In May 2009 I wrote an editorial for Slice of SciFi regarding the movie Watchmen. Those not familiar with the movie might still find some interest in what I wrote as a way to get a glimpse into how my mind works. Yes, it’s scary, alien, sometimes cold, other times passionate, but always weird.
I’m posting this because recently I got involved in a brief discussion on Facebook regarding the demise of my favorite character in the movie, Rorschach. It got me thinking (a dangerous thing in itself). Before I go on , I’ll reprint my editorial for them who be still here, reading.
Watchmen, a review (with spoilers).
After avoiding drinking anything for a number of hours before, this past weekend I went to see the I‑Max 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.
But . . .
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 justifies 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 other super-volcano deciding it has slept long enough. But that is not the case here. Here 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 message in the first place.
So, there you have it; my opinion on the matter. I casually threw that out in a comment about the upcoming “prequel”, and was told I was mistaken, wrong, way off-mark. Me! Disperser (a.k.a. ejd).
I know! Sounds crazy, right? But no, these guys were serious.
One person said: “I thought Rorschach’s death made sense. Unlike the others, he refused to “compromise” or accept that the ends justified the means, so he was going to expose Ozymandias’ plot about the fake alien and all those people killed. That would jeopardize the potential for world peace, so Dr. Manhattan killed him.“
Another chimed in: “I don’t even believe it was a refusal to compromise. To me, to keep it a secret would have forced Rorschach to betray everything that made him who he was. He chose to die rather than lie.” and “Totally nuts. But also unyielding in his moral code.“
My answers: “One guy, who most people thought as nuts, would not have exposed the secret. Also, the notebook made it out there, and Dr. Manhattan should have known that. I think the whole premise of the ending is flawed, but even within that framework Rorshach’s demise is senseless. Sort of like killing Wash, only not as pretentious.” and “Shouldn’t we always be unyielding in our moral code? Otherwise, what value does it have?”
They: “Unfortunately, in the world of real life, unlike the world of comic-books, things are very rarely Black and White.“
Me: “Within a strict moral code there is room for gray . . . but we are not talking about gray here. A principled (demented) man is killed to keep the secret of another principled (demented) man who just wiped out millions on the strength of a vision fueled by his own ego.“
They: “I don’t think it is senseless. In fact, I believe Dr. Manhattan did it as a last action of his humanity. Rorschach did not want to live with this knowlwdge. Manhattan obliged him. He was being a friend to Rorschach. As for unyielding our own moral code. We are all hypocrites to some degree. We exist in a state of cognitive dissonance because we constantly justify our own failings but judge others who fall short. The ones who go nuts are the ones who either follow their moral code absolutely or are unable to accept the dissonance.“
Me: “I hereby judge you wrong!
Seriously, the question is whether we accept that we may be hypocrites, or choose to be aware of it and strive to correct it. Saying “we’re flawed, and that’s that” excuses all manners of sins (whole religions are built around the premise).
I say we hold to our moral code, make fewer or no compromises, strive to be aware of the times we fail, and hold ourselves to the same standards to which we hold others.
The ole “shoot for the stars, and you’ll at least hit the moon” versus “this is shit, but at least it’s warm and comfortable”.
And yes, I have few friends; it’s probably only a matter of time before I myself don a mask.“
and “As for Manhattan being a friend to Rorschach . . . you probably know the author, and hence know the intent. But books, movies, and stories are subject to how others see them . . . I did not see that the act of a friend, just like I did not see the elaborate ruse as a viable plan for improving society.
Oddly enough, if those reactors did work to provide limitless energy, that would be a huge step toward piece and a different, probably more enlightened purpose.“
They: ” But all of this questioning is kind of the point, and why I liked the ending of Watchmen, the whole thing was ambiguous. Did Ozymandias do the right thing? Did the ends justify the means? Were the two moral, upright characters right to go along with it? And why was the “crazy” guy the only one who seemed clear about what he was doing, while everyone else was morally conflicted? In that context, whose really the crazy ones?
We don’t know for sure and, even in the story, Ozymandias wasn’t completely sure @ the end. He even asked Dr. Manhattan @ the end if he did the right thing and that everything would work out like he planned, and Manhattan couldn’t answer. Would the world really unite around the idea of a common enemy and, if so, how long would that really last? I mean, we know there really aren’t any alien monsters, so lets say 20 years down the line, when no aliens have shown up, would America and Russia start fighting again? And, yes, Rorschach’s journal was still out there, waiting to be discovered. So the whole book was left open, for the readers to imagine for themselves if it was right, and what would happen next. And that’s how it’s best left.“
They #2: “I’m down with that. Moore had many expressed intentions with the WATCHMEN story and one very important intention was a moral ambiguity that would require each reader (if he gives it anything more than a superficial reading) to interpret the actions and motivations of the characters within his own moral paradigm. Even with Vonnegut, you can see the author’s pov in many of his novels, but yet he will present it in such a way that the readers can filter it through their own moral paradigms and still find meaning.“
They: “And again, this is the point. And it’s an example of why Watchmen is such a great book (although I personally put Miracleman, Captain Britan, Supreme, and V for Vendetta above it, on my Alan Moore list). Each reader can read the same work and come away with vastly different interpretations about what it meant, based on their own ideologies and view of life.“
Many a “likes” were thrown to the above comments, but oddly enough, none landed on any of my comments. I missed every “like” that was thrown out there.
They participants were articulate, no one got mad, and the discussion was a cut above the typical stuff one encounters from strangers. Still, I am somewhat disappointed . . . make that a lot disappointed.
I have no problem with the ambiguity as generating discussion. What disappoints me is the conclusions people reach . . . to paraphrase them, it’s usually along the lines of accepting we are flawed and limited. Fine; I can even agree with that.
But if we recognize it, we should strive to change. I know we are discussing a semi-obscure graphic novel and movie, but the subjects come up in real life. The attitudes I see reflected in these discussions are the same that are used to justify wars, bombings, and all manners of nefarious actions.
What I found most egregious was the idea that killing Rorschach was an act of humanity on Dr. Manhattan’s part. Combine that with Ozymandias skating on the whole Murder-o-Millions bit, and I have to ask . . .
. . . I understand the author had a vision, and I can understand he has artistic license to present that vision, just like I have license to present my opinions here for others to either agree with or criticize, but how is the killing of a principled man ever an act of “friendship”?
I mean, I think myself as a principled man . . . I guess I should be glad I don’t have friends, or my days are numbered.
Well, they are numbered, but I was sort of hoping it would happen . . . you know . . . all natural-like, and not have a friend splatter me to bits.
My guess is not many made it all the way to this sentence, but for those who did, thanks for visiting and reading my stuff.
Note: to those who may click on “like”, or rate the post; if you do not personally hear from me, know that I am sincerely appreciative, and I thank you for noticing what I do.
. . . my FP ward . . . chieken shit.