Monday 9 March 2009

Watchmen (2009)

Watchmen, a confused and gruesome film, is disturbing in several ways. Disturbing because of the gratuitous carnage, which seems visibly intent on pushing the envelope of what is acceptable violence in a mainstream film. Disturbing because it is considered a mainstream film, yet it seems to be advancing a sort of twisted Nietzsche-inspired misanthropic nihilism found more commonly in counter culture's dark side. And disturbing because, while we couldn't make sense of it and we found it pretty immoral as a film (sorry, but the needless cannibalism of children was just ridiculous and awful), we still found ourselves admiring some scenes and wanting to give it a chance.

Some critics, like Manohla Dargis on her review of Oldboy or Roger Ebert on his review of Caligula, get all moralistic on films. And usually the PPCC dismissively snorts when we read such reviews: "Tut, tut," we think. "Cinema is an art form, not a spiritual practice!" It's all make-believe anyway, so what's the problem? But then there are some films which challenge this notion, because they advance troubling ideas (e.g. the beautifully-made Jab Jab Phool Khile which advances a Luddite, sexist message) or because they were made in troubling circumstances (e.g. the stuntman's death during the famed chariot race scene in Ben Hur, which, according to the urban legend, was kept in the final release). Watchmen is neither of these things - mostly because (1) we couldn't figure out what, exactly, it was trying to say, and (2) as far as we know, no one was hurt in the making of the film.

Purportedly about the lives and times of a group of (very) morally ambiguous superheroes during an alternative 1985 in New York City, it is a bloated murder mystery following two ex-superheroes, the aging, nerdy Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson) and the cryptic Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), as they attempt to discover who killed their former colleague, The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). The solution to the mystery - when we found out who killed him and why - advances the film's only straightforward philosophical message: that sometimes you need to kill millions in order to save billions. Uh... what? So much for the entire history of moral philosophy and welfare economics! A.O. Scott of the New York Times confirms our general feelings about that (as usual):
"This idea is sickening but also, finally, unpersuasive, because it is rooted in a view of human behavior that is fundamentally immature, self-pitying and sentimental."

Right on.

But surely, we thought, this film is about more than just that. After all, weaving into the main mystery narrative are a series of increasingly disturbing and odd back stories for each superhero, the most interesting of which are The Comedian himself and Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup). The most fascinating and weird aspects of these back stories are the ways in which they seem to be a criticism of American imperialism and the Nietzschean American "Superhero". Superheroics (lower case s) are a particularly American cultural art form - the idea of non-divine mortals with superpowers who engage in vigilante justice - and this film isn't the first time we've seen modern American culture criticized via its obsession with superheroics (see The Incredibles). Yet while The Incredibles was, well, a children's movie and so obviously a lot more positive and politically inoffensive (and also, ironically, a lot more philosophically coherent), Watchmen tackles the darkest side of American culture: its triumphalism, imperialism, militarism. Even its conspiracy theories! That is, there are incredibly troubling scenes - such as when an enormous Dr. Manhattan (this film's most obvious Superhero in the Nietzschean "beyond good and evil" sense and superhero in the "I have superpowers" sense) marches through the Vietnamese countryside, using his cosmic death ray to make the fleeing Vietcong soldiers explode into fireworks of gore (to Ride of the Valkyries, no less!); or when the assassination of JFK (similarly disgustingly detailed, in all its gore) pulls back to reveal The Comedian as the assassin. These scenes seemed to intimate at a direct criticism of the Pax Americana: showing that, in a world where military interventions run rampant (ahem, ahem), only a nuclear dystopia can result. (And this is a mainstream American film?!) There's a wonderfully surreal scene where The Comedian disperses a mob of rioting hippies by firing a bazooka at them and, at the shocked dismay of Nite Owl II, he declares himself "the American ideal!"

Superhero man says: "Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds." (Meanwhile superhero girl had nothing to do. Sigh. As usual.)

It is this subplot that is the most interesting, aesthetically and philosophically, and we wish they had kept focus on the frightening figures of The Comedian and Dr. Manhattan. The mystery and its final, silly climax was just a waste of time. And our criticism of the violence extends to this as well: as disgusting and awful as it was to watch the scenes in Vietnam or the riots, it still drove home an important point (i.e. the brutality of the Pax Americana, and how it's hidden from the mainstream American public). The violence during the murder mystery - that is, scenes such as Rorschach's backstory or time in prison - was needless, its only clear aim being to show us how "hardcore" Rorschach was.

The most inspired scene - and a good example of "well-used" violence in film - was the transformation of Dr. Manhattan. With background music reminiscent of haunting Philip Glass and a dispassionate voice-over from Dr. Manhattan, we watch the stereotypical "scientist becomes inadvertent test subject of his own crazy theories" scene. Except since this time it's about building the atom bomb - that is, the Manhattan Project - it is very affecting to watch his violent transformation into a Superhero "beyond good and evil". After Dr. Manhattan is literally pulled apart by the nuclear energy, he gains a radically new perspective of reality - completely informed by quantum physics - where time is truly relative. This has troubling moral consequences, as Dr. Manhattan watches himself grow further and further away from humanity as he can no longer relate to human perceptions. (Hmm, a criticism of Oppenheimer?) As this happens, he begins to lose sight of morality. (For example, a follow-up scene where The Comedian kills a pregnant Vietnamese woman and Dr. Manhattan kills the witnesses who are about to attack them. When Dr. Manhattan confronts The Comedian, appalled at what has happened, the latter asks why he made the witnesses explode rather than their guns.)

Overall: too violent, too long, too unfocused and too grim. This could have been a great, troubling film, and instead it's just troubling.


Abhi said...

"...advances the film's only straightforward philosophical message: that sometimes you need to kill millions in order to save billions."
I did not get that vibe from the movie. Every one is clearly appalled by it except Ozymandis himself and Dr. Manhattan , who is , in my opinion, seeing it as a quantitative reality rather than moralistic right or wrong. What the book and movie does peddle here, for me, is the notion of powerful people deciding what is good for humankind and we have no option but just see it happening. As it is right now. It raises a question mark rather than give us a certainty that the end was the right thing to do. The end is nihilistic.

a ppcc representative said...

Abhi - Very good point! I think you're right, in that I don't think the movie is endorsing Ozymandis but it's probably just showing us the inevitability of it (and the eroding destructiveness of power, it seems, which would fit in nicely with all of The Comedian's behaviors). I don't think the film shows this neutral stance as well as it could, though, as I was just bewildered and annoyed by the final scene. And it seems like the only one "on our side" - meaning the only one who really condemns Ozy/Manh - was Rorschach, who was such an extremist/absolutist as well!

Just to say again: I quite like talking about this movie and think it had some really interesting ideas... I just wish it didn't make me feel so gross! Too violent!

Abhi said...

PPCC - Yeah , I can understand how someone not familiar with the book might see the movie as endorsing the end. It would be interesting to see what others, who have not read the literature, think of the end. If its the same then I guess the movie fails to depict it in the best possible way.
As for Rorschach, remember that we are talking about an event which has already occurred. Only Rorschach can condemn it as he is an absolutist and that's the irony. Others, would by their nature find a way to live with it or at least take the next best option as we in real life do.

Anonymous said...

Why would Dr. Manhattan choose to come back? Doesn't make sense imo.
Always bothered me. Maybe Moore wanted a God figure to witness the end. Or something.

ajnabi said...

I think my main complaint is a whole lot more shallow, i.e. overuse of a CGI appendage. That is all.

a ppcc representative said...

Abhi - I am definitely curious about the graphic novel now, especially since most of the critical reaction has been that it was "too faithful" an adaptation and/or isn't timely anymore.

BhajiBhaat - I agree: that was one of the weakest parts of the story. But the whole murder mystery/world destruction thing didn't work for me. As I said, I would have preferred a more in depth look at The Comedian and Dr. Manhattan's past.

ajnabi - LOL! As distracted as I was by it, I was actually quite pleased to FINALLY see some unembarrassed male nudity in American cinema - which has always been so dominated by female exposure and then prudish about the male form.

PC said...

The ending does indeed raise questions, and I think we're supposed to be bewildered. As is pointed out above, it's the right-wing extremists (Comedian and Rorschach) that turn out to be mankind's last spokesmen - something they're willing to (and do) die for. While the righteous thinking liberals (Nightowl and Silk Spectre) silently accept Ozymandias' act, thus betraying us.

A reversal of preconceptions that might be difficult for some to stomach. Despite it hardly being unlikely.

(Abhi: Yes, the events have already happened, but it is the surviving characters' refusal or willingness to keep quiet about it afterwards that will either damn or save them).

PPPC representative: Do read the book. I personally found the film to be an acceptable adaptation of an exceptional work; I can relate to why Alan Moore had his name removed from the credits. (He always does that though).

eliza bennet said...

The actor who played Roscharch and Nightowl II were the best among the bunch and everytime I saw the Comedian I thought of "Danny" (a not favorite character from Grey's Anatomy) and "poor man's Robert Downey Jr."

The film was visually pleasing, I like tidy cinematography and also agree with PPCC on Dr.Manhattan's physique, just the fact that it was there is a pleasant change from the usual.

I have sensed a certain adolescent showiness that put a light cloud over my viewing and stopped me from giving it much thought. Reading the replies here I agree with PC's. (It was also interesting how The Comedian acquitted himself from his war crimes, simply by saying to himself that "it was war")

a ppcc representative said...

PC - Hmm, I didn't identify The Comedian/Rorschach with the political right, nor Nite Owl/Silk Spectre with the left, but perhaps that's in the book. Similarly, I don't follow how right-wing extremists should be more humanist than righteous thinking liberals - history has certainly showed us that both sides of the political divide can become destructive and nihilistic in the extremes (Italy being a good case study with 1930s Fascism and 1970s Red Brigades). But perhaps the argument for that is also made in the book, which, yes, I am curious to read now. Thanks for the comment!

eliza bennet - There were a lot of really impressive things about this film - I really wish that it hadn't been so gratuitously violent in those silly Rorschach-kicks-ass scenes. "Adolescent showiness" indeed! (I also could have done without Rorschach's "Bat voice".) Agreed that The Comedian was like the bulkier evil twin of Robert Downey Jr.!

PC said...

I agree that both sides can, and sometimes do, turn extremist. My point is that the left/liberals/righteous thinkers to a larger extent have a tendency to look at themselves as more humanistic than their counterpart. I'm thinking Moore might have wanted to debunk that.

While the characters are nuanced and complex enough to avoid stereotyping, I had no problem discerning which side of the (traditional) political divide I'd place them. That might be my take though, there's not necessarily anything in the book (which to be fair, I haven't read in a good few years) to strengthen the argument.

Anonymous said...

Argh, I only read the first para and the last because I'm waiting to go see it once I'm sure the fanboys won't drown me when I go, but - OH NO! You don't like it?!

Between you and Roger Ebert (he liked it so much, he wrote TWO posts on it), I don't know what to think.

Matt C said...

That's not just music reminiscent of Philip Glass, that was actually "Prophecies" from Glass's Koyaanisqatsi!