Warner Bros. Pictures (March 6 2009), Warner Home Video (July 29 2009), 2 discs plus Digital Copy, 186 mins plus supplements, 1080p high definition 2.40:1 widescreen, DTS-HD Master and Dolby Digital 5.1, Rated R for strong graphic violence, sexuality, nudity and language, Retail: $35.99
Director Zack (300) Snyder brings Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ classic graphic novel to the screen, creating an intricate, in-depth world and a serious study of the superhero psyche for adults.
The Sweatbox Review:
As is so often the case with epic, ambitious, far-reaching (especially science-fiction) filmmaking, it can take a while for such a film to find an appreciative audience, and on home video, Watchmen is sure to find just that. At last year’s Comic-Con gathering in 2008, the film was the subject of much buzz, an almost full-size replica of the Nite Owl Ship being a big talking point in the center of the main exhibition hall. Writers from this website – myself included – were anxious to break into the presentation of sneak footage from the movie, the trailer having been leaked just before the event and garnering much intrigue. Watchmen certainly looked different, and perhaps more mature, even if to my eyes it looked like it could well simply be building on the foundations established by The Dark Knight earlier that year.
I am not a huge comics fan. Aside from a hard-core interest in American animation, my tastes run to live-action filmmaking from Hollywood’s golden age and although I very much appreciate the work of many fine artists in the strip panel world, my many other interests preclude me from having wandered too far into that territory since my teenaged DC and Marvel purchasing days. Therefore I knew Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen only by reputation, though I was quite aware of what that reputation was: nothing less than one of the most highly respected comics – sorry, graphic novels – ever produced, and a story so interwoven with its own history and set up that characters even read comic books within the comic book. Not only was it was deemed unfilmable, but Moore wanted nothing to do with it, famously disassociating himself from previous attempts to translate his work to the screen (the actually rousing old-school adventure The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen and the confused and non-daring V For Vendetta).
But it seemed after the success of 300, if anyone could pull off the task it was Zack Snyder, the man responsible for making as literal a live-action translation of Frank Miller’s original visuals, and those who had been impressed with the director’s take on that project and knew what could be in store with Watchmen started salivating at the prospects. The immense interest at Comic-Con ’08 meant that it was nigh on impossible for casually attracted people to even consider making it into the huge hall for the sneak peak at footage and cast and crew panel discussions. Watchmen was one of several then upcoming movies with huge anticipation and though I was very intrigued, I remember my thinking being that eventually all of these films would be making it to disc, and that standing around for hours on end to catch footage that would later be seen by everyone wasn’t a really good spending of valuable time. Ultimately, I’m glad I didn’t wait around: the also hotly talked about The Spirit failed to live up to expectations, and when Watchmen hit the screens I can’t say I was hugely impressed, and the film’s barely respectable box-office numbers suggested that I – and the many fans of the original book – wasn’t the only one.
In addition, Watchmen garnered mixed reviews, largely from critics who had not ever seen Moore and Gibbons’ book or even known what it was about, and the film version suffered from comparisons to The Dark Knight and a general feeling that it wasn’t one thing or the other, ostensibly being a superhero movie, but an ultra-violent, sophisticated and long one at that. And although it hasn’t gotten any shorter (almost an extra half-hour in fact) in this Director’s Cut, it’s certainly clear Watchmen’s fortunes might have suffered due to Snyder not being able to release his true vision the first time around. Already lengthy in theatrical release, and without any suspicions of the Studio tampering with the film in order to trim the running time, Watchmen as seen in theaters seems to be a version sanctioned by both parties, but that a director’s cut has come so quickly after indicates that this is the way Snyder saw the film in his head (and there’s another version still to come, incorporating the animated version of the comic book, Tales Of The Black Freighter, within the narrative, for what will run close to four hours).
As with most helmers’ editions, Watchmen: Director’s Cut is able to flesh out the already extensively imagined world to an extra degree, albeit slight. I think knowing more about what I was in for in revisiting the film allowed me to experience it more positively, even if ultimately I still don’t think it completely succeeds in being a serious examination of superheroics and what drives the kind of people that choose to become costumed vigilantes and fight crime. In Watchmen, of course, it’s these very people that are being hunted, the superhero system having broken down long ago, when “golden age” caped crusaders were at their most popular. Set in an alternate mid-1980s when President Richard Nixon was not found guilty of any Watergate scandal and on the back of goodwill generated by the winning of the Vietnam War is enjoying his fifth term, the film begins with a tour de force of montage, expertly laying this backstory and creating the Watchmen’s world within its opening minutes.
Superheroes have been outlawed, and taking things to extremes is the murder of The Comedian, a one-time hero now descended into a murky existence. His death prompts the mysterious Rorschach to track down his old team mates and warn them of impending corruption, his journey taking us to meet the radioactive Dr Manhattan, Silk Spectre II, Nite Owl II (perfectly channelling a 1985 Huey Lewis) and Ozymandias, who may not be all what he seems. As such, the storytelling results in an episodic feel, and one that has many tangents. This may have worked exceptionally well in a multi-layered strip panel format, but as a narrative movie experience, things never quite gel, even though it is obvious there has been a lot of energy and top-drawer effort put into bringing these elements to the screen.
Fans of the original graphic novel – or those that didn’t already go and see the film in theaters earlier this year – may react differently and lap up every moment. I have to say I was very impressed by the scope, and the film is very brave in delivering imagery that one might never have expected to see in what is ostensibly a motion picture comic book, but for all the good, those fans might also be left wondering about some key changes. Like 300, Snyder almost uses Moore and Gibbons’ book as a storyboard, staying remarkably faithful to the source but perhaps not providing anything new to those who know it well. So while newcomers may be struck (one way or the other) by Dr Manhattan’s exposed genitals, old timers will find that it’s not only the situations that will be familiar but the staging and framing as well.
And then again, not: one sequence I recall in the theater, when Dr Manhattan’s power is released as a huge sphere of energy, reminded me of the recent remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still and Keanu Reeves’ mode of space transport. The effects are almost the same in each movie and Watchmen, coming so close after Day, was in danger of looking like a copycat. “Remember that this came first, in 1985”, I told myself, and it was likely the Earth standing still movie that had ripped off the concept. However, a later confirmation revealed that in the graphic novel, Manhattan assumes the shape of a multi-tentacled, octopus-like creature. It may sound ridiculous, but given the option of coming over as a rip-off, I’d have gone for the octopus, though its one of a few switches that don’t seem to have been made for the better.
There are also some questionable choices in trying to make the film reach an adult audience: Dr Manhattan is, as mentioned above, practically naked throughout, but far from being mesmerised by a certain bodily part that keeps swinging around throughout the movie, I was transfixed by his rubber face. Rather than spray actor Billy Crudup in blue body paint, they’ve gone for a motion-capture version instead, and while the results can be very good in some shots, occasionally asking whether he is “real” or not, mostly he feels like what he is, a special effect and not always that special. And he’s a really boring character, having almost given up on human life since his transformation and spewing all manner of pseudo-existential mumbo jumbo that again may work well within the confines of a graphic novel but just comes over as deeply shallow on screen, and goes on and on during a random moment where he transports Silk Spectre II to another planet for a chat.
Much better is the thriller aspect of the story, courtesy of Rorschach, though again in a strip panel the ever-changing ink-blot styled shapes on his mask come over as an intriguing effect, but on film, where morphing is enlisted to keep the black shapes crawling around, only begs the question: how is he doing that!? Of all the goings on, I was most enveloped in the Silk Spectre II and Nite Owl II plot, which brings the film its most “believability” and emotion, pulling together two lost souls without much purpose and restoring something of a reason to their lives, giving them a second chance together as well. Although there’s a rather dubious and unneeded love scene thrown in as they reconcile their relationship, this is really the catalyst to get the movie kicking into high gear for the prerequisite action climax.
In a way, it’s a shame that Watchmen has to resort to such formulas in its closing act after being so daring and different – in a sense it’s as if the movie has ended but someone suddenly realised there was a colossal lack of action. By this point, the film has become so bogged down in its own ideas that it really does need this major boost, and though it feels routine, Nite Owl II and Silk Spectre II’s jumping into Nite Owl’s revamped ship to zoom off and rescue an imprisoned Rorschach at least offers a reason for them to break ranks and return to what they were meant for. Their actions raise further legitimate questions, but Watchmen isn’t always interested in answering them, seemingly pleased with itself to serve up multi-stranded storylines and a surplus of atmosphere as long as anyone doesn’t try to peel back the surface gloss.
But it does gain points for being something different and for not always running in the tried and tested directions we might expect. The layering does work for the most part, though again this is something that would work better in a book, given the “serialised” way the reader can pick it up and put it down. In the movie, one is asked to absorb an awful lot of history, though it’s not always easy. Adding to the attempts to keep up are the occasional giggle-inducers. Dr Manhattan’s name for one (I mean, seriously, would someone choose to sound like a serial killer?) and his display of genitalia for another, but beating them all is the older Silk Spectre’s make-up job, a hideous embarrassment of latex masking that looked bad on celluloid and is only shown up all the more inadequately in high definition. It’s the kind of shortcoming that blots Watchmen’s scorecard and sets the general reaction for the movie: for everything they get right in tone and scope, the smallest and silliest of elements can tip the balance into farce. But when it’s working, Watchmen is a mightily impressive cinematic immersion into an intricately realised world.
Is This Thing Loaded?
Surprisingly for such an underperforming film, Warners have really been throwing their weight behind Watchmen on disc, and it could well be that it’s in this format that the film will find its audience. They’re certainly going to have enough opportunities, with the regular theatrical cut arriving on DVD, this Director’s Cut on Blu-ray and, already announced, an Ultimate Collector’s Edition coming in time for the holidays, which should ensure that enough people pick up some edition of the film to make its production worthwhile. As such, this two-disc (plus a standard Digital Copy) could be seen as either a bit of a warm up for the later, bigger collection, or a quick-buck release. In fact it’s neither, being a unique assortment of material that, we’re promised, won’t be repeated in the Ultimate box.
On Disc One, after a pounding Blu-ray promo, the highlight of the entire supplements is the Maximum Movie Mode with director Zack Snyder, an “immersive exploration of Watchmen while you watch the movie”. Each studio has their own nickname for the picture-in-picture commentary tracks that now accompany BDs (such as Disney’s Cine-Explore, for example), and those have been revelations in how commentary tracks can now be presented, but this is something new again, with a green screened Snyder appearing full frame in and out of the film via seamless branching, reducing various aspects to smaller screens and blowing others up for closer inspection throughout. If there is a slightly disappointing aspect – and yes, there is always a caveat – it’s that Snyder’s participation is not feature length, picking just several scenes that offer closer inspection. But it’s all good stuff, covering the usual topics of conversation and reminding of the similar “exposé” on the Sin City BD, often splitting between the movie and visual effects shots and original graphic novel and storyboard panels. The Comedian’s demise in the opening, Dr Manhattan and his lab, the Nite Owl ship, trips to Mars and Antarctica and the altered movie ending are all discussed by Snyder in detail.
However, whenever he’s off-screen the audio reverts to the movie soundtrack, so this isn’t a traditional commentary either (for that we’ll need to wait for the UCE box, when Snyder will be joined by co-writer Dave Gibbons). Although the presentation is mega-cool, the info isn’t always grade one stuff and other aspects (such as the awesome title sequence) go unmentioned, and I’m not quite sure where the benefit lies in seeing someone speaking – whoever they are – onscreen. But this isn’t all we get in this Maximum Movie Mode: also up for grabs is a timeline that compares Watchmen’s backstory with real history, and a more rudimentary but no less welcome series of more standard picture-in-picture comments from the cast and crew, plus a selection of still galleries and a number of “focus points”, the eleven Watchmen Video Journals that offer up topic-specific pre-release publicity featurettes that appeared online. Running well over three minutes each, these clips fill in further detail on the movie’s production elements and prove to be small nuggets well worth discovering or revisiting, helpfully optional from the disc’s main menu and covering just who The Minutemen were, the sets, costumes, props and vehicles, Dave Gibbons, the characters, special effects shooting and more.
On Disc Two, things feel a little less direct and more like filler, in anticipation of the UCE due later in the year. The Phenomenon: The Comic That Changed Comics, running a generous half hour, takes a very in-depth look at the graphic novel and its many aspects, themes and elements, speaking to Dave Gibbons (giving Alan Moore his deserved due), DC Comics execs and the movie’s cast and crew. The movie is what is being plugged, of course, so there’s lots of comparisons to the ultimate screen incarnation, from the panels of the comic, to the Motion Comic adaptation released earlier this tear and, naturally, scenes from the film. Exclusive to Blu-ray, but not entirely relevant, is Real Super Heroes, Real Vigilantes, and no prizes for guessing that this is an examination into the world of the Guardian Angels and the like. Running an overlong 26 minutes, it’s a nonetheless interesting piece on real life people that offers nothing direct on the movie but makes some comparisons and strains to suggest a connection with Rorschach.
Mechanics: Technologies Of A Fantastic World speaks to James Kakalios, the physicist who advised as a consultant to the filmmakers, for around 17 minutes. After filling us in on his credentials, Kakalios then discusses what can only be described as something akin to The Science Of… specials, exploring the logistical reasoning behind such concepts as Dr Manhattan, Nite Owl’s ship and – at last some kind of explanation! – Rorschach’s always on the move mask (I still don’t buy it, though)! There’s a final slice of publicity material with the three minute My Chemical Romance Desolation Row music video, which is okay but nothing too special (and certainly not how Bob Dylan probably imagined it!), though none of the film’s theatrical trailers are included, making one feel that the eventual UCE is going to be the definitive set of supplements.
Lastly, the BD-Live network allows for “live community screenings” with others online and, for those so inclined, exclusive features that can be shared via Facebook. I feel the Blu-ray format’s very point is to provide an even more direct experience as intended by the filmmaker, and while some may get a kick from talking and messing around throughout a movie, I’m no fan of these bolt-ons and would rather watch the film than fill the screen with nonsense. Likewise, Blu-ray perfectly compliments the rise of big screens and home theaters, and the thought of watching something as large in scope as Watchmen on a small-screen portable device also precludes me from getting excited about the Digital Copy disc also bundled in, a little more on in the packaging remarks below.
One of the things I have most lamented in the gradual switch to Blu-ray is the lack of deluxe packaging that has become almost the norm for major new releases on regular DVD. Slipcovers are not for everybody, but I always appreciated them, especially those that did not simply replicate the sleeve art to be found inside, but the BD format seems to be quite resistant to carrying the trend over. Not so with Watchmen, which even in its standard edition (various other versions including one with a miniature vehicle replica, one with a “glow in the dark Dr Manhattan head” and a steelbook case are available) sports a striking black and yellow-themed slipcover and impressively multi-depth holographic version of the front image depicting a glass window’s many shards having apparently been blown out by Rorschach. As with many event movie blockbuster debuts on disc, there’s nary a word about the actual film on the back of the sleeve – a trend that began with Warners’ own Batman back in the day – choosing instead to plug the extra 24 minutes and the Blu-ray exclusive Maximum Movie Mode with Snyder.
Underneath, the standard Blu case does repeat the same artwork, but inside there’s an insert for the anticipated Ultimate Collector’s Edition, which will bring together all the commercially released Watchmen material including the Director’s Cut with the Tales Of The Black Freighter woven back into the film and that disc’s own extra, the docu-drama Under The Hood among other new supplements. Two additional inserts feature the Digital Copy code and a “buy five, get one free” offer on WB BDs, and the spec requirements for the BD-Live features. The two Watchmen feature and supplement discs are held in a dual flap tray, with the Digital Copy in the back. Confusingly, this isn’t labelled as the Director’s Cut and, though it features the standard DVD Video logo, does not play in a standard DVD player, which is a disappointment.
Ink And Paint:
Quite simply, Watchmen looks fantastic on Blu-ray, in a digital print that should be very close to the filmmakers’ intentions, with a pleasingly light layer of grain that retains a solid film look. I might worry that the regular DVD has a lot to pack in, but compression here isn’t an issue at all, even given the extra material piled on top. Presented at 2.40:1, for any major fans of the movie that have not yet upgraded to hi-def, this is the reason to do so, even if the clarity only stresses how unfortunate the latex ageing make-up looks. As always, the digital stills illustrating this review are not indicative of the very sharp and detailed image on the Blu-ray Disc.
Although we’re given a DTS-HD Master Audio track (as well as good old Dolby 5.1), I still found some of the dialogue to be slightly muffled which, after experiencing the same in the theater, I must not put down to recording on set rather than a mixing issue. The rest of the sound is as wham-bang-wallop as you would expect, and the base rumbles away throughout, giving a very warm cushion to Dr Manhattan’s vocals. I wouldn’t say this was quite the best Blu-ray had to offer on the audio front, but very high marks all the same.
My words here are mostly of a reactive stance to experiencing the movie “sight unseen”. There are many evaluations of Watchmen’s brilliance or absurdity in print and online, and it would perhaps be imprudent of me to try and address the many aspects of the comic, the film and its characters as a first time and only so-so impressed viewer. But I will admit that this extended edition does provide a few more explanations (especially, it seemed to me, in the many flashback sequences) and those that enjoyed the film wholeheartedly are absolutely sure to get even more out of this Director’s Cut than the theatrical version they already appreciated. Newcomers may find the whole thing a slog, and even more so in a longer cut, but will at least be experiencing a more rounded and fully enveloping vision. As a movie, Watchmen often falls flat, but as a faithful screen interpretation of an “unfilmable” original, its can be counted as an achievement. I’d love to see Snyder attack his own material next and see how he does without the “storyboard” of a Miller, Moore or Gibbons to guide him, but in the meantime, I’m also sufficiently interested to see how this version can be topped by the Ultimate Collectors Edition coming at year’s end. This Blu-ray Disc isn’t the pinnacle of the format in terms of extras, but it’s a healthy selection of supplements for a film that’s often well worth watching.
Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?