Echoes of the Great Controversy

I guess it’s finally time for me to address the issue that’s been sending shockwaves through my flist recently–in fact, through the entire internet: the presence of “99 Luftballons” on the Watchmen soundtrack.

The soundtrack of the movie has been derided by some, but I think it mostly works pretty well. When Rorschach and Nite Owl are flying toward Ozymandias’ Antarctic lair, the soundtrack unleashes the thunder of Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower.” Too obvious a choice, say some. But the obvious, well-executed, is exactly what a comic book movie needs, and in that light this was the perfect choice: an epic, iconic sound for an epic establishing shot. Stuff like “The Times They Are A-Changin'” running over the opening montage worked for me in the same way. Other choices were more questionable: “The Sound of Silence” would be a perfect choice for the Comedian’s funeral if it weren’t indelibly associated with, oh, I don’t know, some other movie. “99 Luftballons” was even more puzzling–apparently picked only because it’s the sort of thing one might have heard on the radio while on a date in 1985. But 80s music did not otherwise predominate on the soundtrack, so it sounded out of place. I thought the choice of Cohen’s “Hallelujah” for the sex scene between Nite Owl II and the Rubbermaid Silk Spectre II was flat-out gross. De gustibus non disputandum.

Regarding the rest of the movie, I’ll echo a chorus of nay-sayers in pointing out that Malin Ackerman doesn’t seem to have the chops for this kind of role. It’s not that she doesn’t look good in latex or out of it (de gustibus etc.); her face and voice are somewhat inexpressive, and that leaves her at a loss in some of the most important scenes in the movie. I’m probably not the only person who wished that the actors in the two Jupiter roles had been switched: Carla Gugino manages to express more with one appliance-laden eye-twitch than Ackerman can with a page full of dialogue. MA did move with competent authority in the fight scenes, I guess. In fact, in spite of the expressed premise that only Dr. Manhattan has superpowers, all the Watchmen seem to have been bitten by a radioactive spider at some point.

The “Tales of the Black Freighter” motif had to be jettisoned (apparently they’re releasing a separate fully animated version; it’ll be interesting to see what happens in the inevitable multi-disk collector’s edition/director’s cut/six month anniversary rererelease), and there were some exposition problems that might have troubled someone who hadn’t read the book. Apart from that stuff, I’d say that the movie was an almost flawless adaption of the book.

That’s the biggest flaw in the movie, though. Because there are three very serious problems with the book itself, and they only irritate me more every time I think about them.

One is the mystery-plot, which could not be more transparent if the book were titled “Ozymandias Is Behind It All.” Maybe it’s just due to my ill-spent years as a Shelley fan, but I can hardly hear “Ozymandias” without muttering “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” Then there’s the fact that “Pyramid Deliveries” is the corporation involved in the assassinations of the superheroes. Ozymandias… Egypt… pyramid: no one seems capable of connecting these three rather obviously connected dots until it’s convenient for the storyteller.

Another more serious issue is the basic premise that it’s okay to kill millions in an act of terrorism. I’ll go out on a limb here and say this is morally wrong. It also seems unlikely to work in achieving the stated aims: world peace and understanding. Nuclear explosions all around the world would have been more likely to cause people to start firing ICBMs than otherwise. It’s like lighting a Roman candle in a fireworks factory so that people can see where the fireworks are and won’t set them off by accident. It’s stupid, stupid almost beyond belief.

Plus, we saw something like this on a smaller scale in 9/11. There was a burst of worldwide support for America and Americans. Then the manipulative creeps in power blew it by pushing a hardline partisan agenda at home and a saber-rattling unilateralism abroad. Nixon et al. were smarter than Bush et al. (practically everyone is), but the transformative power of a crisis like this depends on human qualities that would make it unnecessary.

This touches on the third thing that bugs me about the book. And I can’t believe I’m typing this. But it’s unfair to Nixon. That bloodstained, greasy, cartoonish, horrible, snickering would-be tyrant was instrumental in the prevention of nuclear war by careful, deliberate, long-lasting and intensive diplomatic efforts with China and, especially, the Soviet Union. I hold no brief for what he did in Indochina, or towards his personal political enemies in the US, or many another thing. But he deserves significant credit for lessening the threat of nuclear annihilation. Not through some cathartic, splashy act of violence and terror, not through threats and intimidation, but by sitting in a room and talking. Pursuing peace through peaceful means.

A crazy idea, but it might just work–and did, in fact, work. But it doesn’t make for a good comic book, nor a smashing film, nor does it fit with the rather peculiar politics either of Mr. Moore or of RMN’s former party, so we’re not hearing about it so much these days. We all live in alternate universes now, where only convenient truths can be heard.

To give Moore his due, he does give Rorschach his due in the closing pages of the book (faithfully represented in the movie). Rorschach, though dead, may still speak the truth that he knows… if the people responsible for making him heard take their responsibilities seriously. It just barely makes tolerable to me a conclusion which, otherwise, is in the Ringworld-Engineers range of horrible.

About JE

James Enge is the author of the World-Fantasy-Award-nominated novel Blood of Ambrose (Pyr, April 2009). His latest book is The Wide World's End. His short fiction has appeared in Swords and Dark Magic (Harper Collins, 2010), Black Gate, the Stabby-Award-winning anthology Blackguards and elsewhere.
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18 Responses to Echoes of the Great Controversy

  1. david_chunn says:

    I liked all the music except Hallelujah. Most of it was predictable yet good and appropriate for the work at hand.

    I’ve always thought the book was good, but not great. I think the film amplified my problems with it, though.

    The world banding together makes more sense in the book where the plot leads to global identity against another world/dimension. I know why they changed this in the movie but it just doesn’t work as well. (Of course, the idea is a little silly but the book doesn’t go so far along so that you know it continued to work.)

    The sex scene needs new music and the flamethrower cliche needs to go. All film makers should be banned from that kind of cheese, even in comedies. It hasn’t been funny since the 90’s, at the latest.

    I hate to agree, but it is unfair to Nixon, though I suppose he’s a fictional, bad-parts-only Nixon.

    My last point: I always thought the story was supposed to be morally wrong so we’d still be left with the conundrum of who’s watching the watchmen. It’s essentially an amoral and ironic piece. Rorschach ends up being a hero at the moment when everyone else seems most despicable, etc.

    • JE says:

      “I always thought the story was supposed to be morally wrong so we’d still be left with the conundrum of who’s watching the watchmen. It’s essentially an amoral and ironic piece.”

      There’s something to this. Anyway, it seems like the best way to approach the story without blowing a gasket (something I’m always at risk for).

      • david_chunn says:

        Ah, I’m usually just at risk of blowing other people’s gaskets. Especially since I have a tendency to love many popular stories while I watch/read them, like them afterward, and dislike them a week later once I’ve thought them over.

        I’m still processing Watchmen. This may be intensified because I have only read it once and that was 14 years ago. I was young then and probably saw it differently.

    • sboydtaylor says:

      Sound of Silence and Hallelujah both kicked me completely out of the movie.

      99 Luftballoons was actually a good choice, to me, because it looked like the music she was listening to when she got out of the car. (This just made Sound of Silence seem even worse, so nearby in the movie because it is NOT of the right era.)

      But beyond that 99 Luftballoons is an ironic choice because it’s about an accidental nuclear war started by balloons. It didn’t bother me near as much as the other two, or as much as All Along the Watch Tower when I finally noticed it on the second watching.

      • JE says:

        I can see what you mean about how “99 Luftballons” fits the theme. I never really wrapped my head around the words. (My German is at fairly primitive decoding level.) I still think it doesn’t fit with the other songs, but then some of them don’t fit with each other.

        I can hear “The Sound of Silence” without seeing Benjamin Braddock’s indifferent face… but not while sitting in a movie theater.

        The opposite of the “Sound of Silence” effect can be heard in the WALL*E soundtrack: when Stanton’s soundtrack quotes “The Blue Danube” or “Also Sprach Zarathustra” you’re supposed to flash on 2001–it’s an ironic seasoning to the cartoony pleasures of the movie.

  2. scbutler says:

    Agree with your Nixon assessment. He’s America’s Loki.

    • JE says:

      Loki is a good metaphor, especially considering the monstrous brood of unitary-executive theorists (and practicians) he loosed on the world.

      • scbutler says:

        A friend of mine and I have been using the Loki metaphor since the early ’80s. We were trying to bring back pamphleteering with a piece called The Nixoniad.

        • JE says:

          The Nixoniad–might be a fun read (as a series of pamphlets or an epic). Now I want to reread Roth’s Our Gang

  3. Anonymous says:

    We made the 50 mile trek to see the movie Sunday evening. My wife enjoyed it, I was closer to “meh.” My wife has read the book, I haven’t. While we usually like Brendan Fraser, we both agreed he wasn’t right for the part and was outclassed by Paul Bettany.

    Oh, did I mention the online movie listing had the wrong time? Watchmen was an hour in when we arrived, so we saw Inkheart instead, leaving Watchment as yet unwatched.

    –Jeff Stehman

    • JE says:

      I was pretty sure I’d slipped into an alternate 2009 when I saw the actors’ names. (Who would Breandan Fraser play in the alternate-Watchmen? Nite Owl, I bet. Paul Bettany would have to be Ozymandias, I think.

  4. gryphart says:

    I agree with you – Hallelujah was *completely awful.* Epically awful, in fact; combined with the flamethrower, bad enough to set my whole group snickering at the sheer painful awfulness. I was not keen on All Along the Watchtower because it’s used so heavily in BSG, and I feel like genre ought to be able to pick more than one song once in a while.

    I liked the opening montage quite a bit, though, and thought it was stylistically well done.

    In general, it was an okay film, but not one I would rewatch, and one that seemed to miss the point of the comic in some regards, since it seemed like everyone got superpowers and kickass fight scenes because it looked cooler.

    • JE says:

      What it did well, I thought it did really well. I enjoyed seeing Rorschach’s preternatural agility, but it did kind of work against the Big Idea.

      On the other hand, how reasonable is that idea? I’m sure the US Govt., in its mercy, would have tossed “volunteer” after “volunteer” into that same chamber until they had at least a platoon of Dr. Manhattans. Might be an interesting sequel to the Tuskeegee Airman disgrace… and open the Watchmen-verse to a black superhero (who seem to be sadly lacking).

  5. I think the killing millions to save billions was portrayed as a possibly necessary evil (that to Rorschach was too evil). I think he was one of the few good things about the movie (the soundtrack was another).

    Not sure if this was mentioned yet, but have I seen too few movies recently or was the violence in this one just EXTREME? I can take quite a bit but this one made me physically sick.

    • JE says:

      I got even fonder of R. through the movie–he was certainly crazy and somewhat brutal, but he was more concerned about what was right then whether he could win: that always impresses me.

      A lot of the violence came from the source material (like in the prison scenes). But he (Snyder) did seem intent on out-Tarantinoing Tarantino in a couple scenes (like the fight in the alley).

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