After avoiding drinking anything for a number of hours before, this past weekend I went to see the IMAX presentation of Watchmen. A few months ago I had bought and read the graphic novel, and when I finished it I had resolved not to go see the movie. However, there were hints the ending had been changed, and that was enough to pique my curiosity. Still I hesitated because the previews made it obvious the movie was going to follow the graphic novel almost panel by panel.
And that it did. I was impressed by the previews, but even more so by the movie. The casting was dead on, the pace was perfect, and the visuals as fantastic as depicted in the graphic novel.
The ending was not really changed, and just like when I read the novel, I walked away from the movie feeling cheated. This is not a review of the cinematic art, directing, or acting of the movie, all of which were beyond reproach… except maybe we could have done with fewer genitalia shots (one of the few things that departed from the novel).
No, what I want to touch on is an ending that fails to punctuate the vision of an imaginative and intriguing alternative timeline.
The novel uses a slightly different approach to come to the same plot point, but in both cases the premise rings hollow as a viable resolution, and particularly in the message that the end to justify the means. Thinking only massive loss of human life will bring about world peace might be acceptable if one looks at natural threats such as killer asteroids, or the sun threatening to go nova, or some Earth-borne cataclysmic event like Yellowstone or some other super volcano deciding it has slept long enough. But that is not the case here. In this case you have the smartest man alive (!) deciding to kill millions on the belief this will be perceived as a threat against humanity and thereby cementing humans across the world into solidarity of purpose.
Both in the novel and in the movie the premise is flawed. The graphic novel uses the fake attack from an alien race to spur governments into uniting, and the movie uses the fake attack from Dr. Manhattan to spur governments into uniting. But uniting for what? In neither case are any demands made of humans. The premise would perhaps be plausible if there were an actual threat of certain destruction (The Day the Earth Stood Still, first edition), but even then it would be human nature not to sit idly by and submit to being dictated to by force.
In the Watchmen universe the case is even more absurd. There has just been a massive attack destroying major cities, killing millions, or possibly billions if you count collateral damage from the associated destruction of infrastructure. Just how would humans respond to an attack where no one is making any demands of them? World peace? Please! In that scenario the world would see unprecedented efforts toward militarization, the establishing of draconian laws forcing compliance to the common purpose, and that common purpose would focus on research into weapons capable of meeting the perceived threat. In other words, those attacks would have the complete opposite effect to what was presented in the novel and movie. Not peace and prosperity, but a unification into a fully militarized society bent on never having to suffer such casualties again. Hardly the paradise one might aspire to.
This is not idle speculation on my part. We have plenty of examples from the history of humankind of exactly those scenarios. While it is true unprovoked attacks are nearly always met with unity of purpose, that purpose is not world peace, but military reprisal. The only exceptions are when the targets are forcibly subjugated, and even then it is often just a matter of time before hostilities break out. They say elephants have long memories, but elephants have nothing on humans, some of which have been fighting multi-generational wars since recorded history.
As repulsive as the “end justifies the means” argument is, there is also the matter of Rorschach. Dr. Manhattan spares the life of the man responsible for millions of human deaths, responsible for the death of some of his closest friends, but does not hesitate killing an arguably demented man because he might go out and tell people of what has happened. First of all, no one would have listened to him. But more than that, Rorschach represents uncompromising purpose to an ideal; an ideal that holds a mirror to human nature and asks for accountability as a path to change. Destroying Rorschach is an admission that ideal is unsustainable. It is an admission human nature will never achieve or even come close to the ideal, and must rather be controlled by fear and deception. Nice.
Let me say ending aside I liked both the novel and the movie. But that is the rub; that is a lot of travel along a long road to get to a destination that diminishes the overall experience. Personally, while visually stunning, I believe the movie will fail to capture the hearts of any but people who are already fans. For unlike the vision promised by the Star Trek universe, this vision will ring hollow and untrue to most people. Were it not so, we would not have need of such a messages in the first place.