Skip to main content

James Kakalios - Putting the Science Into 'Watchmen'

‘Watchmen’: A Tale of Two Movies
A poster of the 2009 film "Watchmen."
(Image: © Warner Bros)

Whenthe filmmakers behind "Watchmen" wanted to understand the scientificprinciples behind the acclaimed graphic novel, they turned to a physicsprofessor in Minnesota.

"Theywanted to get enough of the science right that they could create an artificialreality that still felt real to the audience," said James Kakalios, aphysics professor from the University of Minnesota who served as scienceconsultant on the "Watchmen"film.

Kakaliosis known among his colleagues for research in experimental condensed matterphysics, but to his students, he's the professor who teaches about the comicbooks he loves. By relating scientific principles to the various superheroeswho utilize them, Kakalios not only developed a comic-based science class forthe freshmen he teaches, but used his research to write the book "ThePhysics of Superheroes."

"Alot of comic book stories, especially going back to the Silver Age, tried to bewhat used to be called 'hard' sciencefiction. They were trying to have one impossible aspect, but haveeverything else be as realistic as possible," the professor explained."So they tried to put these little bits and nuggets of science into thestory whenever possible."

Kakaliospoints out that, for example, the DC Comics speedster the Flashis constantly doing things with his "superspeed," a concept thatrequires a suspension of disbelief. But if the character has to knock someonedown without touching him, he'll run very fast and create a shock front, whichis a real scientific concept.

"Bygoing through this while teaching my students, I was able to actually constructan entire physics book written for a general readership where all the examplescame from, for the most part, correct applications of physics found in superherocomic books," Kakalios said.

Sowhen the creators behind the "Watchmen" movie asked the NationalAcademy of Sciences for a consultant to help them translate the acclaimedgraphic novel to film, they looked no further than Kakalios and his superheroexpertise.

"TheNational Academy called me and said, have you ever heard of this thing called 'Watchmen'?"Because they'd never heard of it. After I was done vibrating like a gong I said,'Uh, "Watchmen?" Yeah, I've heard of it,'" he said with a laugh.

Muchof his consulting involved the science behind Dr.Manhattan, the "Watchmen" character whose powers are based onquantum physics. But the professor began working with filmmakers all the wayback in the pre-production stage, lending his expertise to everything from themovie's set designs to the psychology of the characters.

"AlexMcDowell in particular, the production designer, and the other art designerswould say things like, 'What would a physics lab look like in 1959?' or 'Whatwould it look like in 1985?' and 'Early in the story we see Dr. Manhattanworking on some apparatus. What is he doing here?'" he said. "Theyflew me up to the set, they showed me things, we talked about how certainthings would work.

"Andthen they were also interested in the psychology of scientists and how we wouldinteract with other people," Kakalios said. "One of the things that,sadly, is accurate in the story is that when we see, sometimes, students getdepressed or start having trouble with the stresses of their life, they hone inon their research, and they focus on that to the exclusion of practicallyeverything else. It's the one thing that they feel they have some control over.And so, you see this also with Dr. Manhattan's attitudes and behaviors. He kindof just retreats into his research more and more."

Inthe graphic novel, Dr. Manhattan gets his powers from having his atoms tornapart in an "intrinsic field subtractor," but he's able to puthimself back together, transforming into a being powered by quantum mechanics.He can exist in more than one time and place, and he can teleport himself asfar away as Mars.

"Eventhough the movie and the graphic novel don't get into the minutia of how hispowers work, [the filmmakers] were interested in how do they work?"Kakalios said. "Obviously, it's not possible, but if you made onesuspension of disbelief — if you had one miracle exemption from the laws ofnature — what would this be like?"

Kakaliostalked with everyone from the actors to stunt people to special effectsdesigners about what Dr. Manhattan's powers might look and feel like in real science.He theorized about things like what would make the character have blue skin,how he might be able to teleport, and what would give him the ability to be inmultiple locations.

"Therewere some things that they said, could he do this? Could he do that? And thereare some things he's shown doing that, even under the broad brush of quantummechanical powers, just don't fly," he said. "They talk about thingslike, he says I can transmute the walls to grass. I think in the movie he'sshown turning missiles into butterflies or something like that. I canunderstand him having control of his own body, and even within quantummechanics, being aware of past, present and future at the same time. But somethings don't fall within that realm."

YetKakalios said his advice about scientific fact was only meant to providesupport for the story, not to change it.

"'Watchmen'is a unique situation because the graphic novel is so revered that I think theyused that much more than any other source, and they were very mindful of anydeviation," he said. "In an open-ended story like "IronMan," where it's only loosely based on a few storylines, there's a littleroom for updating and modification. But that wasn't the case with'Watchmen.'"

"Youliterally could not swing a dead cat without hitting a copy of 'Watchmen' onthe set in Vancouver. It was everywhere. So at the end of the day, if they hadto make a balancing act between upsetting a million rabid 'Watchmen' fans orupsetting a physics professor from Minnesota," he laughed, "I think Iknow which one they're going with.

"Iknow which way I'd go, and I am the physics professor fromMinnesota," he said.

Andmuch of the science-based discussion Kakalios had with filmmakers never made itto the screen. "Zack Snyder, Alex McDowell, all the filmmakers wanted toknow what was behind the story, even if it was never in the film. The phrasethat really stuck with me was, 'We want to know what's around the corner at theend of the hallway, even if the audience doesn't go down that corridor.' Theywanted to know the foundations, the reasons for things, so they would do abetter job creating an artificial reality."

Fora self-admitted geek like Kakalios, the experience of working on the film gavehim enjoyment on two levels: As a scientist who could appreciate the referencesto physics within the story, but also as an avid comic book reader who lovedhaving one of his favorite graphic novels adapted by Hollywood.

"Itwas fantastic. I talked to everyone from Debbie and Zack Snyder to BillyCrudup, and they were all super nice, super friendly. Billy Crudup actuallyknows his science. And they were interested in anything that I'd have to sayand very enthusiastic about the film," Kakalios said. "Like all of usgeeks, these are people who are smart, with wide-ranging interests. They arecomfortable in their skins. They like what they like, and there's nothing tofeel guilty about. And among those interests, as they worked on the film, theywere interested and fascinated by real science, and they cared about bringing"Watchmen" to film. And so it was a pleasure talking to them anddealing with them."

Afterthe National Academy of Sciences matched Kakalios with the "Watchmen"filmmakers, the organization put together the Science and EntertainmentExchange, which acts as an intermediary between Hollywood and scientists. Oneof the goals is to encourage the public to view the world through science,something that Kakalios will happen with audiences who see"Watchmen".

"Atthe end of the day, I'm not looking for a movie to be 100 percentscientifically accurate. I'm not going to movies with a pad of paper and acalculator and saying, 'Ooo! My physics sense is tingling!'" he laughed."But if they can do something right, it's like catching a little insidejoke. It's like a little inside reference. And who knows? Maybe the audiencewill learn a little something about science."

Have a news tip, correction or comment? Let us know at