Even with the slavish devotion with which Zack Snyder sought to reproduce every last flick of the pencil that Dave Gibbons had sketched into the margins, Watchmen is an epic with a sprawling scope long thought to be unfilmable. Certain sacrifices had to be made to whittle Moore and Gibbons' miniseries down to feature length, and because Tales of the Black Freighter enhances the story rather than drive it, this comic-within-a-comic didn't claw its way into the theatrical release. Snyder has teased at the idea of splicing it back into some sort of director's cut further down the line, but for the meantime, at least, "Tales of the Black Freighter" has been reserved solely for this animated, direct-to-video release.
Tales of the Black Freighter was seen in fleeting glimpses -- just a few scattered panels here and there -- in the original miniseries. On DVD and Blu-ray, the story has been fleshed out enough to break the twenty minute mark, minus credits. The core remains the same, though, following the sole survivor of a ship that's been ravaged by the nightmarish Black Freighter. Stranded on a desert isle with the rotting corpses of his crew a constant reminder of the horror he'd endured, the captain steels himself to return home and rescue his sleepy village before the Freighter's sails reach its shores. Despite being set centuries before any of the costumed heroes in Watchmen donned a cape or cowl, his journey is a superhuman effort just the same; the captain's drive for survival and his unwavering devotion to his family see him overcoming impossible odds but at the cost of his sanity.
The imagery and narration from this pirate comic are tightly woven into the story that unfolds throughout Watchmen, and it's just part of the way that Moore and Gibbons' miniseries takes advantage of the unique strengths of the comic book that no other medium could hope to reproduce. Stripped of that context, there's nothing particularly memorable about it, and this barely twenty minute animated short is a near-complete misfire. The more iconic, pulpy art from Watchmen's comic-within-a-comic has been replaced by unrecognizably grotesque character designs, and its distinctive palette has been tossed aside in favor of colors that are brighter and more conventional. "Tales of the Black Freighter" revels in geysers of blood, dismembered
"Tales of the Black Freighter" is a near-complete misfire, but the other half of this double feature -- the 37 minute "Under the Hood" -- more than makes up for it. In the same vein as the viral videos making the rounds online, "Under the Hood" builds on the printed word to create something new and distinct. It bills itself as an episode of a TV news magazine from 1985, reflecting back on a ten year old interview with Hollis Mason, a long-since retired superhero who'd penned an enormously popular tell-all book. Like the text-heavy pieces that close out each issue of Watchmen, "Under the Hood" does a spectacular job further fleshing out this world. The retrospective offered throughout this episode of "The Culpeper Minute" delves into the four-color heroics from the early days of these masked vigilantes through the backlash that prompted the Keene Act, and it's peppered with nods to the original comics. Aside from Mason, who chats away to "Culpeper"'s cameras in the Gunga Diner, it also features Sally Jupiter (acted with smirkingly polished radiance by Carla Gugino), Wally Weaver, Moloch, Big Figure, Dr. Malcolm Long, and even Bernard the newsvendor. Contributing to this sense of verisimilitude are a slew of archival footage and vintage advertisements, including a nod to -- what else? -- "Nostalgia". Sharply written, cleverly constructed, terrifically acted, and brought to life with a startling visual eye, "Under the Hood" is rewarding for longtime followers of Moore and Gibbons' miniseries as well as those newly initiated through Snyder's live-action adaptation.
As intrigued as I am by the concept of this sort of direct-to-video tie-in while the movie proper is still splashed across thousands of theater screens nationwide, this Blu-ray disc is too uneven to recommend. After shrugging off the credits, the double feature doesn't even crack the hour mark, but it still comes with a $35.99 sticker price attached. "Tales of the Black Freighter" doesn't stand particularly well on its own, and this adaptation is such a misfire that I'm not sure it'd even work in the context of the movie either. "Under the Hood", meanwhile, is outstanding, but its short length and daunting price tag make it difficult to recommend to anyone but completists. Some sort of boxed set is inevitable, and more casual fans would be better off renting this Blu-ray disc now and holding off on a purchase until a more complete set is released. Rent It.
I'll admit to not being overwhelmingly impressed by its grotesque character designs, but technically, "Tales of the Black Freighter" looks outstanding on Blu-ray. The razor-sharp linework of the animation screams high definition, and its palette -- from the orange sky as dusk approaches to the bright blues as the mariner is pitted against the searing heat of day -- is consistently bold and vibrant. Its scope framing also lends "Tales of the Black Freighter" a more cinematic visual style. "Under the Hood", meanwhile, passes itself off as a look back at a mid-'70s piece from a hopelessly dated TV news magazine, and it looks the part. Despite looking to have been natively shot on high definition video, "Under the Hood" is pillarboxed to an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 to maintain that illusion. That retro aesthetic is further fleshed out by slathering the image in film grain like a decades-old 16mm interview that's suffered some slight wear over the years. Despite being artificially grainy and weathered, the clarity and detail on display throughout "Under the Hood" still manages to trump anything DVD can offer, although viewers should still go in with their expectations in check.
Despite the lean bitrate -- counting the extras, its two hours of VC-1-encoded video don't even break the 18 gig mark on this single layer Blu-ray disc -- I couldn't spot any hiccups or stutters in the compression.
"Tales of the Black Freighter" is bolstered by an aggressive and remarkably immersive Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack. The design is fleshed out by a strong sense of directionality; squawking gulls, lapping waves, engulfing flames, and the feverish nightmares of the Freighter and her undead crew all attack from every which way, and the devastation that opens this animated piece summons a hellish amount of bass from the subwoofer. The narration by Gerard Butler and the sparse dialogue scattered throughout are rendered cleanly and clearly, and despite the havoc that's wreaked throughout "Tales of the Black Freighter", they're never overwhelmed in the mix. "Under the Hood" also sports a TrueHD track, but taking its cues from a thirty-five year old news magazine obviously leaves it more restrained. These series of interviews are rooted comfortably in the center channel, although the mix is teeming with a fair amount of color, particularly in the surrounds. The jazzy flavor to its background music also packs a wallop. It's nothing dazzling but suits the material better than it has to.
Both halves of this double feature also offer traditional Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks and optional subtitles in English (SDH).
"Tales of the Black Freighter" and "Under the Hood" feel more like exceptionally well-produced extras than a proper double feature as it is, so it's not an overwhelming surprise that this Blu-ray disc is light on other features. A sticker on the cover mentions an online exclusive scene from the live-action movie, but I didn't spot any BD Live links on any of the menus.
The Final Word
Saddled with a $35.99 sticker price and not even a full hour of featured material minus credits, this Blu-ray disc is a tough sell. The pirate story of "Tales of the Black Freighter" is really meant to be woven into the greater tapestry of Watchmen and doesn't stand on its own particularly well. The mid-'70s news magazine approach "Under the Hood" takes, on the other hand, is exceptionally clever; it further fleshes out the backstory for those unfamiliar with Watchmen outside of the context of Zack Synder's movie, and it's inspired enough to still feel fresh and new even to seasoned fans who've re-read these comics relentlessly over the past quarter-century. This double-feature is absolutely worth renting in the here and now, but with the hefty asking price and inevitability of some sort of boxed set down the line, anyone but Watchmen completists are probably better off Netflixing or waiting. Rent It.