In time frame of just over eight months after it's theatrical release, Zack Snyder's "Watchmen" has seen three separate DVD releases: a single disc theatrical edition, a two-disc extended director's cut (which I previously reviewed here), and now a five-disc behemoth titled, "Watchmen: The Complete Story" or "The Ultimate Cut." When I sat down to review the extended director's cut a few months back, I had already seen the theatrical edition of "Watchmen" two times. Now, as I write this review, for the even longer "ultimate cut," I've seen the film a grand total of five times. The kicker is, "Watchmen" isn't even my favorite film of the year, but that doesn't stop it from being a fascinating adaptation of a once thought, un-filmable graphic novel.
Rather than rehash my previous review and only add a paragraph or two relating to this third and most likely, final version, I'll instead, use the opportunity to take a fresh look at a film that spits in the face of the philosophy, "more is less." First and foremost, the "ultimate cut" is not a mainstream film in any shape or form. It's a cut for the most loyal fans and crafted by a director who is undeniably a dedicated and loyal fan. If you haven't seen "Watchmen" I'm going to reiterate my advice from my original review; rent the director's cut first, or better yet read the graphic novel first. Even when expanded from the theatrical runtime of 162 minutes to this' edition's 215 minute length, there are subplots that were not carried over onto film and thing's which Alan Moore did in crafting this now legendary story that are too much for a feature film. So that being said, I'll throw up a spoiler warning and dive into things.
SPOILER WARNING: THIS REVIEW ASSUMES YOU'VE EITHER READ THE ORIGINAL GRAPHIC NOVEL AND/OR SEEN AT LEAST THE THEATRICAL EDITION OF WATCHMEN. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
As a major fan of "Watchmen" and superhero films in general, Zack Snyder's "ultimate cut" is a very good film. Logically, any film version of the story should have been a disaster. Yet, despite missing many "essential" scenes the theatrical film was a truly memorable experience. Now that Snyder has been given free reign to go back and add in additional footage (including the previously released, "Tales of the Black Freighter" story), the final product is a much more cohesive journey, but by no means an easy one. 215 minutes is a long time, comparable to the runtime of "Lawrence of Arabia" and the theatrical edition of "Return of the King." "Watchmen" though is in no way shape or form, in the same league as these justifiable epics, but that doesn't stop it from being entertaining.
The additions made by both the previously released director's cut and this cut restores some humanity to the film, an element that was underplayed on the first outing. In this addition, by reintegrating the story of the Black Freighter in several short segments, the viewer is given an additional bit of implied depth to the character of Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), the one character, who after repeat viewings unfortunately is the least developed, despite a solid performance. The Black Freighter segments are initially jarring as the film jumps in familiar places not to the expected scene, but to a very stylized form of animation. Snyder enlists the talents of Gerard Butler to voice the captain of the doomed voyage and Jared Harris ("Fringe's" scene stealing David Robert Jones) as the ship's (dead and decomposing) first mate. When I first read the graphic novel, these segments quickly got on my nerves; here, by the third segment, their intent is very clear. In all honesty, the animated version of this tale works better in the feature film version, than the comic-within-the-comic version of the source material. It is a perfect summary of not only Ozymandias' crazed vision for saving the world, but a word of warning to Dan Dreiberg and Laurie Juspeczyk.
The Black Freighter sequences also allow two minor, but memorable characters from the graphic novel their chance in the spotlight. The two Berines are the ultimate reminder of the common person, going about their lives, not knowing how a small group of remarkable individuals will decide their fate. Their death's at the hand of Ozymandias provides a face for the victims of what this supposed "hero" did for the greater good.
Additionally, a major character from the graphic novel, Hollis Mason (Stephen McHattie), the original Nite Owl, becomes a much more important force on the big screen. Reinstated scenes expand on his relationship with his successor Dan Dreiberg, and his resulting death is one of the most powerful, beautiful, and saddening scenes committed to film in recent memory. His death allows Snyder to add in another scene involving Dreiberg that echoes the warning of the Black Freighter.
In regards to those above referenced themes of good and evil, I'd say Snyder gets the point across quite effectively. Where things are still not perfect is characterization. The most thinly written character on-screen, Ozymandias, suffers the most. Critics have roasted Goode's mysterious accent that pops up in the film's climax. It's a very valid criticism as it highlights areas where just a few more lines of exposition could have added in the layers of depth originally created by Moore. Unfortunately, Goode's understanding of the material gets written off as poor acting, instead of praised for Goode bringing in the character's hidden European background which recalls memories of Aryan supremacy, a theme not too far removed from what Ozymandias becomes.
Malin Akerman remains the weakest actor of the group and my initial assessment of her wooden delivery stands. As the film version grew in length, her character, Laurie Juspeczyk does benefit from some added character depth. Her detached from reality nature garners explanation from her relationship with Dr. Manhattan and the US Government, who views her as nothing more than a tool to keep their super weapon happy and focused. The film also touches on her living in the shadow of her mother's former greatness, which is a fitting contrast to Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson) an endorsed successor to Hollis Mason. Laurie and Dan, in the end, make a fitting couple, but the duo suffers from some awkward chemistry from time to time. It doesn't help that their, Leonard Cohen scored love-scene, is still as cringe inducing as it was on the initial viewing.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan nails the almost impossible feat of making The Comedian a sympathetic character, despite his amoral behavior. Morgan brings physical credibility to the character as well, which completes the transformation. Despite his short screen-time, Morgan is the second most memorable part of the film for more than one reason. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Billy Crudup, portrays a very effective Dr. Manhattan. His performance becomes more memorable with each viewing and as the one truly supernatural element of the film, he is entirely believable as a man who became a god, who still struggles with traces of his former humanity.
Last but not least, I still can't pile enough praise on Jackie Earle Haley as fan-favorite, Rorschach. Haley doesn't play Rorschach, he is Rorschach. The voice, the physical presence, the rough, brutal fighting, he is the entire package. He transforms himself from the seemingly quiet, mellow spoken, man he comes across in interviews and other films, into an incorruptible, menacing, symbol of vigilante justice, with a voice of a demon. Rorschach's voice is a large part of his character, as the character is a masked hero, and the vocal work Haley does, despite being largely without emotional inflection is fantastic. I stand by my initial proclamation of Haley deserving a Best Supporting Actor nomination. He is the heart and soul of the film, even when playing a character that appears to lack both.
At the end of the day, I could drone on further and play the "what if" game. What if Snyder had a feature film budget and could have made a mini-series? What if Snyder could have added in another 30 minutes? Obviously, it's a safe bet the adaptation would be even more faithful. However, one must remind themselves, this is a movie after all. Comic fans have seen literal adaptations, specifically, "Sin City." "Watchmen" is not a literal adaptation, it has it's own life, it's not merely a fancy copy; it takes liberties and to its credit the "controversial" changed ending feels far more realistic than the giant squid that was spawned from Alan Moore's mind. "Lord of the Rings" and "Harry Potter" both deviate at times more drastically from their source material, but are still great films. The bottom line is "Watchmen" captures the look, feel and tone of the original graphic novel, and is a damn satisfying experience.
The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer on this edition of "Watchmen" is a double-edged sword. The slight edge-enhancement I noticed on the earlier 186-minute release is almost non-existent. However, the image does look a tad softer and some minor compression artifacts show up, mostly on rich solid colors. The film's 215-minute runtime really stretches the limits of a single disc and I think had the movie been stretched to two discs, the resulting transfer could have been near reference quality. It's still a very solid image and thankfully still colors are well reproduced. The color palette was an important factor in the graphic novel and it shows here, as things shift accordingly from live action to animation. The live action tone is one of coldness and at times depression, whereas the Black Freighter sequences is a bleak, rich with shades of red and orange.
This edition of "Watchmen" features an English Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track that sounded exactly the same as the previous release. The audio is a solid, engrossing experience, with great use of surrounds. The effect of Dr. Manhattan's teleportation aurally radiates outwards from front to back, and Rorschach's gravely, hard-boiled voice is reproduced pitch perfect. English subtitles for the hearing impaired are also included as well as French and Spanish subtitles.
The first disc holds two lone extras, commentary tracks from Zack Snyder and Dave Gibbons. The packaging and press had it worded that it would be one track with both commentating together. After having listened to both tracks, a one track, duo commentary would have been the best option. Snyder is very upbeat and does an admirable job holding his own for 215 minutes, but the track is not without some dead moments and you can hear Snyder getting tired toward the end. The Dave Gibbons track is unfortunately tough to get through. He's very low-key when discussing things and when the first Black Freighter scene pops up he mentions he's never seen the animated segment prior to this viewing. There are a lot of dead moments and I wonder at times if Gibbons has only seen the theatrical cut and is getting caught up in the film, forgetting to continue his commentary. All in all, it's nice to have him give his thoughts and he does a great job of talking about working on the comic, but paired with Snyder, I think the result would have been a great commentary track. Instead we get a good commentary track and one slightly below average one.
Disc two contains several featurettes, including the ones previously available on the 2-Disc Director's Cut.
Making the journey from the previous release is a nearly 30 minute featurette on the series titled "The Phenomenon." It's a talking-heads piece, but not the self-congratulatory style that you might expect. Cast and crew talk about their involvement with the film and thoughts towards the original graphic novel. The most interesting aspect involves interviews with the publisher who brought originally helped make the Watchmen a reality on the printed page over two decades ago, as well as co-creator and artist Dave Gibbons. It's a great primer for those unfamiliar with the original series.
"Watchmen Video Journals" is a collection of 11 short (three to five minutes each) making-of segments that were originally released online to build up hype for the film. They are all quite informative, but their brief nature leaves you wanting a more substantial making-of documentary.
The new (to DVD) extras include additional featurettes previously only available on the Blu-Ray release of the director's cut. First up is "Real Superheroes, Real Vigilantes" a roughly thirty minute look at the concept of vigilantism in society. The Guardian Angels group as well as Bernhard Goetz, the infamous New York subway vigilante is the initial focal point. What the makers forget to mention in regards to Goetz is Goetz likely crossed the line of vigilante when he, by his own admission, shot one of his assailants a second time after saying "You look ok, here's another." People unfamiliar with Goetz are likely to leave under the impression he was a true hero. The featurette concludes with a look at two guys who are vigilantes, but go around in actual costumes. It's initially amusing, but I honestly fear for these guys' safety if they are 100% serious.
"Mechanics: Technologies of a Fantastic World" is the briefest of the new featurettes but the most interesting. It's a focus on Dr. Jim Kakalios, a physics professor who wrote a book on the physics of comic books. I had read his book a year prior and found it very interesting both as a fan of comics and a science major. Snyder employed him on the film as an advisor and here he explains how a lot of the stuff in Watchmen isn't that farfetched. His explanation of Dr. Manhattan's abilities is quite engaging.
"Story Within a Story" is a featurette that looks at the Black Freighter segments as well as "Under the Hood" in relation to how they fit into the original graphic novel. I was shocked to learn "Under the Hood" was not part of the original concept and only added because there was extra space in the comic that normally would be used for ads. It's a good featurette for people who have never read the comic, but this set isn't aimed at this audience. As a longtime fan, the explanation of how Black Freighter was relevant to the general story was tedious and already understood.
"Under the Hood" is the final major bonus feature on disc two. It originally appeared on the standalone release of the Black Freighter. It's presented as a faux-70s television documentary on Hollis Mason and the original batch of costumed heroes, The Minutemen. It does a great job of making the viewer care more about Hollis Mason and Sally Jupiter. The actors that play these characters in the movie don't phone it in either. I appreciated Stephen McHattie's characterization of Hollis even more after seeing him, as a slightly younger Mason, reminiscing about his past and the new wave of heroes taking up the cause. The level of detail in terms of the archival footage the filmmakers put together here is quite astounding. Snyder and his team really show their love for the Watchmen universe, when they can create a faux program that looks 100% real. It's not a piece I'll find myself rewatching, but it was a tremendously fun 40-minute ride.
Finally, the music video for My Chemical Romance's cover of "Desolation Row" returns. It again sticks out like a sore thumb as the band doesn't mesh at all with this franchise.
Disc three houses the digital copy of the theatrical edition. In my opinion, it's an utter waste of space. It's worth noting the previous director's cut also had a digital copy of the theatrical cut included.
DISCS FOUR AND FIVE
"Watchmen: The Complete Motion" comic round out the extras here. The discs are contained in their original two-disc case that hit store shelves prior to the films' theatrical release.
The motion comic is essentially a limited animation version of the graphic novel, broken into 12, thirty-minute episodes. Tom Stechschulite narrates it like an audio book, in a very effective fashion. I heard fans complain that they should have gotten actors to do the voices, but as someone who has listened to their share of audio books, I saw nothing wrong with the presentation. Stechschulite gives each character a unique voice. Like "Under the Hood" the motion comic is really targeted to hardcore fans. I enjoyed watching it quite a bit, and there were moments that felt extremely cinematic, despite the limitations of the animation. It's by no means a substitute for re-reading the original graphic novel, as there are some minor edits and none of the post issue, supplementary material is adapted.
The motion comic is presented with a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. It's a sharp looking presentation that captures all the colors and details from Dave Gibbons' original artwork. The audio is a straightforward English 5.1 Dolby Digital track that is obviously dialogue heavy. The narration is balanced a bit heavy, but the supporting score and effects make their point as needed. English subtitles for the hearing impaired are included.
Presented as a bonus to this set here, the motion comic feels like a satisfying extra and the complaints of it's initial release months ago aren't entirely fair, especially considering it was announced as being included in this set back then. As I stated earlier, a lot of hardcore fans are going to be interested in this adaptation of the material, even if they hated Snyder's film and if the motion comic was made exclusive to the set, I have no doubt the complaints would be even louder.
"Watchmen: The Complete Story" is the most complete version fans are likely to ever get. From this fan's perspective, Snyder's numerous additions add in every way and do Alan Moore's story the justice it deserves. Warner does DVD owners right with a solid A/V presentation, as well as a fairly exhaustive supply of supplemental material. That being said, "Watchmen" remains a niche title. Its replay value is honestly limited to fans and fans alone. Recommended.