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Watchmen: Tales of the Black Freighter & Under the Hood

Warner Bros. // Unrated // March 24, 2009
List Price: $27.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Francis Rizzo III | posted March 18, 2009 | E-mail the Author
In 10 Words or Less
Here's the stuff they left out of Watchmen

Reviewer's Bias*
Loves: Watchmen the comic book, animation, fake archival work
Likes: Zach Snyder, Gerard Butler
Dislikes: Movie tie-ins
Hates: Double-dips

The Shows
The effort made by director Zach Snyder to make his adaptation of the classic graphic novel Watchmen as faithful to the source material as reasonably possible was admirable and commendable (though many critics felt it dragged the movie down.) But even he (certainly influenced by the studio) made some major changes, the biggest of which is (outside of the ending) excising the supplemental material included with each issue, which rounded out the characters' world, and "Tales of the Black Freighter," the allegorical comic book woven through the story, read by one of the characters. They are far from integral to the Watchmen storyline, but there's absolutely no doubt they enhance the graphic novel.

Rather than just eliminate this material entirely, it's been separated out, animated and released direct to video (and, if reports are to be believed, will be integrated into an uber-director's cut at some point.). This seemed like it was for the best, as these elements really are the domain of the comic book medium, and seemed like an awkward fit in a live-action film (whereas they worked well in the motion comics.) But that was before this disc was released.

The first part, the supposed main attraction, is the short animated film "Tales of the Black Freighter," a pirate story from the days of pulp comics, which tells of a shipwrecked captain, whose vessel fell victim to The Black Freighter, a hellish ship roaming the seas and destroying everything in its path. A survivor of the horror, he pulls it together in an attempt to make it home and save his family, whom he believes is his attackers' next victims. The movie focuses mainly on his struggle to stay alive and get back to land, as his mental state declines to the point of madness.

Though the story, adapted tightly, but not word-for-word by Snyder and Alex Tse, still holds up in this short form, thanks in large part to the stylish animation, which is reminiscent of some heavily dramatic anime, and the voice work by Gerard Butler (Snyder's 300), who is wonderful as the devolving seaman, the piece was far stronger as part of the overall Watchmen saga. Here, stripped of its connections and allegorical strength, it's basically just another pirate story. It's easy to see how it could be integrated with the film and work terrifically, and the small references to the world of Watchmen are nice (see the captain's sail for an example) but for now, it comes up short.

That makes "Under the Hood" this DVDs true reason for being, as it's surprisingly strong and hugely entertaining. Instead of sticking strictly to the idea of recreating the content in Hollis "Nite Owl" Mason's autobiography, this short, directed by DVD producer Eric Matthies, came up with the concept of a newsmagazine series called "The Culpeper Minute," an element that's new to this universe. The show, which "aired" at the time of the Watchmen story, is covering Hollis Mason's tale, and pulls in bits and pieces from the various text pieces in the 12 issues of Watchmen.

Utilizing the same actors playing their roles from the movie, including great acting by Carla Gugino, Stephen McHattie and Matt Frewer, the background of the characters gets fleshed out more, and the less-visualized portions of the book come to life. These elements will do viewers a great service when re-integrated into Watchmen, but even on their own, they tell a solid story. It's interesting to see where things change a bit from the book, including the amount of info Silk Spectre is willing to share about her past.

Though the performances are terrific, largely because the roles were so deeply inhabited by the actors, it's the attention to detail that makes this one so much fun, as every bit of archival footage is utter eye candy, and little touches, like the commercials, including one for a key fake product and two tone-setting real ones, help you believe these people are real and this history exists. It's rare that such effort be put into a film without it resulting in something memorable, and that's certainly the case here.

Boasting incredible overkill on space even with just a one-disc release, this DVD is packaged in a standard keepcase with promotional inserts and that striking Watchmen graphic treatment on the covert art. The disc features an animated, anamorphic widescreen menu with options to select a short, adjust languages and check out the special features. There are no audio options, while subtitles are available in English SDH (so no closed captioning.)

The Quality
The difference in video quality between Black Freighter and Under the Hood is like night and day, but despite that, they are both excellent. While Black Freighter sports an incredible crisp anamorphic-widescreen transfer with vivid color and not an issue with dirt or damage, Under the Hood looks like the vintage footage it's intended to be. A 1980s newsmagazine looking back at footage from the '70s, with plenty of material from the '50s and '60s included, the full-frame transfer is dull, noisy and full of dirt and damage, lending it an authenticity it needed to pull off the conceit. The only problem noticed is the overly-damaged commercials, which look far worse than the show they accompany, supposedly from .the same time period. There are no issues with digital artifacts in either portion.

The audio for both segments is presented in a Dolby Digital 5.1 track, but it's far more impressive on Black Freighter, where the epic score and dramatic sound effects fill out the room, utilizing all your surround set-up to tell this action story. There were several points where my head was spun around by an effect. Under the Hood's audio, on the other hand, matches its look in simplicity, as the center-balanced track doesn't do too much, as expected from what's essentially a talk show.

The Extras
The best (and only story-associated) extra is "Story Within a Story: The Books of Watchmen," a 25-minute featurette about the two supplemental stories, focusing on their importance to the main story. There's some really interesting behind-the-scenes material in this piece, including looks at alternate costumes, future plans for the stories and an examination of how the additional material in the graphic novel was developed (a situation that really is of its time.) For anyone unfamiliar with the book (or those who had a more surface experience with it) the talk about the depth of the tale, including how Black Freighter mirrors Ozymandias, will be invaluable for understanding what it's all about.

The other extras are purely promotional, but are still worth a look, starting with the first chapter of the Watchmen Motion Comic. It's essentially an attempt to draw you into buy the series, but if you've never watched it before, it's an easy way to check the concept out. The other promo extra is a 10-minute preview of the upcoming Green Lantern animated Direct-to-DVD movie, with interviews with comic creators and animation guru Bruce Timm, discussion of Green Lantern as a character and a look at concept art and the voice actors in the booth.

Also included is a digital download of Black Freighter that only works on PCs. Oddly, it's an actual download, and isn't on this physical disc.

The Bottom Line
Before you even consider the quality of the pieces included, it's hard to justify the $28 list price for a DVD with just over an hour of content (not counting the extras.) That this material may very well end up part of another Watchmen DVD down the road is yet another reason to question whether you should buy this title. That said, Black Freighter doesn't work as well on its own, while Under the Hood is a treat for fans of either format of the story, offering something faithful to the book and new at the same time. With a thoughtful featurette thrown in as a bonus, it's a must-watch for Watchmen fans, but owning it is another issue all together.

Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.

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*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.

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