Bright Lights Film Journal

Reagan, Watchmen, and The Architects of Fear

“I couldn’t help but say to [Mr. Gorbachev], just think how easy his task and mine might be in these meetings that we held if suddenly there was a threat to this world from another planet. [We’d] find out once and for all that we really are all human beings here on this earth together.”

— President Ronald Reagan, 1985

Reagan’s idea is one that could have been – and most likely was – borrowed from an episode of The Outer Limits, specifically the episode entitled The Architects of Fear which you can view above. (Thank you, Produced by Joseph Stefano, directed by Byron (The War of the Worlds) Haskin from a teleplay by Meyer Dolinsky, and photographed in gloriously noir black & white by the great Conrad Hall, “The Architects of Fear” was first broadcast on September 30, 1963, less than a month before the assassination of JFK.

Which is not entirely coincidental. The Outer Limits was consistently and sharply critical of what Eisenhower had referred to at the end of his term as the military-industrial complex. So was JFK. JFK was taken out in November 1963. The Outer Limits – at least, the Joseph Stefano version of it – was cancelled roughly six months later. The times they were a-changin’.

In “The Architects of Fear” a covert group of American scientists, military personnel, and intelligence agents decide (just as Reagan concluded) that the best way to unite the world would be to simulate an alien threat. They attempt to do so by radically modifying the genetic structure of one of their own (Robert Culp) so that he literally becomes an *alien* (referred to in the show as a “Thetan”). Like so many of the best laid plans of mice and men, this particular bit of social engineering does not pan out as anticipated, world peace is not achieved, and lives are needlessly destroyed.

Readers of Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen know that Moore & Gibbons concluded their graphic novel with a similar plot device, an artificially manufactured extraterrestrial threat. Indeed, “The Architects of Fear” is seen playing in one of Moore & Gibbons’ panels. (Apparently, Moore came up with the idea independently, but someone told him that it had previously been used on The Outer Limits, so Moore decided to acknowledge the series.) Zach Snyder’s film version of Watchmen changes the execution of the idea – there is no giant extraterrestrial monster in Snyder’s film – but cleverly preserves the basic concept, a socially engineered threat designed to bring the world together. Like all covert plans, it contains the seeds of its own destruction. What if someone reveals the secret?

This plot device is one of the most controversial – therefore intriguing – aspects of Snyder’s Watchmen, a film that revels in its political ambiguities. Watchmen asks, “Would it be right to deliberately destroy hundreds of thousands – or even millions – of human lives if by doing so, one could achieve a lasting peace?”

Was Harry Truman right to drop atom bombs on the civilians of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

Are we having peace yet?