Did audiences of yore exclaim "You've never seen anything like it!" with breathless alacrity when they first experienced The Great Train Robbery or the nascent special effects wizardry of Georges Melies? That same audience reaction has continued unabated in successive decades, and it seems that every year or two we're greeted by a new sensation that is meant to take us where no audience has gone before. This year's treat (at least so far) seems to be Watchmen, the sprawling adaptation of Alan Moore and David Gibbons' equally sprawling graphic novel, a piece which imagines a world where superheroes are real, everyday folk who just happen to don capes and masks and pummel the heck out of bad guys. While the feature film has received generally mixed reviews, the source graphic novel is something of a classic in the genre, with an incredibly complex mythos, almost too many subplots to keep track of at times, and a wealth of supplementary material informing its main storylines. In fact, it's pretty much analogous to a well-stocked DVD or BD--even if you're underwhelmed by the main feature, there's always those enticing Extras to check out. This new Watchmen release capitalizes on two of the relatively minor plot elements hinted at in both the graphic novel and the feature film, while also offering a nice host of bonus material to flesh out viewers' understanding of the labyrinthine Watchmen world.
First up is Tales of the Black Freighter, an animated short based on the comic book that pops up throughout the graphic novel. Part of Moore and Gibbons' conceit is that in a world filled with real-life superheroes, comic books would feature a different kind of hero, and so pirate-centric fare became one of the preferred idioms. Freighter is an interesting concept which plays into the Watchmen mythos subtly by detailing the slow moral degradation of its hero, a survivor of a pirate attack which sinks his ship and kills his crew. The man (voiced by Gerard Butler, hero of one of the last visual feasts everyone was exclaiming about, 300) becomes more and more deranged as the plot plays out, moving from relatively sane moments of fashioning a raft out of the corpses of his fallen comrades to his ultimate madness, where his hallucinations force him into an act of unspeakable horror.
What works nicely as a referent in the graphic novel never really is fully realized in this animated adaptation, for the main reason that the man's devolution is so epigramatically handled. There's no "slow" descent into madness here--he pretty much dives in, head first, and never looks back. The whole enterprise comes off as Edgar Allan Poe-lite, mostly because the whole thing seems rushed. That said, there probably was no effective way to adequately portray the man's growing insanity, since this is basically a solo piece, consisting entirely of voice over with an anime-influenced production design. There's an interesting concept here, but anyone worth their salt (whether or not they've been exposed to the source material) is going to see the denouement coming long before it creeps up in the dead of night.
The second main part of the BD is the more entertaining Under the Hood, a drily funny recreation of a cheesy 80s television interview show (down to the equally cheesy perfume commercials). Though this piece requires more of an existing relationship with the source material, specifically the feature film adaptation, it's a fine and subtly sarcastic commentary on how mass media reacts to celebrity. For the feature film's fans, this is going to easily be the most fun part of this new release, as it features several characters from the film, including the first Nite Owl (Stephen McHattie), Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino), and Moloch (Matt Frewer), among others, talking about their characters' geneses while also giving some interesting backstories into the whole Watchmen world.
Wrapped up in a perfectly recreated chintzy television production, Under the Hood has the faded, soft ambience of your fondest late-night television memories, along with that no-budget, videotaped on the fly look of the world's worst infomercial. While those new to the Watchmen universe may be scratching their heads at times as to what all the fuss is about, ardent fans are going to lap up this part of the BD.