Reviewing John Podhoretz, movie critic for the Weekly Standard.

Note – this review contains spoilers for Watchmen (the comic and movie), J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek, and Rachel Getting Married.

Watchmen – “a classic in the annals of commie claptrap”

Both comic and movie conclude with one seemingly evil superhero named Ozymandias (un peu pretentious, non?) arranging for the destruction of 25 million American lives and pinning the blame on another superhero named Dr. Manhattan. Only it turns out that the massive death Ozymandias inflicts is entirely justified because it instantly brings about peace with the Soviet Union. Russia has, you see, felt terribly threatened by the antics of the totalitarian American president Nixon, but now unites with him against the wrongly accused Dr. Manhattan. The good doctor, in turn, decides to keep quiet for the sake of the glorious world peace that has descended on the Earth, and blasts off to another galaxy where he can be a god.

(Apparently Podhoretz didn’t devote much attention to his research, because he failed to notice that in Alan Moore’s comic book, Ozymandias doesn’t pin the blame on Dr. Manhattan but on a giant extradimensional telepathic squid. But that’s a quibble.)

Podhoretz has a point. The main flaw of Watchmen – comic and movie – is the absurd ending. The Soviet Union and United States are in a tense nuclear standoff. President Nixon is in the War Room, his finger poised over the button. Is Ozymandias’ sneak attack more likely to A) cause peace to instantaneously break out, or B) make Nixon or his Russian counterpart freak out and launch an attack? A lot of nerds have complained about the absence of the squid, but the movie actually makes a bit more sense than the comic book – by destroying cities around the world, rather than singling out New York, Ozymandias is less likely to provoke a reflexive American retaliation. Still, Moore’s underlying premise that the Cold War combatants can be “scared straight” is dopey.

I’d guess the all-powerful Dr. Manhattan was intended as an allegory for Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative. In the mid-80s it was plausible to worry that Reagan’s pipe dream would upset the international balance-of-power, antagonise the Soviets, and make nuclear war more likely. With hindsight, whether or not you credit Reagan’s tough talk with accelerating the collapse of communism, he certainly wasn’t the harbinger of apocalypse that his critics feared. As Podhoretz says, the Soviet regime “was already so decayed by its own evil that it collapsed only six years after Watchmen was published.” Whatever his merits as a dramatist – and I think they’re considerable – Alan Moore is no prophet.*

Star Trek – “a mess, and a disgraceful mess at that”

A gigantic alien spaceship from the future decides to rewrite history to its liking. That changes the past, but nobody seems all that interested in going back and fixing things, which is what would have happened on the show. Instead, we are asked to accept that a planet well known in Star Trek lore can be destroyed at a cost of six billion lives, and the event is simply accepted. Instead, Abrams and company also devise a deus ex machina in the form of one of the show’s most beloved characters. He won’t do anything to fix things, either, except try to turn young Kirk and young Spock into friends.

Podhoretz is being inconsistent. He writes, “Without the plot discipline that requires a time-travel scenario to leave the past as it was, the whole business just becomes a Rube Goldberg machine, with characters simply jumping backward whenever they want to make the present-day reality more appealing to them.” Then he complains because the characters don’t jump backward to make their present-day reality more appealing by preventing the destruction of Vulcan. His thinking on time-travel storytelling, in other words, is as paradoxical as the time-travel storytelling he complains about.

I think he’s just pissed off because the writers destroyed Vulcan. It pisses me off too. Not because I think the new Star Trek should adhere to the mythology established in the original series, but because it was done so fucking casually. This is six billion deaths we’re talking about. The tragedy is too enormous to be contained in a frivolous action movie.

Having the Enterprise hurdle back through a wormhole and arrive in the nick of time to save Vulcan would have been a cheap trick, and it would have stretched the movie’s already implausible storyline well past the breaking point. But on the other hand – why destroy Vulcan? What’s the point of it? As a plot device, its sole purpose is to make Spock emotionally unstable, allowing Kirk to wrest the captaincy of the Enterprise from him. You could have achieved the same effect by having the bad guy merely kill Spock’s mother. The extra six billion deaths are superfluous. This offhand genocide throws the whole movie out of whack. There’s something rotten about it.

Rachel Getting Married – “a sickly sweet multi-culti gravy”

There is so much smiling and beaming and back-slapping and haw-hawing and crying and sitar-strumming that it seems less like a wedding and more like an orthodontist convention. [Director Jonathan] Demme foolishly means us to take all of it at face value, to revel in the wonder of it all, in a spirit entirely divorced from the complexity and sophistication with which [writer Jenny] Lumet has offered her stunning depiction of a family damaged beyond repair by the costs of Kym’s addictions – and the agonizing vitality of Hathaway’s etched-in-acid portrait of a deservedly unquiet soul.

I know what Podhoretz is getting at (although I wonder exactly what kind of orthodontist he goes to). But I think it’s possible that Demme was deliberately juxtaposing the squishiness of the wedding party, a gratingly perfect “portrait of cross-cultural and cross-color harmony”, with the cynical energy of Anne Hathaway’s character. As self-absorbed, deceitful, and often unlikable as Kym is, I found myself increasingly in her corner, rolling my eyes with her at the nicey-niceyness of her family and inlaws-to-be. If the affair had been a more realistic bitchfest, full of strained silence and repressed hostility, then Kym wouldn’t have been much of a character – she would merely have been the most nightmarish attendee at a nightmarish celebration. She wins our interest, and our sympathy, by being the only human in a house full of grinning, sitar-strumming pod people.

M.

* In 2006 I wrote of another Alan Moore adaptation, V For Vendetta, that it takes place in “a world where officials murder innocents at will, where the media are complicit in spreading lies, where citizens submit docilely before a conspiracy so vast and impenetrable that it can’t be fought through elections or rallies or writing petitions, but only through blowing stuff up. This isn’t exactly our world. But we are meant to understand that it is our world.”

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