Friday, March 6, 2009

Costumed Loneliness

If you're reading this you probably already know that Zack Snyder's Watchmen is based on the so-called greatest graphic novel of all time, written by Allan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons. Like the book, the movie is dense, ponderous, fascinating and ultimately frustrating. It posits an alternate reality in which America "wins" the war in Vietnam thanks to Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), their ace in the hole, a physicist who accidentally blows himself up but is miraculously reborn with the power to teleport through time and space. The story is set in 1985 with Nixon as President for his fifth consecutive term. America teeters on the brink of nuclear war and the only thing preventing a Russian attack is the existence of Dr. Manhattan, the shiny blue man with the power to obliterate whole countries. At least, that is until he cracks and exiles himself to Mars.

Anyone familiar with the book will be aware that this is a superhero story for adults. In early press for the film, Snyder promised a very R-rated picture and he makes good on his promise. This is not a movie for children--which makes it all the more baffling why the couple in front of me smuggled in their two toddlers, who looked to be no more than eight years old combined. Once the film gets going, there are severed limbs, split heads, broken bones and splattered blood galore. I especially enjoyed watching the Mother ahead of me try to explain all of this to her infant son, during the graphic sex scene between Nite Owl and Silk Spectre.

The text is justifiably famous for freshly re-imagining the entire context of comic book heroism. The masked avengers known as the "Watchmen" are heroes borne out of pain and ultimately shunned by the world they vowed to protect. In their heyday they were relevant, but they have all hung up their capes now to embrace a mandatory retirement imposed by the government. All except for the demented Rorshach (Jackie Earle Hayley), the victim of a particularly cruel childhood who now enacts his rage on the guilty. Watchmen is the first comic book story to ever explicitly address the loneliness of the costumed hero. Their power is so great that there is nobody to share it with and nobody to trust. At least no one except each other. This is why the "Comedian" reaches out to his arch-nemesis Moloch, hours before his death. It is also why Dr. Manhattan, touched with the power of the gods, finds it increasingly difficult to relate to anyone on earth.

Our heroes receive a sexual charge from the costumes and personae they adopt that masks repressed depths of despair. Dan Dreiberg a.k.a. Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson), finds himself unable to "perform" in the heat of the moment with the radiant Silk Spectre (Malin Ackerman), until they agree to re-adopt their superhero alter-egos. The heroes in the film get off on their powers. They get off on the violence they inflict on the criminal element. But, when the fighting stops and they have served their larger purpose, they are painfully remote -- incapable of connecting on a meaningful human level, which in turn makes it hard for us to connect with them.

For the most part the book is artfully rendered for the screen. Snyder is a director with a uniquely fetishistic visual style that alienated me in both his Dawn of the Dead remake and the insanely popular 300. Here his overwrought visuals are largely justified by the text. His action scenes are slowed down, lingering on the spectacle of movement and carnage. His keen eye for color and composition evokes the graphics of a comic book frame, but Watchmen like his other films suffers from over-length. His hyper-stylized visuals grow repetitive and over time begin to wear thin. The movie is visually spectacular to be sure and it is consistently exciting to watch, but eventually it starts to feel like a plodding exercise in aesthetic gimmickry.

Despite being original and refreshingly contrary to genre conventions, the movie is rarely ever fun. Provocative? Yes. Eye-popping? Indeed, but the spectacle lacks focus or emphasis and the end result leaves us with a particularly unsavory aftertaste. Admittedly, the source material is equally grim and Snyder deserves credit for achieving such a credible and coherent adaptation with his writers David Hayter and Alex Tse. But, whereas the graphic novel toted a strong message of anti-violence, the big screen Watchmen uses brutality to titillate.

The action scenes offer us thrills that don't feel thrilling, because of the ugliness behind them. If I'm going to watch a cleaver driven into a criminal's head, once is my limit. Three times or more is overkill. This is the dark side of the super-hero genre. Watchmen is a movie to appreciate, but not a movie that is easy to like. It wrenches our most fearless icons from us and replaces them with fearsome, damaged, souls. I can only wonder what those poor kids thought as they were leaving the theatre asking Mom and Dad what it all meant. At least their parents got their money's worth.