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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Watchmen (Blu-ray)
Watchmen (Blu-ray)
Warner Bros. // R // July 21, 2009 // Region A
List Price: $35.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted July 20, 2009 | E-mail the Author
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C O N T E N T
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A U D I O
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P R I N T
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Even months after making its bow in theaters and with an expanded director's cut in my hand, I'm still astonished that Watchmen exists.

This is a project that,
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for two full decades, was shuffled between countless directors and screenplays that clumsily tried to shoehorn a densely layered narrative into the space of a couple of hours. This is a drama about the dark side of superheroics -- its characters are brooding, neurotic failures, a far cry from masked heroes with clenched fists and a beaming smile -- with little in the way of four-color action. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' miniseries is lyrical and abstract, drawing much of its strength less from the story itself and more from its unique construction. There are no marquee draws on the bill, its sprawling scope doesn't fit comfortably into a two hour runtime, and the material demands an R rating and a staggering price tag. It goes against all logic, really, that Watchmen -- the seminal miniseries that reshaped perceptions of the comic book as an art form -- should have been adapted into a film.

...and yet, here it is. Watchmen, for the unfamiliar, is set against the backdrop of an alternate version of 1985. The '30s and '40s briefly saw a spurt of costumed crimefighters taking to the streets, but it was a shortlived fad -- one brought about by boredom, publicity stunts, and exhibitionism -- and all but a couple wound up slaughtered or in an asylum within a matter of years. Of course, pop culture is cyclical, and everything old sooner or later starts to look new again. Another generation of heroes soon arises: Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), a terse, masked detective with a bleakly black-and-white perception of the world around him...Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), a multimillionaire with an arsenal of ingeniously engineered weapons and high-tech gadgets...Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman), the daughter of one of the original Minutemen dragged kicking and screaming into the superhero game...The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), himself an embittered alum of The Minutemen...and Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), the peak of human perfection and the most brilliant man alive. Towering above the rest of the group -- and humanity as a whole -- is the world's one and only superhuman: the seemingly omnipotent Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup)...a being so indescribably powerful that he alone upsets the balance of the Cold War. These costumed heroes are eventually met with fear and mistrust by the world at large, and the passage of the Keene Act outlaws vigilantism altogether. Some of them settle into boring, mundane lives. Some continue working for the government. One skulks around in costume under the radar. Another cashes in on his celebrity to become the wealthiest man to have ever walked the earth.

On its
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surface, Watchmen is a murder mystery. The Comedian is dead, but it's less interested in the investigation into whose hands his blood is on so much as exploring the damaged psyches of a world with superheroes: where nuclear war is an imminent threat, where an all-powerful being is essentially an impotent puppet, where figures who seem so much larger than life are as ravaged and downtrodden as the rest of us...

Visually, at least, Watchmen is slavishly faithful to the original comics. Dave Gibbons' compositions are reproduced with precision on the screen, and its attention to detail -- down the most negligible set dressing deep in the background -- is frequently startling. Other directors attached to Watchmen tried to force their sensibilities onto the project, but Zack Snyder has gone to astonishing efforts to stay true to the original work. His own distinctive visual approach does creep in at times, though, and sometimes it's at odds with the sort of film that Watchmen really ought to be. Snyder, as he did in 300, can't resist fiddling with the frame rate during its action sequences: slow motion that's sped up then slowed down again, all in the space of a single thrown punch. There isn't all that much in the way of action or extreme violence, but what little there is often seems absurdly over the top: exploding hands, arms sawed off, parades of thugs having twenty or thirty bones shattered a piece... Barely any of that dates back to the original miniseries, and the way it's staged here too frequently comes across as gratuitous; Snyder seems to get more of an orgasmic rush at the sight of geysers of blood than he does getting Malin Akerman completely naked a couple of times. Even though there's only one true superhuman in Watchmen, Ozymandias certainly doesn't have any trouble leaping a half-story in the air, and seemingly every punch landed can fling someone soaring twentysomething feet across the room. Of course, Snyder's visual eye other times complements the film beautifully, particularly the dazzling title sequence that quickly and elegantly conveys the short, thrilling, and ultimately brutal career of a costumed hero.

There are a couple of particularly outstanding performances. Rorschach is the voice of Watchmen, and Jackie Earl Haley is pitch-perfect in the role: the gravelly, gutteral growl of his voice, a frigid, detached gaze with his mask on and off, every movement and mannerism... Haley escapes into the character -- a flawless realization of Moore and Gibbons' creation -- and Watchmen wouldn't have been a fraction as effective without him on the bill. The Comedian is a small but crucial part, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan strikes that balance between his gruff, embittered exterior with glimmers of the wounded man underneath. Stephen McHattie and Carla Gugino are in the film only briefly as two of the surviving Minutemen, but both manage to make an enormous impression. McHattie in particular stands out, and the expansion of his performance of Hollis Mason is one of the more notable differences from the theatrical cut of the film.

The rest of
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the lot is hit or miss, disappointingly. I like Patrick Wilson well enough, but a defining characteristic of Dan Dreiberg circa 1985 is that he's bloated and soft. Casting someone with dashing good looks and charm to spare who seemingly spends an hour and a half in the gym every afternoon shies away from the failure of the four-color character. I'd always read Dr. Manhattan with a cold, inhuman voice. Billy Crudup seems to be channeling HAL-9000, and as terrific a touchstone as that is, he still sounds far too much like a man. The most glaring case of miscasting is Matthew Goode as Ozymandias. Goode plays him as a fop, really, and Ozymandias never exudes the sense of power, authority, or incomparable brilliance that he does in the comics. Malin Akerman is achingly beautiful but struggles with some of the dialogue, and that's a frequent problem for quite a few of the actors throughout the film. What works on the printed page doesn't always sound convincing when spoken aloud, and some of the performances are saddled with a very artificial, theatrical quality. Several of the bit players -- especially the Knot Tops -- are so cartoonish that they'd be a better fit in Frank Miller's trainwreck of a take on The Spirit.

To steal a line from another comic book writer, this adaptation of Watchmen is like making love with a Kevlar condom; you're going through all the same motions, but none of the feeling is there. As entranced as I am by Watchmen's visuals, I never felt the same sort of connection with what's unfolding on-screen as I do on the printed page. Part of it's because even with the sprawling three hour runtime of this director's cut, the film still rushes to squeeze in as much from the book as humanly possible. This blunts the impact, as does excising some of the dialogue and imagery that give the book's most powerful sequences much of their strength. Something as simple as "get up...and for God's sake, cover yourself" or a child whispering "Mr. Hollis...?" can transform an entire scene, and several of those sorts of tags are missing here. The dark sense of humor from the comic doesn't translate over, such as a man lugging around a tattered sign reading "the end is nigh" -- convinced Armageddon is just a few hours off -- but pestering a newsstand owner about when the next issue of a conservative rag is going to show up. The newsstand as a whole is an integral part of the comic but almost an afterthought in the film, and the brief stabs at incorporating it seem like ineffective fan service and don't make for much of an epilogue. I'm not especially keen on some of the choices of music -- especially "99 Luftballoons" to try to evoke the era, even with as appropriate as its lyrical content is to the film -- and Tyler Bates' score is completely forgettable.

From a story
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standpoint, this director's cut of Watchmen rarely veers away from the miniseries. Virtually every key sequence is carried over -- predominately intact to boot -- and the only omission that particularly stands out in my mind is the flashback with Kitty Genovese, the woman who's not only responsible for Rorschach having his face but largely defines his perception of the repulsive world around him. That's not essential for the core of the story, though, and the other alterations made -- how Rorschach deals with a murderous child molester, for instance, and Laurie never really picking up a cigarette -- don't change things all that drastically. The printed page cleverly wove a pirate comic called Tales from the Black Freighter into the narrative. This is something that I don't think would carry over to film particularly well, and it's been wisely left out of this adaptation, although the Ultimate Version slated for release in December will intercut the animated film from a few months back into Watchmen proper. The most dramatic change otherwise is Snyder swapping out the threat in the climax. I'll refrain from delving into specifics to avoid spoiling anything, but it's a change that works, really; the concept is the same, but the exact menace has been altered and fits more sleekly into what's been established. There's certainly a part of me that would've loved to have seen the startling imagery from those pages of the comic book reproduced on the screen, but I'm not the least bit disappointed with this change.

Watchmen, on the printed page, is a masterpiece. It redefined what a comic book could be, and an integral part of that was the way in which it took such full advantage of the medium. Its characters and its narrative are certainly engaging, but it's more the way in which the story is told that has entranced me over the years rather than the specific beats in the plot, and that just can't be carried over into film. Snyder can capture the visuals, to be sure, but the moments of stillness, the cleverly woven juxtaposition, the more subtle nuances, its many layers...those remain out of reach. At the very least, I think Watchmen demands an even larger canvas than this three hour cut of the movie to do the source justice. At the same time, though, this is a visually dazzling film, and its meticulous attention to detail and the remarkable faithfulness to Dave Gibbons' iconic artwork alone make it worth seeking out for longtime admirers of the comic. Despite being a drama rather than a hypercaffeinated action flick, the pacing still screams along -- this never once feels like a three hour movie -- and its more visceral sequences, even with their near-total lack of restraint, are still thrilling to watch. This expanded cut should be easier for the uninitiated to follow than the truncated theatrical release, and if it inspires more readers to pick up Moore and Gibbons' work, all the better. I have very mixed thoughts about this adaptation, but it very well may be because of a close attachment to the comic spanning more than fifteen years now, and it's certainly possible that I'll be able to view the film more on its own merits with future viewings. Despite some misgivings, I still found quite a bit to appreciate about Watchmen as a film, and I'm intrigued enough to continue to give this director's cut further spins over the coming months as well as to see Zack Snyder's final word on the movie with the Ultimate Version due in December. Recommended.


Video
Watchmen is a visual spectacle, and its high-definition release is the sort of flagship title that showcases precisely what Blu-ray has to offer. It's flawless, really. The scope image is startlingly crisp and detailed, from the fine textures in its characters' wardrobe to highlighting the meticulous attention to detail in the film's production design. Watchmen is so clear that even some of the framed newspaper articles in the background are clearly legible. This Blu-ray disc boasts a remarkably three dimensional appearance, and that sense of depth is bolstered by deep, inky black levels. Watchmen's palette is predominately subdued -- colder and darker than the original comics -- but there's a similar emphasis on secondary colors, and the neon lights and the brilliant blues of Dr. Manhattan stand out in particular. Film grain remains unintrusive throughout, and the image is so clean and clear, in fact, that I was surprised to see in the extras that Watchmen was shot on 35mm rather than digital video. Its VC-1 encode never shows any sign of strain either. This Blu-ray release of Watchmen is, in a word, perfect. This is a movie that's intensely driven by the strength of its visuals, benefitting more than most from the additional clarity and resolution that Blu-ray has to offer, and I'd without a flicker of hesitation rank Watchmen in the uppermost tier of titles on the format to date.


Audio
Warner
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has traditionally leaned on 16-bit Dolby TrueHD soundtracks for their lossless audio, but Watchmen breaks from that convention, opting instead to deliver 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio. It too is consistently spectacular from the first frame to the last. Dialogue is rendered cleanly and clearly throughout, never once finding itself overwhelmed in the mix. Even the film's more subdued stretches are reinforced effectively by the surround channels, and the chattering rears help the bustling city feel that much more organic and alive. It goes without saying that the sound design is at its most aggressive throughout the more action-oriented sequences, brimming with directionality and remarkably smooth pans from one channel to the next: Nite Owl's ship Archimedes screaming across the night sky, flames panning across speakers as Rorschach makes his escape, both a smoldering tenement and an otherworldly city crumbling into ruin, and the rush of water as a tower peppered with sprays of gunfire collapses. Bass response can be devastating, from the tight, punchy thuds as bodies are flung around the room to the thunderous roar as Dr. Manhattan first emerges. Though I'm not particularly fond of some of the music selections on the soundtrack or the many flat line readings, Watchmen's audio on a technical level is absolutely flawless, and it too showcases the strengths of the format.

A Quebeçois-French dub is offered in Dolby Digital 5.1 alongside subtitles in English (SDH), Spanish, and French. The extras on disc two are also optionally subtitled in English (SDH) and French.


Extras
  • Maximum Movie Mode (HD): Watchmen
    The "Maximum Movie Mode" in action
    builds on Warner's established In-Movie Experiences, combining seamless branching, picture-in-picture video, overlaid graphics, and optional tangents to create something distinctive and compelling. Standing out in particular are the walk-ons by director Zack Snyder. He strolls onto the frame to explore several key sequences in-depth, including the opening brawl with The Comedian, the rescue mounted at the torched tenement, and Dr. Manhattan's sprawling glass creation on the surface of Mars. The way this feature is authored allows Snyder to juggle between several different frames and even pause the action to delve deeper into a particular shot. Snyder only overtakes his film like this a handful of times, but those stretches are particularly well done, perhaps most memorably as he explains why his film diverts from the ending of the original comics.

    Picture-in-picture video is what primarily drives this feature, and among the many, many topics addressed here are further insight into Watchmen's characters, melding historical figures into the narrative, the fabrication of Rorschach's mask and test footage of the CG rendering, staging elaborate fight choreography and incendiary effects on one particularly cramped set, the black-and-white perception of the world that Rorschach has, sawing off fake forearms, the role the media plays in this alternate world, and how the very deliberate visual style of the film was shaped. I'm particularly impressed by the time lapse photography of the construction of the New York backlot and Archimedes.

    Watchmen periodically offers viewers the chance to branch off onto related Focus Points that fill the screen and are presented in full high-definition. These include Dave Gibbons marveling at the attention to detail in the film's production design, a detailed look at how Dr. Manhattan was brought to life, a "stylized realism" visual aesthetic that stuck with one 35mm camera and drew at least some inspiration from the comics' distinctive palette, the challenges of designing costumes and wardrobe spanning so many different eras, constructing Archimedes and what would total some two hundred sets, and some of the more visually dazzling moments of Watchmen's fights. Virtually every key backdrop in the film is accompanied by its own still gallery, including conceptual art, production stills, and behind-the-scenes shots. There are galleries for the title sequence, the rebirth of Dr. Manhattan, the alley fight, the prison riot, the Gunga Diner, Vietnam, and the bulk of the apartments, labs, and offices.

    This feature also periodically overlays a timeline that compares key events from the world of Watchmen to our own recent history. Also placed over the film are Snyder's hand-sketched storyboards, many behind-the-scenes shots of Watchmen being filmed, and panels from the original miniseries to show just how faithful the movie is to Dave Gibbons' artwork.

    Between the length of the film itself, its Focus Points, and the time required to fully explore its many still galleries, there are somewhere around four hours of material in this feature alone. Because that can be a lot to digest in one sitting, the disc keeps track of where you are in Watchmen and helpfully allows you to pick up where you left off. Some of the content can also be viewed outside of the context of the Maximum Movie Mode as well.

  • The Phenomenon: The Comic That Changed Comics (29 min.; HD): The
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    first of Watchmen's featurettes delves into the original miniseries, interviewing a slew of the film's cast and crew, a couple of journalists, and some of the talent at DC Comics, including artists Dave Gibbons and John Higgins. "The Phenomenon" touches on the genesis of a project that had originally been envisioned with a set of recently licensed characters, its unconventional and intensely collaborative creative process, and the many themes and concepts that Watchmen explores and deconstructs. There's little here likely to catch longtime admirers of Moore and Gibbons' work offguard, but for the less initiated, "The Phenomenon" is insightful and reasonably comprehensive.

  • Real Superheroes, Real Vigilantes (26 min.; HD): Continuing to shrug off stock making-of pieces, this featurette takes a look at vigilantism outside the confines of four-color superheroics. A number of professors, journalists, and law enforcement experts offer their thoughts -- contrasting the romantic fantasy of the vigilante with the stark reality that too frequently lurks in the shadows -- and Curtis Sliwa from The Alliance of Guardian Angels is joined by more...colorful superhero types like Tothian and Eclipto to add their perspectives as volunteer crimefighters themselves. For better or worse, "Real Superheroes..." focuses more on the Guardian Angels and the case of Bernhard Goetz than the masked superhero types.

  • Mechanics: Technologies of a Fantastic World (17 min.; HD): James Kakalios, a physics professor at the University of Minnesota and the author of The Physics of Superheroes, was tapped to help ground Watchmen in some sense of reality. The extremely personable Kakalios runs through what he helped bring to the film and explores what would work (with a little suspension of disbelief) and what wouldn't, including the mechanics of Dr. Manhattan's powers, why it makes sense that he'd be tinted blue, the construction and power supply of Archimedes, some of the finer points of a certain framejob, the fluid ink blot patterns in Rorschach's mask, and whether or not it'd be possible for a man to catch a bullet. I really prefer extras like these that use the film as a springboard to related but very different topics -- not just another interchangeable visual effects piece or the cast fawning over how wonderful everyone and everything is -- and all three of these featurettes are well-worth setting aside the time to watch.

  • Music Video (3 min.; HD): A high-def music video for My Chemical Romance's cover of "Desolation Row" rounds out the extras on disc two.

  • Digital Copy: The third disc in the set includes a digital copy of the film for use on iTunes and Windows Media-powered devices. A misprint on the DVD containing the digital copy lists it as 186 minutes, but this is instead the 162 minute theatrical cut.

  • BD Live: The switch has yet to be flipped on for Watchmen's BD Live functionality, but a hundred thousand fans can look forward to a live community screening with Zack Snyder from the San Diego Comic Con.
This director's cut of Watchmen is packaged on Blu-ray with an eyecatching lenticular slipcase. Tucked inside the case are a $10 off coupon for the Ultimate Collector's Edition of Watchmen, due to be released this December, along with a buy-five-get-one-free offer.


The Final Word
I was very much of the mindset that Watchmen was unfilmable, but then, I was more than skeptical that a remake of Dawn of the Dead could possibly be any good, and Zack Snyder certainly impressed me there. Though it's hardly the disaster I braced myself for, I am left with mixed feelings about this take on Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' seminal miniseries. On one hand, this expanded director's cut of the film is a startlingly faithful adaptation, but at the same time, it seems as if Snyder is so intensely focused on reproducing the comic down to the most minute detail that he sometimes loses sight of the bigger picture. I still think that some of the greatest strengths of the book -- the way the narrative is constructed and the details sketched in the margins -- just can't be translated into any other medium. I do like Watchmen, though, and I'm curious to see how my opinion will change with further viewings. Although an even more lavish set is slated to bow before the year's out, this high-def release of Watchmen is thoroughly impressive in its own right, boasting a spectacular visual and aural presentation alongside a compelling selection of extras. Recommended.


Related Reviews
DVD Talk also has reviews of the two Watchmen direct-to-video Blu-ray releases: The Complete Motion Comic and the double feature of Tales of the Black Freighter and Under the Hood. DVD Savant has written his own review of this director's cut of Watchmen as well for anyone interested in a second opinion.


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