Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan, in 'Watchmen'

Dir. Zack Snyder
(2009, R, 162 min)
★ ★ ½

Watchmen is gorgeous, fascinating, but ultimately unsuccessful. At 162 minutes, it’s chock-full of ideas, but doesn’t settle on any one idea for long enough to make sense of them. What results is a mash-up of conflicting philosophies — mostly bottled in the purple prose of character voice-overs and speeches — without a unifying focus.

The director is Zack Snyder, and I admit I was fully prepared to dislike this film, as I disliked his previous film 300, that brawny box office hit about Spartan warriors with abs and pectorals better developed than the characters sporting them, and hermetically sealed in green-screen effects much too faithful to the aesthetic of their source material. Watchmen is a marked improvement for the director, who shows greater maturity and emotional connection to his material, though I think lacking clarity on what his film is really about. I’m not so sure either.

The story opens with the murder of a superhero known as the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), followed by a main title sequence that made me sit up and think, maybe Snyder is on to something this time. It’s a stirring montage of revisionist 20th Century history, with superheroes taking part in crucial events, from World War II, to Vietnam, to the moon landing, and even the Kennedy assassination, accompanied by Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” on the soundtrack. It’s a terrific opener, immediately setting us up for a caped-crusader story with a sociopolitical bent. When the story picks up in the fall of 1985, Richard Nixon is in the third term of his presidency and the Cold War is on the verge of escalating into a hot one; Russia stockpiles nuclear weapons, and global annihilation seems imminent.

We meet the other superheroes, members of a crime-fighting team called the Watchmen, who have been forced into retirement by the government. Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) is violently unstable. He hides his face behind a mask stained with a continually morphing ink blot. Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) is considered the smartest man in the world and also one of the richest. He markets his own line of action figures, which seems redundant; with his stiffly coifed Ken-doll hair and rigid countenance, he’s already his own action figure.

There are two second-generation heroes. The role of Night Owl was passed down from Greatest Generation-era Hollis Mason (Stephen McHattie) to baby boomer Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson). The latter has become doughy and meek since hanging up his cape, but he hasn’t put it behind him entirely; he still keeps his equipment in his basement, including a flying vehicle shaped like an owl. The Silk Spectre persona was passed down from Sally Jupiter (Carla Gugino) to her daughter Laurie (Malin Ackerman). Despite all she has seen, Laurie still has hope for the world and serves more or less as the conscience of the film.

The most interesting of the heroes is Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), who is an utterly original creation, both visually and psychologically. Born Jon Osterman, he was a young physicist in the 1950s who was trapped during a science experiment and had his molecules ripped apart. He soon found himself reassembled in the form of a blue man who can see into the past and future and bend matter to his will. He is as close to a god as mankind has seen, and he feels so detached from humanity that at one point he leaves Earth and sets up residence on Mars. He is naked in most of his scenes, not for the purpose of gratuitous sexuality but to highlight how removed he is from human concerns like modesty or propriety. He perceives mankind from such a distance and with such scope that he cannot withstand it. He is sad and lonely. The film is at its best when the focus is on him.

Other characters — not so much. Rorschach and the Comedian are cynical nihilists, but neither persona is very interesting. Compared to other violence- and chaos-driven characters like The Dark Knight’s Joker and No Country for Old Men’s Anton Chigurh, their world views come off like so much facile bellyaching. Much more interesting is when Rorschach loses his mask and we get to know the tortured soul underneath; he is Walter Kovacs, and when not obscured by the mask actor Jackie Earle Haley is able to convey the angry, disturbed, despairing man behind all that world-is-a-cesspool posturing.

Zack Snyder should cease directing sex scenes. There is no way to segue into the subject and no way to segue out of it, but there you have it. I could go this entire review without addressing it, but this is the second consecutive film in which a Snyder-directed sex scene has inspired an unintended fit of laughter, and it demands comment. Of the Leonidas-Gorgo liaison in 300 I wrote, “… it’s absurd, like a Greek tragedy interrupted by the most pretentious film Cinemax never made.” In Watchmen is an equally preposterous encounter, between Dan and Laurie. It’s set to Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah,” shot in overwrought slow-motion, and is thoroughly ridiculous.

The film drifts during its last thirty minutes or so. The big reveal — who is targeting the former Watchmen and why? — produces a lot of exposition about the kind of convoluted crackpot scheme Lex Luther might have come up with on an off day. The ultimate solution is audacious, but it’s overly simplistic and comes to a conclusion about human nature I didn’t buy. Perhaps that is to be expected. The screenplay by David Hayter and Alex Tse, based on Alan Moore’s acclaimed graphic novel, entertains a lot of opinions about the state of the world but doesn’t express a clear opinion of its own, so by the time it reaches its endgame it’s hard to understand by what logic it got there. It’s the culmination of a film whose pieces don’t quite fit together, but in its ambition it fails in more interesting ways than most movies succeed.