the apartment she shares with Dr. Manhattan and confesses the affair to him. He seems to have little emotional reaction to this (Schwarzenegger can play emotionless pretty well), which makes Laurie mad. When she suggests they split up, he tells her they can’t split up yet. They’re not on Mars. This non-sequitur makes her even angrier and she storms out.
Jennifer, upset that Rorschach has ditched her, returns home to find police cars and her father’s dead body being wheeled out. Meanwhile, Dan answers a frantic knock on his door to find Laurie, soaking wet from walking in the rain. She kisses him wildly and they end up in bed.
In prison, Rorschach gets a visit from Jennifer, who tells him she hates him for killing her father. As he walks back into the cell block, devastated, he is threatened by one of the crooks he put away, the diminutive Big Figure (Danny DeVito). In one of the only times an actual line from the comic is used, Rorschach tells DeVito, “I’m not locked in here with you. You’re locked in here with me!”
Dan and Laurie have been searching for exonerating evidence, but the only clue they’ve found is that both the Comedian and Moloch seem to have received payments from Pyramid. When they ask Ozymandias about this, he acts confused, like he can barely remember his own name. Something’s obviously wrong.
As they’re leaving, Dr. Manhattan appears and whisks Laurie away to Mars, where he tells her he loves her and wants her back. She finally convinces him that they are better apart, and he says he understands. Oh, and by the way, funny thing: he decided to check Moloch’s DNA to prove a theory he had about criminal tendencies being genetic. He didn’t prove the theory, but he did prove that the dead man was not Moloch. Schwarzenegger often struggles with comedy, but his delivery of the final line, “Weird, huh?” is perfect.
Laurie reappears next to Dan and tells him they have to bust Rorschach out of prison. Meanwhile, Jennifer is sitting at home, crying, when she hears a noise outside. Someone is lurking on the sidewalk across the street, in a hat and trenchcoat. She mutters, “Rorschach,” grabs a frying pan and sneaks out the back. When she gets out there, the man’s gone. Then she’s grabbed from behind.
Laurie and Dan assault the prison in Dan’s owl ship. The special effects are pretty decent for the time, not quite up to the level of Ghostbusters II, but then this was produced in a hurry with the effects farmed out to several companies. Dream Quest Images did the owl ship sequences, while Boss Film did the climactic monster. Peter Kuran’s VCE did the glow effects for Dr. Manhattan.
While Laurie and Dan assault the prison, Big Figure tries to have Rorschach killed, but Rorschach ends up beating his thugs and then giving him a swirly.
Laurie, Dan and Rorschach decide to talk to Ozymandias one last time, but find him dead in his office. A door opens and Jennifer enters, held at gunpoint by… Moloch! His cancer was faked, as well as his murder. He has been behind the entire scheme: joining the ex-con rehabilitation program to get close to Ozymandias and drug him into submission, using Pyramid’s money and Ozzy’s scientific resources to summon an alien beast that will destroy New York City, and killing the Comedian when he learned too much.
Our heroes prepare to take down Moloch, but they hear the roar of the Lovecraftian horror outside, so Dan and Laurie go out to fight it in the owl ship. Rorschach offers himself to Moloch in exchange for Jennifer’s safety, because he loves her. When Jennifer hears this, she regains her will to fight and knocks her father out.
Outside, the fight with the giant tentacled alien is not going well, when Dr. Manhattan appears. He zaps the monster with a radioactive beam that seems to set up some kind of chain reaction. The monster was actually a gigantic bomb that’s about to destroy the entire city! There’s no escape. They’ve lost.
Dr. Manhattan kisses Laurie and tells her he’ll take the monster to Mars, where it can blow up harmlessly. When Laurie begs him not to–he’ll die–he tells her he died a long time ago, only Laurie fooled him into thinking he was still alive. Now it’s time he accepted the death he’s been putting off for too long. With a tear in his eye, he teleports the monster away in a flash of light. This scene is the one most often cited as proving Schwarzenegger’s wrongness for the role, and granted, he doesn’t play it well. But it’s so cliched, I’m not sure anyone could have made it work as it was obviously intended.
Six months later, Rorschach and Nite Owl are fighting crime alongside the Silk Spectre–who is pregnant and starting to show–and Jennifer, who now wears a more form-fitting version of Rorschach’s costume and calls herself Mrs. Rorschach (because she and Rorschach are indeed married). Laurie tells Dan it’s time for her to hang up the costume and get ready to be a mother, at which Jennifer tells Rorschach she’s going to do the same thing. She’s pregnant too!
Nite Owl and Rorschach wonder where they’ll find costumes small enough for the kids as we fade out…
So overall, is the movie so bad that it should never have been released? It’s hard to say definitively. Yeah, with only a couple of exceptions, the performances and writing are below standard for pretty much everyone, and the changes to the plot of the graphic novel will enrage fans of the comic.
But if you can ignore the fact that it’s called Watchmen and watch it purely as a movie on its own terms, it’s no worse than, say, Howard the Duck or The Golden Child. Which is not a ringing endorsement, but a way to say it has a certain polish and technical expertise, comparable to a lot of the middling comedies released during the 80’s. It’s not good, but it’s far from the Worst Film of All Time.