Zack Snyder's 'Watchmen' is a gruesome, poetic masterpiece.

Zack Snyder's "Watchmen" is a gruesome, poetic masterpiece. It works on our emotions like a strange and symbolic nightmare. I may not fully comprehend its allegorical meaning, but I know that it moved me deeply.

The story is propelled by an uncanny sense of gathering doom. Without revealing too much, I will say that it involves a plot to annihilate a decent percentage of the human race in the name of a morally dubious Greater Good. Although the heroes of "Watchmen" eventually confront the usual villain-in-their-midst, the real villain is humanity's impulse for self-destruction. The film reminds us that art need not be comforting for it to be beautiful.

Much of its power derives from the psychological complexity of its heroes, played with relentless sincerity by a host of reliable actors. Malin Akerman brings a blend of feistiness and vulnerability to the role of Silk Spectre. Patrick Wilson does a fine job of balancing Nite Owl's strength with his sensitivity. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is sufficiently vile as Comedian, a smirking sadist who seems to relish the idea of a world standing on the brink of obliteration. Matthew Goode is creepy and cunning as the Aryan super-man Ozymandias. And Billy Crudup has perhaps the most challenging role as Jon Osterman, a scientist-turned-quantum-being known as Dr. Manhattan.

The crucial performance, however, is by Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach. A lonely, damaged man who has internalized his society's ills, Rorschach holds a merciless worldview that compels him to carry out unsavory deeds in the name of social justice. He is the classic hard-bitten antihero, his cynicism masking a reluctant idealism. In the scene depicting Rorschach's "origin," he decides to butcher an unrepentant child-murderer. We sense that on some level he is exacting personal retribution.

Rorschach is the embodiment of his sick society. Haley's performance is savage and sad, and he is fascinating to watch.

The film succeeds on its own terms, independent of Alan Moore's beloved graphic novel — though, to be fair, reading the novel beforehand did enhance my enjoyment of the film. Screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse have wisely trimmed the subplots and meta-narratives that most fans suspect wouldn't work on film (like the comic-within-a-comic).

In some respects, the film actually improves on Moore's vision. For example, the film's choice for the "common enemy" to unite the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. at the end is a bit cleverer and more poignant than the novel's pretend alien invasion. And some dialogue has been added that is so perfect we wonder why Moore didn't write it himself. I'm thinking of Sally Jupiter (Carla Gugino) explaining why she cannot hate Comedian, even after he tried to rape her. Gugino's final scene is brief and touching.

"Watchmen" held me in awe. Naturally, the special effects and Larry Fong's cinematography are superb. Snyder and his crew have fashioned a haunting spectacle that retains the novel's bleakness, its pathos, and its dark humor. I recoiled on occasion from the level of anatomic carnage, but even the film's most violent scenes possess a kind of morbid grandeur.

Moore's allegory doesn't adopt a clear-cut position on something so unthinkable as the end of the world, but it raises some provocative questions. If the end of civilization is nigh, of what use is a costumed hero?

One of the Watchmen's dilemmas is that their attempts to save mankind from itself may finally amount to spot-treatment. Meanwhile, the larger problem of the human condition remains in place, namely, our apparent love affair with death and destruction. If humanity's salvation is indeed a lost cause, then to be heroes of any kind begins to seem like an exercise in futility. Their exploits feel like last-minute scrambles to accomplish something noble before nuclear war renders them obsolete. But should they act nonetheless, if only from a quaint sense of moral duty? How would a real hero use the precious time he has left?

Erick Bengel is an SOU English major and Philosophy minor.