Watching the Watchmen?: Analyzing Alan Moore’s Dystopia

This is a special feature.  I don’t intend to do this often, but I have an abundance of thoughts, and they are very relevant to cinema.

So what is ‘Watchmen’?

It’s primarily a graphic novel, by British author Alan Moore.  He is considered a legend in the comic book world.  ‘Watchmen’, winner of the prestigious Hugo Award, is considered his best work.  It was released in 1986, and along with Frank Miller’s ‘The Dark Knight Returns’, dramatically changed the face of comics forever.  In the truest sense a superhero epic, it chronicles the lives of truly dysfunctional costumed vigilantes in a dystopian, alternate 1985.  A complex and innovative narrative bobs and weaves through eras and viewpoints, as the world approaches nuclear war.  The basic action-idea (central driving plot) is that someone is killing off these vigilantes, possibly to prevent them from interfering in… something.  By the time it is all over, everyone is morally challenged and forced to embrace a horrific reality, as the whole world changes.  But is it for the better?

If you happen to care, there are many plot spoilers throughout this review.

I read ‘Watchmen’, you see, out of curiosity that was piqued by the coming of Zack Snyder’s adaption to the screen.  I heard many say it was visionary, challenging, and the best graphic novel ever made.  I figured I should read it before I saw the film.

After reading it, I can guarantee that I have no desire to see the film.  Not because the film will not be enough.  It will be too much.  ‘Watchmen’ is not just a challenge of comic book clichés, but also of classic morals.  Brutality, murder, misogyny and explicit sexuality are laced throughout the work.  This only serves to undermine the wealth of philosophical and psychological depth in the story.  It comes off as cheap, gratuitous, and unnecessary.  As I stated in my review of the film ‘Jaws’, an implication is enough.  The audience does not need to experience everything the characters experience in order to sympathize with them.

‘Watchmen’ is a structural masterpiece.  If you haven’t read it, I don’t know how to describe it to you.  It’s like nothing I’ve seen before.  An excellent sense of art, symbolism, pacing, dialog… nearly everything.  It is the story, not the structure, that makes ‘Watchmen’ a failure.

Alan Moore is something of an extreme left-winger.  As such, he tends to engineer his stories (most notably “V for Vendetta”, another graphic novel-turned-film) as, well, thinly veiled propaganda.  I don’t wish to be unreasonable in suggesting this is the case.  After all, C.S. Lewis once said (I’m paraphrasing, of course) that his own views “bubbled up” into his stories.  It’s natural.  You wouldn’t be human if that didn’t happen.  Regardless of this, there is a point that you cross that makes a work more about your specific messages than the strength of the narrative.  It is a hard line to walk.  ‘Watchmen’ is strange (for Moore), in that it contains, not so much propaganda, as much as a clear agenda.  Moore’s agenda, reasonably, is to make us question the superhero genre, through an intricate set of moral dilemmas.  The problem with Moore is that he’s great at asking questions but terrible about answering them.  One could argue that this is point:  asking questions, for the sake of asking them.  In a strictly dramatic presentation, though, I find this deeply unsatisfying.  The reason we ask questions is for answers.  As it is absolutely vital that a dramatic work bring its audience to catharsis (emotional satisfaction and release), unanswered questions seem to fly directly in the face of classical dramatic structure.  I’m sure that some absolutely love ‘Watchmen’, and honestly, I can understand why.  It is very well made.

The reason I hate ‘Watchmen’ is that, well, I’m an idealist.  Essentially.  I believe that people are created in the image of a noble, wise God, with a great capacity for good.  I don’t think we are the results of a dramatic cosmic accident.  We are icons of God on Earth.  Yes, we’ve fallen far, but there is redemption through Christ.  I don’t say this to preach.  I say this to illustrate how different my philosophy is from that of Alan Moore.  I get the impression Moore doesn’t know what he believes, hence the unanswered questions.  ‘Watchmen’ reflects a distinctly fatalistic worldview.  In ‘Watchmen’, the universe is a clock without a clockmaker.  There is no greater meaning.  Morality is relative to the end that is achieved… sometimes.  Or maybe, all the time.  We are never presented with a character that grasps the end of humanity, who understands a grander meaning.  Nobody is at peace with himself.  The ending is very open to multiple possibilities, to a fault.  We’re left unsure.  Certainly, this is by design.  Depending on the story that precedes such an ending, I may not mind.  In this case I do.

The off-kilter philosophy, the brutalizing of the audience through gratuitous content, the failure of the ending to tie up loose ends, make this graphic novel, supposedly the greatest of all time, a work I regret reading.  Needless to say, I won’t be watching the ‘Watchmen’ film.  I don’t need more of Moore.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Stars:  ** out of Four

Summary:  Though excellent in almost every way, the second and third acts plummet so fast that it ruins the effect of a brilliantly played character’s curious case.

Hes not nearly this dull in the movie.  The rest of the movie is, though, so I guess its fair.

He's not nearly this dull in the movie. The rest of the movie is, though, so I guess it's fair.

Review:  For the 2008 Oscars, ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’ holds the most nominations, literally one in every category.  And for most of these, it absolutely deserves it.  The direction is phenomenal, the effects and performances pitch-perfect.

What prevents this good movie from becoming a great movie is a distinctly flawed story.

It all begins with an intriguing introduction, one so iconic that it could be used as the plot for an entire film.  That’s the story of a blind clockmaker, whose son goes off to fight in the Great War.  Tragicly, the son is killed in combat, leaving the clockmaker with one last goal.  He builds a clock for a train station in his native city of New Orleans.  When it is unveiled to the public, it ticks backwards, which causes some confusion and disappointment.  The blind clockmaker calmly explains that it represents his desire for time to work backwards, so that those who were lost so soon in the Great War could somehow return to their families.  After this unvieling, the clockmaker simply vanishes.

This story is told to us by a dying old woman named Daisy, who is lying in a hospital bed in New Orleans during the year 2006.  Attended by her daughter, Caroline, she asks of her to read an old journal aloud so Daisy can hear it before she dies.  What Caroline reads makes up the bulk of the film’s narrative.  It is the memiors of an enigmatic individual named Benjamin Button- who was, as he says, “Born under unusual circumstances”.  He has the mysterious, supernatural oddity of aging backwards.  The first third of this film, showing Benjamin’s days as an old-young man, is captivating.  This is the part of the movie worth watching, in my book.  Brad Pitt plays the vulnerable Benjamin, who remains naive and idealistic throughout his whole life.  The character he brings to the screen is amazingly well done.

Unfortunately, after Benjamin’s experiences in the Second World War, everything slows way down.  Benjamin remains as interesting as he used to be, but his character seems cheated and wasted by a story that is going in the wrong direction.  Not that the reverse aging is a problem; that’s not the issue with this story.  It is rather that the pure drama of the first act is quickly lost, traded in for a tragic romance.  It’s a shame that the romance was not captured well.

There is a lot of material in this movie. It makes it particularly hard for me to explain the problems I have with this movie.  My biggest problem is the ending, but that opens up a can-o-worms big enough for me to write a separate article about it.  I’ll probably compare its ending to another film, ‘Gran Torino’, which I felt handled itself much better and left you with a smile on your face.

I won’t discourage you from seeing this movie.  It is interesting, and quite entertaining at times.  You may like it better than I did.  To me, it shows a sort of hopelessness, which I didn’t like at all.  I think the part of the culture that ‘Benjamin Button’ reflects is a relentless, unfocused search for meaning, which eventually gives up and declares everything futile.  That’s not a good way to live.  That’s definitely not a good way to die.