Watchmen A Social Commentary Film Studies Essay

The film “Watchmen” is a social commentary which tells the story of a dystopia 1985. Through flashbacks of certain characters we find out how the world, and the characters, ended up the way they did. It also details with how one character tried his hand at fixing it. “Watchmen” clearly shows us America’s fear of nuclear holocaust and putting too much power in the hands of a few men, in hopes of ending this threat. By using every tool at their disposal including nondiegetic sound, the production team of “Watchmen” was able to infuse the feeling of creeping darkness, change and fear into every aspect of the finished movie. This allows the film to connect with people using two of their five senses, not just their ability to see but their sense of hearing as well.

“Watchmen” uses a number of songs directly referenced in the comic book series of the same name that the film was based on (“Watchmen”, Wikipedia). The music was clearly very important to the original comics and is just as important to the film (“Watchmen”, Wikipedia). Each song that was included in the original comic book series, which ran from 1986 to 1987, is its own piece of social commentary of the time it was created and added credibility to the original media “Watchmen” was presented in (“Watchmen”, Wikipedia).The songs used in the theatrical release of the film, included in the comic book or not, when coupled with the shots from the film, enhance and add more meaning to the movie (Barsam and Monahan).

Bob Dylan’s “The Times They are A-Changing” plays throughout the opening credit sequence, setting up the background of the movie. As the credits are rolling and Dylan’s song plays a shot of a picture reading “Minutemen 1940” is shown, as background for the film. The credits continue to roll as other small scenes of the original 1940’s minutemen are shown piecing together their good years and their ultimate decline. Shots used include those of Silk Spectre’s retirement party, the death of The Silhouette and Mothman being hauled away in an ambulance. As Dylan’s haunting lyrics talk about the changing tides in the world other shots of the Vietnam War and the Kent state massacre are shown, along with the assassination of President Kennedy, the atomic bombs mushroom cloud, burning monks, the first man on the moon, the formation of the new Watchmen , Nixon being elected for a third term, graffiti reading “who watches the watchmen?” and shots establishing that ultimately masked vigilantes were outlawed (Watchmen, DVD). By utilizing this song while showing shots of the changing times surrounding the glory days of masked vigilantes the audience is able to piece together that social and political problems of the era lead to the formation of vigilantes as well as to their end.

Another important song featured in the film is “99 Luftballons”, which is heard after Doctor Manhattan tells Laurie ( Silk Spectre II) that he can no longer see the future due to the possibility of nuclear fallout (Watchmen, DVD). “99 Luftballons” relates to Doctor Manhattan’s problem because it’s a song about the fear of being bombed from the Cold War era. This song’s roughly translated English lyrics are about 99 balloons being released into the air and eventually being mistaken for some sort of missile by military forces radar, triggering a nuclear war, such as the one that would mask the future from Doctor Manhattan (99 Luftballons). This song might not be noticed by everyone who watches this film as it is in a different language, but for those who know the background information on this song it immediately sticks up like a red flag pointing to the possibility of a nuclear bomb problem.

During The Comedian’s funeral scene Simon and Garfunkel’s 1964 hit “Sound of Silence” is used. “This song was written in February 1964 by Paul Simon in the aftermath of the November 22, `963 assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy” (Wikipedia, Sound of Silence”), so it seems fitting to be used in conjunction with a funeral. This song’s slow guitar and soft lyrics force the audience to at least feel sorrow for the death of another human being, even if they did not think very highly of The Comedian in the flashbacks of him in life.

Towards the end of the film Jimi Hendrix’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” plays when Nite Owl and Rorschach, flying in Archie (an owl shaped flying machine), arrive at Antarctica to stop Ozymandias’s plan that would potentially kill millions of people across the world. Wide shots of Antarctica’s vast landscape with the relatively small Archie flying across it , coupled with lyrics such as ” There must be some kind of way out of here/ said the joker to the thief/ there’s too much confusion/I can’t get no relief” add a feeling of running out of time (Lyricsfreak, “All Along the Watchtower”). They lyrics seem to hint that something huge is about to happen. The song comes to a close singing out ” All along the watchtower/princes kept the view…/outside in the cold distance/a wildcat did growl/two riders were approaching/the wind began to howl” (Lyricsfreak, “All Along the Watchtower”). These lines directly correlate with the shots in the film, “princes kept the view” easily relates to Ozymandias sitting inside watching security TV’s and news broadcasts from across the globe (Lyricsfreak, “All Along the Watchtower”) . The lyrics “two riders were approaching/the wind began to howl”, are heard just as Nite Owl and Rorschach walk toward Ozymandias’s compound, with the intent of putting an end to Ozymandias’s plan (Lyricsfreak, “All Along the Watchtower”) (Watchmen, DVD). This song is very important to the film because it establishes that buildup tension is about to be released in the climax of the film as Nite Owl and Rorschach approach Ozymandias.

“Watchmen” also uses the narration of Rorschach as a way to give the audience supplementary information. Even though he is part of the “Watchmen” group he is very much an outsider, the only member still trying to do something to the decaying city. In this way Rorschach is more of an antihero then a conventional hero, he even talks about how he doesn’t believe that everyone should be saved (Watchmen, DVD). When narrating Rorschach’s voice is very gruff, this tends to give off a feeling of unease and danger. He also talks very cynically about the state of the world, which I feel sets up the feeling that something horrible is about to happen, a kind of impending doom (Watchmen, DVD).

Appropriate song choice in movies is very important for getting the right feelings across to an audience. Without the use of nondiegetic sounds we wouldn’t understand the gravity of certain situations, feel sadness, fear, or foreboding when directors want to use sound to set up certain scenes. The sound design in “Watchmen” doesn’t just give the film a good soundtrack; it takes that extra step that allows emotion to leech off the screen into the audience. Each song or sound bite is dripping with emotion from the time it was produced and makes the dystopia 1985 that we find ourselves emerged in more realistic, which is important for an effective social commentary film.