March 05, 2009

Watchmen

Why so delirious?


Grade: B –

Director: Zack Snyder

Starring: Jackie Earle Haley, Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Patrick Wilson, and Carla Gugino

MPAA Rating: R

Running Time: 2 hours, 41 minutes

Renowned, mercurial comic book writer Alan Moore once declared that his epic graphic novel series Watchmen was unfilmable. While now a technically inaccurate statement, one gander at the long-awaited cinematic rendering of Moore’s magnum opus provides ample appreciation for the spirit behind his proclamation. Watchmen is as much a Rorschach test as the undulating inkblots that incessantly swirl across the stocking face of the story’s keynote sociopath vigilante. The film is visually arresting and thought-provoking; it is also bloated and unwieldy. Some will regard it as a cinematic work of art; others will see sheer fanboy pornography.

It must be said that the opening two scenes are brillant - and hover like an unmet promise throughout the remainder of the almost interminable 161-minute running time. First is the brutal, lyrical beating death of venerable Watchman Edward Blake, aka The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), set to Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable.” That is followed by a contextualized opening credits sequence, accompanied by Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” which chronicles the Watchmen’s origin as a group of 1940s-era crime-fighters called The Minutemen (cops who decided to mask-up like their quarry) who later become social pariahs outlawed by federal legislation but still clandestinely serving the U.S. government as jackbooted goons-for-hire with a hand in everything from the Vietnam War to the JFK assassination.

In this present-day, hyper-realistic setting, the year is 1985 and Richard Nixon, credited with victory in Southeast Asia, is serving his fifth term as president. However, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. are on the brink of atomic conflagration, a cold to hot war shift largely the consequence of a power imbalance generated by the existence of Dr. Manhattan – formerly gregarious nuclear physicist Jon Osterman (Billy Crudup) – a radiantly blueblooded, Nietzschean nude whose omnipotent powers have gradually forged a detached ambivalence towards mere mortals.

Against this backdrop, Comedian’s death convinces Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), who continues to mete out his skewed measure of justice in spite of federal law, that there is a plot afoot to kill all superheroes. He solicits the help of his former Watchmen mates, including Dr. Manhattan, his sultry yet frustrated girlfriend Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman), a retired, burned-out Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson), and Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode), one of the only Watchmen to publicly reveal his secret identity in order to capitalize on his celebrity and super-intelligence for material gain and the realization of a worldwide utopia.

By portraying its heroes as antiheroes plagued with foibles, neuroses, and god complexes, “Watchmen” is widely viewed as a deconstruction the superhero mythos. Director Zack Snyder (300) pulls no punches for the silver screen, intersplicing his sumptuous palette with buckets of blood, ultra-violence, sex, and frontal nudity. Snyder’s mostly inspired, sometimes heavy-handed soundtrack choices run from KC & The Sunshine Band to Leonard Cohen to Janis Joplin to Mozart. However, the irony is that the story employs and relies upon the very superhero archetypes it attempts to (literally and figuratively) strip bare. Indeed, we may snicker at seeing Dr. Manhattan vaporizing the Vietcong, but the spectacle is no different than when Superman and Captain America fought Adolf Hitler in their comic books during the early 1940s.

Watchmen is a phantasmagorical mind-trip, but not about the psychology of America’s pop-culture as much as psychology of America itself. On one level are the extremes of our ideological spectrum: the weirdly arch-conservative Rorschach patrols New York City’s mean streets like a deranged guardian angel, while Veidt’s abstruse liberalism makes him feel superior to those he would supposedly save. Rorschach believes in killing the guilty to save the innocent; Veidt believes it is acceptable to kill innocents to save others from the guilty.

On another level is an allegory for America’s psychic apparatus. The cigar-chomping, maniacal Comedian is our id, gleefully feeding off his own lusts as he imposes a warped, but potent brand of law and order. Dr. Manhattan is the super-ego, divorced from emotion and perhaps humanity even as he acts as the world’s father figure imposing his perception of perfection (“The Superman exists, and he is American,” Osterman’s fellow scientist famously boasts). In between is the ego, epitomized by Nite Owl as an ordinary man not blessed with superpowers but struggling to do what is right to the best of his abilities.

The problem arises when Watchmen wallows too literally in its pop psychology at the expense developing a storyline with drive and purpose. Dialogue that is profound on the page proves ponderous when spoken, whether it is Dr. Manhattan’s metaphysical musings or the narration of Rorschach’s journal that reads like the deranged rants from the serial killer’s diaries in Se7en. Snyder’s slavish, if skilled devotion to crafting a faithful adaptation shackles him to the panes of Moore’s graphic novel in the same way film versions of plays are often confined by stagy strictures. When the film visits Mars where Dr. Manhattan constructs his own fortress of solitude, or Veidt’s Antarctic lair, or even an explicit sex scene between Nite Owl and Spectre, the results feel as hermetic as Dr. Manhattan’s psyche. Psychologically speaking, Watchmen needed more Jon Osterman and less Dr. Manhattan.

Who will watch Watchmen? Undoubtedly, a great many will. Enjoying it, however, involves a matter of perspective.

Neil Morris

1 comment:

coffee said...

I had a nagging feeling throughout the movie that the they chose the wrong girl for the (younger) Silk Spectre; all the other character choices were perfect tho