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Watchmen: Nuclear Holocaust Ain't What It Used to Be

Science Not Fiction
By Melissa Lafsky
Mar 10, 2009 2:18 AMJul 12, 2023 3:47 PM


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By now, every sci-fi devotee and his grandmother has sounded off on Watchmen, Zack Snyder's big-budget big-hoopla film version of the eponymous graphic novel. Love it or hate it (and most fans seemed to do one or the other) we can all admit that the movie remained faithful to the book, minus a few scenes and the absence of [spoiler alert] one giant alien squid. We'll leave the debates over the acting, direction, and overall adaptation to others (except to say that Jackie Earle Haley stole the show). But one aspect worthy of analysis is the story's main conflict—the constant "looming" nuclear holocaust. Granted, we never actually see any evidence that the aforementioned holocaust is looming, save a few shots of Nixon upping Defcon levels—but we'll address that later. When Alan Moore first published the book in 1986, the apocalypse on everyone's mind was Cold War atomic bombs—which, as we've noted, no longer pack quite the same anxiety punch as, say, biological weapons. Today, gas masks and duct tape have replaced air raids and backyard shelters in the popular conscious, to the point where seeing mushroom clouds onscreen feels like you're watching an '80s homage. Of course, none of this means that the nuclear threat is any smaller now than it was three decades ago: The danger of nuclear war is still present, and fear of missile attack still drives plenty of policy and military tech decisions worldwide. But, like Bird Flu, nukes seem to have a PR problem: Despite the fact that they could wipe us all out, the thought of them isn't all that scary. Which is really the main problem for Snyder and his estimated $125 million budget: No matter how faithful your script and powerful your characters, it's tough to keep a story suspenseful when you're working towards a climax that doesn't pack a serious punch. Not helping is the fact that the film completely ignores the other side—the Russians. We get a few choice shots of Tricky Dick mumbling about war, but never once do we see Gorbachev ordering missile launches or troop mobilization. Granted, world annihilation isn't dull—it's still enough to keep an audience engaged for 2 hours and 43 minutes. Plus Snyder never misses a chance to smack us with stakes-raising reminders of devastation (we counted at least 8 shots with the Twin Towers in the background). And when the destruction does come to the Big Apple (why do TV shows and movies always love to decimate New York?) Snyder saves us the book's graphic images of strewn corpses and bombed-out buildings, instead focusing on the internal struggle among the Watchmen ranks. Nine million people sacrificed for the greater good, meh—but we'll watch one lovable sociopath in a ski mask. So should Snyder have updated his apocalypse with biotech? He'd have faced the wrath of fans had he done so. Plus who would think nuclear war could ever get boring? It's enough to make you wonder what the next big all-consuming fear will be. Oh, wait, we know that already: thinking robots. Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

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