Flashbacks in Watchmen movie

watchmen_manhattanvietartDepending on which scenes or parts you classify as flashbacks, I counted 22 of them in Watchmen (Theatrical Cut). Out of 2 hours, 42 minutes, that's an average of one flashback starting every 7.4 minutes.

This is not counting the constant callbacks or visual reminders of the past, like people in the present looking at photos of their past (the 1940 class photo of The Minutemen, pinups of Silk Spectre I, Silk Spectre's porno comic presumably created back in her heyday, the photo of Dr. Manhattan with his girlfriend before the accident, etc.) but they're worth thinking about. Notice the "Nostalgia" cologne manufactured by Veidt's company, which uses the old song "Unforgettable" in repeated commercials. I do count the opening credits as flashbacks, scenes of heroes from the 1940s through the 1960s. Another one that's borderline is the ending narration of Rorshach reading from his journal. That's not a flashback in the sense of a character remembering back to something that happened, but we're getting an audio experience of something that already happened, something that we already heard before.

The story is all about time and memory and our perception of time, so I can't fault it for playing with viewers' memory and our perception of the movie's timeline. But it does get frustrating to have them piled up one after another, a movie full of flashbacks every 7 minutes. The worst was during the graveside funeral service when the camera seems to go to each person in attendance and show their memories of The Comedian. Jon gets a flashback, then Adrian, then Dan, even Rorshach visits the grave after dark to flashback on his investigations of the murder (which we've already seen).

Even when we're watching the present (alt-history 1985 present, at least), a lot of it is listening to Hollis reminisce about the old days when he was a hero, Dan and Laurie at dinner reminiscing. Everybody talks about the old days, looks at old photos of themselves and their team-mates. Multiple narrators and multiple POVs give us the ability to see into the past and future like Doc Manhattan, and to see multiple places at the same time (like when we hear Laurie complaining to Dan about Jon, and we seen Jon far away as he dresses for a tv interview). We see flashbacks within flashbacks, when Jon narrates about getting his picture taken at the fair with his physicist girlfriend, then flashes back to the moment he met her, forward one month to the time of his accident, further back to his father guiding him to take apart and put together watches.

We even see flashbacks to scenes that we the viewers have already seen, like the second time Jon tries to give Laurie the power of seeing things from his perspective, or the repeated images of the Comedian flying backwards through his window, Rorschach's nightmarish PTSD flashbacks to the bloody head of a dog, or Rorshach's narration from his journal repeated at the end. It's not just a flashback for the characters but for readers and viewers also, because we've seen it or heard it before.

On this viewing I noticed more ways that Doc Manhattan sybolizes nuclear energy. It should be obvious from the name, but think of how the man himself becomes amoral. Like nuclear energy, he's powerful, but other people put him to good uses or bad uses. Researchers created nuclear weapons under the assumption they would be used for good, but later spoke out against them, just as Dr. Manhattan offers his power unquestioningly to the government for decades before breaking ties with them and leaving Earth.

Some people think the US could have "won" the war in Vietnam if we had used nukes. This story shows the North Vietnamese and insurgent South Vietnamese surrendering after one week of attacks by Dr. Manhattan. I want to see more of how that played out. Would the US hand Vietnam over to an unpopular puppet dictator like Diem or General Thieu and have no further rebellions after that? I still find that hard to believe, with or without the giant blue attacker. A country that lost 2-3 million soldiers and civilians fighting against an enemy with higher tech and more resources, maintaining the fight for decades -- I don't think they'd all give up just because a blue giant started vaporizing some of them. Maybe he is supposed to have vaporized lots of them, and we're back to the old question of whether a popular rebellion would have been terrorized into submission by nuking a few cities. I could be wrong, but I don't think the situation in Vietnam in 1971 was totally comparable to Imperial Japan surrendering in 1945, or that it would have been with nukes or a walking blue nuke man.

The movie even considers what would happen if the Dr. Manhattan project "goes off", people around the world suddenly making peace when they realize how dangerous he is. Some people reacted that way after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But as we've seen in real life, some people take it as a cue for an arms race, not for making peace. I think it would have happened the same way with explosions triggered by or attributed to Dr. Manhattan. People wouldn't work together to fight against him. They would try to repeat the accident to create their own loyal Dr. Manhattans.

Anyway, here's the main finding of my "research": by my calculation, about 34 minutes and 5 seconds of the film are spent in flashbacks, out of 162 minutes. 21% of the film is flashback.

I did this to show how annoying it was, but somehow I talked myself into tolerating it. I still think if I had seen the movie by itself, I would have given it 2 or 3 stars max. It's worth watching as a supplement to the graphic novel, but I wouldn't trouble my non-comic-geek civilian friends with recommendations that they see it.


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