Well, Watchmen came out this weekend, and so we can now safely say that Billy Crudup’s CGI-enhanced blue full monty and Malin Akerman’s inimitable understanding of “acting” (apparently a mixture of reciting lines like English is your second language and posing like a crime-fighting tranny robot) have safely entered the pop-culture vernacular. I’m not entirely certain either, particularly the latter, opens any useful conversations in our cultural discourse, but at least we’ve expanded our vocabulary, y’all! And to paraphrase the great beacon of 20th century philosophical genius, Nomi Malone, Watchmen doesn’t suck, so I’ll freely admit it:
Let’s clarify, though, in that I said “not too bad.” I neglected to use words like “exceptional” or “awesome” or even (most disappointingly to me) “campalicious.” I’ve also neglected to utilize phrases like “tonally consistent” or “narratively coherent in any way that resembles a movie” because Watchmen is completely lacking in any of those qualities. Hell, Watchmen doesn’t even qualify as a movie so much as an explosion of adolescent id and existential angst moving on screen at 24-frames-per-second.
Yes, there are scenes, and when taken in the order presented in the film, these scenes seem to resemble a plot. The problem, though, is that each scene is so hyperbolically extreme in style and, when compared to scenes before and afterward, contradictory in terms of emotion and feel, that the resulting product feels schizophrenic and unhinged. Snyder dials the violence up to 11 (arms are graphically sawn off with hacksaws and punches are capable of causing compound fractures) and the sex up to ridiculous (the howlingly bad sex scene between Ackerman and Patrick Wilson is Cinemax-grade soft-core porn with a Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” providing the soundtrack and a firing of the flame-thrower on Night Owl’s jet to signal their climax; all parties involved should be thoroughly shamed for that one), yet there are also unexpected moments of beauty in this behemoth.
Take, for example, the character of Jon Osterman/Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup). His origin sequence (which, incidentally, makes excellent use of portions of Philip Glass’s Koyaanisqatsi score) is a stunner, a jolt of surrealist imagery as his body is torn asunder only to slowly reassemble from a science experiment gone wrong; as the transformation divorces him from his humanity and replaces his emotions with hyper-intellectual logic, Crudup finds ways to locate the fleeting moments of humanity in an omnipotent being. While Dr. Manhattan’s powers are depicted with graphic detail (people don’t evaporate so much as explode in a burst of gore and blue energy), at least the violence here serves some function in constructing Manhattan’s powers as truly frightful and not just comic-book cool. Moments like this remind us that Snyder is capable of intelligent filmmaking.
When he wants to.
He is also capable of staging an incredibly brutal attempted rape, though, in which the assailant that feels less about characterizing the scene’s assailant as a monster behind a mask and more about Snyder’s own lurid directorial gaze. And let’s not forget the brutal dispatching of a pedophile murder that involves repeated uses of a meat cleaver. Snyder’s clearly more invested with the literality of showing over the possibilities of suggestion, and this frequently occurs at the cost of character development and dramatic heft. So much time and attention has been spent to make Watchmen as faithful as possible to the source material that nobody seems to have ever questioned whether they were making a functional film; as a result, the emotional nuance of Watchmen‘s world-gone-terribly-wrong gets frequently buried in Snyder’s assault of over-the-top aesthetics.
All of this, however, isn’t quite a full-fledged negative criticism so much as an ample warning to anybody who has yet to see it. ‘Cos like I said, Watchmen isn’t bad either.
This is the movie that does feature Carla Gugino camping it up in a few brief scenes like she’s the lead in some bizarro Showgirls-meets-Golden-Girls mash-up, Matthew Goode plays Ozymandias as a wonderfully bitchy queen, and Jackie Earle Haley nails it as the misanthropic schizo Rorschach. The special effects are consistently excellent, particularly the apocalyptic climax. Added to all of that, the movie is an beaut to look at, even when its particularly ugly; there are Sirkian splashes of pop-color amidst the shadows and decay of of Watchmen‘s nihilistic neo-noir. Do these elements redeem Watchmen as a movie? No, but neither can you necessarily treat Watchmen as a movie.
Watchmen, for better or worse, is an experience. It’s a fever dream of a train wreck, a twelve-car pile-up of textual fidelity and hyper-violence. Everything, be it the aesthetic or the acting or the action, is dialed up so high that Watchmen feels like a high concept satire of everything presented on screen. You don’t watch Watchmen with a grain of salt: you take the entire shaker. Maybe this was Zack Snyder’s intention, his own way of deconstructing the comic book movie genre, but I strongly suspect that such genius on his part is purely accidental.
Whatever the case, Watchmen is a very particular sort of trip on the crazy train, and it’s as easy to love as it is to loathe. I can’t say I loved it, but it’s wholly a unique experience, and that’s gotta be worth something.