There was a lot riding on Watchmen. As one of the comic books that defined the genre, the film was already eagerly anticipated by all those who grew up reading it (as well as those who read it and subsequently dove even deeper into the realm of comic books). With a decidedly adult story that wouldn’t translate to your typical super hero film, the film adaptation was tossed around in development hell for decades before finally coming to light in the mid-2000’s as something that may actually happen before 2010. Hitting the mark just barely, Watchmen, courtesy of 300 director Zack Snyder, debuted in theaters in March of 2009…with mixed critical and fan reception. The task of bringing this story the film medium was definitely a taxing one, but for all of its flaws in the final form, fans agree that it’s about as faithful of an adaptation as one could get out of a three hour motion picture.
Someone’s killing our super heroes. The year is 1985 and super heroes have banded together to respond to the murder of one of their own. They soon uncover a sinister plot that puts all of humanity in grave danger. The super heroes fight to stop the impending doom only to find themselves a target for annihilation. But, if our super heroes are gone, who will save us?
I was anticipating Watchmen for several reasons. On one hand I’d been a fan of Snyder’s work for some time and on the other the graphic novel is the stuff of legends. I’d read the majority of it in my teens, but it was admittedly a bit too heavy handed to really absorb then; all of the politics, romance, and general real life scenarios weren’t something a teen interested in Batman beating people up really cared to read about. On top of that these heroes existed nowhere else but within this world, so you were basically committing yourself to an entire, ultra-thick graphic novel with no idea of what you were getting yourself into.
That was something the film also was weighted with as well. No one had heard of these superheroes before; they weren’t even the type of heroes that you may have heard of somewhere, like Ant Man or The Atom. These were characters that, for the most part, only those who had read the graphic novel knew of and to produce an entire film around that definitely took some guts on Warner’s part. Unfortunately while they didn’t necessarily lose money on it with the worldwide box office totals $50 million more over the budget (although how much of that actually went to Warner after overseas distributor deals and the whole Fox lawsuit, I don’t know), it wasn’t a huge success either. The uncertainty of what this near three-hour film would bring to viewers was just too much for most movie goers to contend with; on top of that critics painted the film as easily confusing, should you not be familiar with the original graphic novel.
So Watchmen, immediately from the start, is far from perfect. It has a lot of issues to contend with, the least of which is cramming the expansive story into three hours. Even the director’s cut, with twenty four extra minutes of footage, still feels stifled; I would love to watch this film as someone who wasn’t familiar with the characters or the graphic novel, as I wonder just how much more confusing (or less so) it would be if you walked in completely cold. Still, I knew immediately as the credits began to roll in the theater that the film was definitely something you had to watch more than once…and that it also would have worked better in a different form.
Take a break from the film for a minute and imagine this: the HBO epic mini-series Band of Brothers, all ten or eleven hours of it, condensed down to a scant three hours. Could it be done? Yes, it could be. Would you retain the essence of the story? Perhaps. Would it be something you’d watch over and over again, knowing that there was so much missing? Probably not. That’s the same issue I have with Watchmen; it’s not that the gist of the story isn’t still maintained, it’s that so many of the little things that made it such a full and expansive universe were shelved. Obviously they needed to be to fit into the length of something that someone would actually got the theater to see, but at times it just feels too condensed.
In an ideal world this would be an HBO mini-series in of itself and I could only imagine the brilliance that it could have attained had it been done as such. Trim the budget a bit and it could be done with still excellent brilliance, although maybe not as expansive and wonderful looking as some of the Dr. Manhattan and Mars effects were, but still. It’s all I can think of when I watch this film that, given more time, it could have been a true masterpiece. Instead it’s like we’re seeing the cliff notes version which is entirely fine, as there’s plenty of interesting things left in the abbreviated version; you just miss some of the subtleties.
But enough about wanting this film to be something it’ll never be. Taking the film for what it is, you get a very finely crafted piece of film, with Zack Snyder bringing the Watchmen world to life with as much precision as one could hope for. Sure, there are story bits tweaked, but not everything could be retained obviously and the loss of one intergalactic squid is nothing to concern ourselves too much over; that was always one of the more fantastical elements of the original graphic novel and to have it anchored more to reality helped the film in the long run, I think.
At times the film will hit a stumbling block or feel like it shifts gears entirely; you first pick it up during The Comedian’s funeral when we’re given a whole series of flashbacks into his seedy past. We feel it even greater when we get Dr. Manhattan’s origins, which slows the entire film to a crawl as it completely isolates everyone else while we learn of the blue man’s story. Not that it isn’t something that was required, as it helps us understand the character better, but that’s just the way this film had to be constructed. It was written originally in volumes and separated accordingly; stitching them together in a seamless string would be impossible. It happens again with a few of the other characters as well, but it doesn’t feel quite as abrupt with them. Perhaps because we can paint them into the ideas of other previously established heroes; there’s no one else quite like Comedian, Rorschach, or Dr. Manhattan so they needed more exposure than the others, I suppose.
While the film can feel heavy handed and overly political at times, it was written at a time when these feelings were felt by America, whether we knew it or not; written in an alternate reality where Nixon is re-elected for a third term makes things obviously not related to our own world, but at the same time the mixture of our reality with the Watchmen’s reality is what makes this film feel so fresh and old simultaneously. Of course there’s also the infusion of CGI into the world that makes it feel futuristic at the same time; while the technology around them is dated, the visuals of Dr. Manhattan (which, despite what I’d heard previously, I don’t think there are any bonus shots of his full body in the director’s cut…unless I just wasn’t paying attention to the “bell clacker” [as Synder once put it in an interview]) and even of that purple tiger thing (which wins for one of the most random an unexplained creatures ever in a film) were fantastic to look at.
The film didn’t turn out to be what I expected or really hoped (especially from the teaser trailer with the Smashing Pumpkins music), but in the end I was still pleasantly surprised. The new director’s cut, while not really adding much to it that feels new, does help flesh out some things; following up on characters we see only briefly in the theatrical cut feels good and helps make the film feel a bit more well rounded and complete. I liken it to the additions to Daredevil in its director’s cut; the fundamentals of the film are still there, but the added sequences help make it more fleshed out. Some new bits aren’t quite as obvious and I question whether they are truly new or not; but others like teeth floating in the bloody mouth of someone on the receiving end of Owlman’s fists definitely stand out as new. It’s surprising that there was twenty-four minutes of new footage though, as the new material didn’t feel like it lengthened the film by that much..
Overall while the film may still have a few quirks (some of the song choices still bewilder me; 99 Red Balloons…really?) that don’t gel well with me, for the most part it’s a very entertaining film that’s much more political and adult in nature than your typical super hero outing. Repeat viewings will be difficult as it’s such a lengthy film, but that doesn’t make them any less exciting as you’ll no doubt pick up on new things you’d missed. The added director’s cut footage is definitely a bonus for both those who have and haven’t seen the film and, as always, that opening montage of moving photographs underscored by Bob Dylan’s music was just a fantastic way to open the film and set up our characters. Snyder definitely constructed one of the most faithful versions possible of this film given the circumstances and for that I can only give the man repeated kudos.
Given the heavy handed nature of the film (as well as the rather explicit adult situations on top of it), I’ll settle this film with a Recommended rating only. It’s definitely not perfect by any means and it really is a film that suffers from too much story in too little space; had I not read the graphic novel beforehand I no doubt would have been confused or bored with the story as it attempts to cut too much out at times…but, again, that’s a just a causality of adapting a lengthy graphic novel (in every sense of the word) into a feature length film. There are flaws to be sure, but there’s still plenty to enjoy. And hey, if you pick up the comic book as a result, then that can be considered a bonus as well!
Last time Warner made a big deal about one of their Blu-ray’s, it was The Dark Knight and I was disappointed big time with it. Thankfully that’s not the case with Watchmen, although those that crack open the case will likely feel immediate hatred for Warner Home Video: nestled inside, under all of the other papers that advertise BD-Live as well as the digital copy is a sheet that mentions $10 off. $10 off what, you ask? At first I thought it was the graphic novel, but it is, in fact, $10 off of the upcoming Ultimate Collector’s Edition, arriving in December. Yes, they’re basically telling you flat out after you bought the film that it comes with an advertisement for the next release…but at least they’re giving you something off of it. The five-disc set will boast a commentary by Dave Gibbons and Zack Snyder, as well as a re-cut version of the film that splices Tales of the Black Freighter in with it. The Watchmen Motion Comic also appears to be included, as well as the Under the Hood extra…so aside from the commentary and new cut of the film, there may not be actually all that much “new” about the ultimate edition…but time will tell. For now we can enjoy this release, right?
You bet we can. The exterior of the standard Elite Blu-ray case is a 3-D lenticular image that is a little less than impressive in terms of any cool motion tricks, although I must say the 3D effects of the glass flying at you is really quite good; it genuinely looks like they’re sitting above the rest of the cover at any angle. Of course the film is going to be on your shelf 99% of the time anyway, so it’s kind of a useless extra…but hey, cheap entertainment I suppose. Inside the case are the three discs (film, special features, digital copy) and the aforementioned inserts. The film auto-starts after a quick BD-Live promotion, with the pop-up menus available at all times. It should be noted that if you watch the film in the “Maximum Movie Mode,” the pop-up menu is disabled.
The film arrives in a VC-1 encoded transfer that hovers around the 16mbps area, although it spiked into the 20’s occasionally. It’s a rather low bit rate for such a special effects heavy film, but considering its length and the fact it’s backed by a DTS-HD Master Audio track may account for the lower bit rate. Honestly though, it’s such a dark film it doesn’t require much to look good; deep blacks and…well, deep blacks prevail throughout the film and what few lit scenes there are look good as well. Plenty of detail abounds, although a few of the close-up sequences are a bit smeared over at times. Overall a film that looks good, but won’t blow you away with its clarity—it’s just a dark film by nature and wasn’t made to wow the viewer much (unless you count the brutal violence and rather graphic sex, then I guess you’ll be wowed).
Audio arrives in an aforementioned DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, which is pretty surprising considering Warner usually packs Dolby TrueHD tracks onto their releases, even the big ones. It’s definitely a nice surprise though, as even though both codecs are lossless in nature, DTS always tends to pack a heavier LFE punch, which is definitely felt at more than a few locations in this film. While the finale doesn’t boast all that much in terms of room shaking effects, plenty of the earlier portions of the film as well as the whole chapter that includes the fire rescue and prison break has plenty of vibration going on. Surrounds are relentlessly active as well, although not in a way that really stands out for any one particular scene. Like the video, the audio is fantastic, but not enough so that it would be a worthy demo disc; again though, this isn’t your typical superhero film and as such it’s a great deal more laid back. It definitely looks and sounds better due to the Blu-ray format, but it’s still not something that’ll make you drop your jaw in awe.
Extras are spread across the two discs. The first disc has the heavily touted Maximum Movie Mode with Zack Snyder. I scoffed at the idea of this as it sounded like glorified picture in picture for the most part and…really, that is what it ended up being when it comes to things like storyboards and time line pop-ups, but there are the elements where Snyder himself appears on screen to talk about segments and it done in such a smooth and flawless way that I enjoyed it immensely more than any other Blu-ray “extra” that I’ve watched in the past. Most of the time these extras feel gimmicky, but Warner really pulled something special out of their hat with this one; just the smoothness of it all and how flawlessly it intercuts itself in the film is truly amazing. I wish there was more of the Snyder moments, but there’s a great deal of picture in picture things to watch as well, such as eleven individual segments (which I guess are the video journals mentioned on the back cover), ranging two to three minutes each, that are also available individually from the menu. While a commentary would’ve sufficed with me, this Maximum Movie Mode is pretty awesome as well (although knowing the five-disc will have a commentary slightly annoys me…but oh well).
Moving onto the second disc we don’t get nearly as many extras as I’d hoped, but there’s still a fair mixture. Included:
The Phenomenon: The Comic that Changed Comics (28:46, 1080p)
Real Super Heroes, Real Vigilantes (26:17, 1080p)
Mechanics: Technologies of a Fantastic World (16:49, 1080p)
My Chemical Romance: Desolation Row Music Video (3:15, 1080p)
They’re all fairly entertaining extras, but it revolves around the comic book more than anything. Accompanied by cast and crew of the film itself, obviously, but the extras don’t really pertain to the making-of the actual film in any specific way; you’ll have to stick with the Movie Mode for those goodies. Still, they’re solid extras…although I have to wonder where the hell the trailers are. I mean that Smashing Pumpkins trailer is just one of the coolest trailers for a film I’ve seen in a long time and to not have it included on the disc is a bit of a downer.
Overall Watchmen – Director’s Cut is a fantastic release, but not one without flaws. The biggest flaw of which being the advertisement for the double dip being right inside the case itself, but the other being that they devoted an entire second Blu-ray disc to a little over an hour’s worth of extras; I’m glad they’re included (and not some BD-Live only thing), but it seems like kind of a waste of a Blu-ray disc…you think they would have included something else. Speaking of BD-Live there are other features on there supposedly, but they weren’t live as of this writing.
Watchmen – Director’s Cut is a Recommended release for those who only casually enjoyed the film. I’m unsure how a version spliced with an animated movie will go over, considering I didn’t really care for the Black Freighter movie to begin with, but for those who are die-hard fans of Watchmen, you may want to hold off…although the advertisement doesn’t mention if a non-animation infused version would be available (or if the Maximum Movie Mode is included), so you may end up owning both versions if you’re a completist.
Watchmen – Director’s Cut arrives on single and two-disc DVD and two-disc Blu-ray on July 21st.