Watchmen, opening Friday, is a masterpiece of alienation. For a beautiful two hours and forty minutes, people freak out about nuclear holocaust - and you're hard-pressed to care. I suspect that's the point. Spoiler alert!
A slight digression: Around 1993, I was taking a lot of international relations classes, taught in some cases by actual analysts with the CIA, the Pentagon and the State Dept. And the thing my fellow students and I kept asking was, "Was everybody out of their mind?" Recounting the whole crazy history of the Cold War, all the misjudgments and myths that were accepted as facts, it seemed like everyone had been living in a dream. And this was only a handful of years after the Berlin Wall fell. I'd even visited the USSR, in 1991.
And yet, the Cold War might as well have been the middle ages - it was incomprehensible that we'd been that close to destroying ourselves, for so long, over faulty intel, clashing ideologies and heaps of paranoia.
I bring this up because that feeling of alienation from the Cold War, that I and my fellow students felt in 1993, came back to me strongly while watching Watchmen. And I think the movie evokes that feeling semi-consciously, even as it sabotages any possibility of compelling story-telling.
As almost anyone reading this knows, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons published Watchmen back in 1985, and it revolutionized superhero comics forever. I re-read a chunk of my copy the other night, and had to force myself to stop reading and get to sleep. Even 24 years later, the graphic novel sizzles with narrative energy, and the characters crawl into your head and poke the inside of your skull.
In the movie, as in the comic, it's an alternate version of 1985, where superheroes are real. As a result, the U.S. won the Vietnam War, and Richard Nixon won reelection - several times. He's in his fifth term in 1985, and meanwhile masked vigilantes have been outlawed. Now, as the world creeps closer to the spectre of nuclear war, someone is getting costumed heroes out of the way - starting with the biggest bastard of them all, the Comedian. The second biggest bastard, Rorschach, is determined to investigate, but the trail leads him to a mind-bogglingly huge conspiracy.
The movie version of Watchmen has a Herculean task: It has to sell us on this alternate history of the United States. It has to introduce us to these deeply flawed superhero characters - with their flaws highlighted - and yet somehow make us care about them. And it has to do something the graphic novel did not: put us in the mid-1980s "mutually assured destruction" mindset. You can see the film laboring valiantly to do all of these things, but especially the last. There are many, many conversations about nuclear destruction in this movie, especially towards the end.
And yet, the movie seems to suggest that maybe we shouldn't care about the possibility of nuclear holocaust after all. We hear this viewpoint a lot from the Dr. Manhattan, the detached scientist-turned-blue-god, but all of the movie's characters express a form of nihilism one way or another. Humans, we're told, are venal and self-destructive, and utterly doomed. Our existence (as the Comedian puts it) is a joke, and we're all crazy.
That's the weird thing about Watchmen, the film. After a couple of decades since the Berlin Wall, and years of superhero movies, a guy wearing an inkblot mask to beat up criminals seems more sane than Mutually Assured Destruction. We understand superheroes and costumed asskickers, but we no longer understand Henry Kissinger. The film struggles with this - and winds up showing how both superhero violence and Robert McNamara-style brinksmanship are insane and pointlessly destructive. They're both expressions of the same ego-driven narcissistic world-saving project.
And maybe that's why the film feels so empty, even as it serves up amazing visuals and trippy ideas. A lot of the film is stunning to look at, and the many of the most audacious ideas from Moore's writing are there, front and center, without any dilution. Dr. Manhattan's crazy physics talk, the Comedian's brutality and jolly misogyny, Rorschach's ravings... it's all in there. And I kept being startled, over and over again, by how much of this stuff is still just as batshit 24 years later, and how amazing it is that Snyder put it into a movie.
Seriously, just try to imagine a movie featuring half as many insane ideas and clever touches as this film packs in, a movie with a physicist who becomes blue, bald, naked and aware of the unity of past, present and future. A movie where sociopaths carry a lot of the narrative. A movie where Nixon and Kissinger are like a Greek chorus to the crazy action. I knew all this stuff was in the movie, but I still kept getting amazed when I saw it. And a lot of it works amazingly well, in large part thanks to Snyder's vivid eye.
And yet... instead of feeling immediate and in-your-face, all of this brilliant stuff feels like it's happening a million miles away, to people you heard of a long time ago. It really is true that Watchmen feels stiff, and dead, especially after the brash first half hour or so.
Sadly, most of the performances in the film left me cold - with two notable exceptions. Whenever Jackie Earle Haley (Rorschach) or Jeffrey Dean Morgan (The Comedian) are on screen, the movie wakes up and suddenly becomes ferociously watchable. The rest of the time, it flatlines. Malin Akerman, in particular, is mannequin-esque as Laurie Juspeczyk/Silk Spectre II, and fails to sell her character's crucial arc in coming to terms with her parents. But Matthew Goode is also dull as Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias, and Patrick Wilson seems too a little too aw-shucks as Nite Owl.
I know Zack Snyder is capable of making me care about a narrative, because I was totally pulled in to his previous film, 300, despite my misgivings. I ended up totally rooting for Leonidas and cheering for his rampage. So the absence of emotional engagement, here, feels almost like a deliberate choice on his part.
Snyder, meanwhile, is obsessed with creating beautiful tableaux... and then lingering on them. Almost every shot of the movie is a still life, with the camera either stationary or panning slowly. Either because Snyder has succeeded in duplicating a panel from the comic, or because he's managed to create a lovely set of images on his own, he wants to show off each moment. (This is what DVDs and pause buttons are for, honestly.) The movie's many fight sequences, meanwhile, feel a bit endless and borrow a lot from the first Matrix stylistically. The comic-panel-on-screen motif that worked so well in Sin City is in full effect, and it's absolutely gorgeous but feels leaden this time around.
(I think this movie will be fantastic if you watch it on DVD with the sound muted, and put on some classic rock. Actually, that's another problem with the film — it sounds like a minor complaint, but the soundtrack is a little too heavily weighted to 60s folk-rock. I know the graphic novel quotes Bob Dylan a couple times, but it also quotes Elvis Costello, who would have been a welcome presence.)
But it's really in the last 45 minutes that the film uninvites the audience to care. Around the time that Rorschach triumphs over his great challenge in the film, and Dr. Manhattan is trying to decide whether to abandon the human race to its fate - I'm being deliberately a bit vague - the film descends into talkiness. I'm not one of those people who holds the graphic novel sacred, but when the movie cuts out Moore's crowning absurdity from the comic, there's nothing to take its place but jargon and blather. The movie's final act is all about abstractions. Much like Cold War statesmanship, actually.
Snyder has insisted that even though his Watchmen movie is about an alternate 1985, it's commenting, subtly, on what's happening in the world today. And thinking about it, I think I can see what he means. Once you realize that the Cold War and the domino theory and all that other stuff was just a mass hallucination, you start to question our current paranoias, like the War on Terror.
I'm going to be pondering this movie for years, and trying to figure out how a film can be so visually compelling, so conceptually ambitious, and so true to one of the greatest pieces of art of our lifetimes... and yet, feel so deathly dull.
For now, though, I suspect it's really one of those instances where style and substance collide. Snyder has made the ultimate nihilistic movie, in which you stare into nothingness... and feel nothing. It's a movie everyone should see - including people who haven't read the graphic novel - but I'm not sure you'll actually enjoy it.