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Watchmen: Tales of the Black Freighter & Under the Hood

Warner Bros. // Unrated // March 24, 2009
List Price: $35.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Jeffrey Kauffman | posted March 21, 2009 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:
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.

The Blu-ray

This VC-1 encoded BD is definitely a mixed bag, though for once that's deliberate. Freighter is in an enhanced 1.78:1 ratio and offers superb clarity, with really deep and inky blacks, if a somewhat subdued palette (most of the piece plays out in deep oranges, purples and blacks). Hood is specifically designed to resemble a bad 80s television production (1.33:1, of course), which kind of seems anachronistic for a BD release. Therefore, you need to come at that part of the release with your own wants in mind--do you want a BD that accurately reproduces its creators' intentions, or do you want something that's digital perfection? If it's the former, Hood is remarkable; if it's the latter, keep on moving, there's literally nothing to see here.

Again, the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mixes are drastically different, but, again, purposefully so. Freighter has some fantastic immersive effects, especially in the many seagoing scenes. LFE gets a workout and surround channels are effectively used throughout. Hood, once again, gets the short shrift, but on purpose, of course--after all, this is a "vintage" t.v. show, and therefore has no use for showy audio effects. Everything throughout the BD is crystal clear, with all dialogue easy to hear. There's also a standard DD 5.1 mix available, as well as English subtitles.

The best extra, and one where newcomers to Watchmen may want to start, is "Story Within a Story," which gives the context for both of the main features offered on the BD. This featurette also ties everything into the feature film, providing some production footage of that effort as well. Also on tap is the first chapter of the recently released The Complete Motion Comic, which, like the film, has been greeted with widely variant reactions. Rounding out the extras are "A First Look at The Green Lantern," another animated feature that's coming down the pike soon, as well as BD-Live features.

Final Thoughts:
I'm not sure anyone not enamored with Watchmen, either the graphic novel or the feature film, is going to have much interest in this. And frankly, I'm not even sure rabid fans are going to find enough here to warrant a purchase (at least the more expensive BD), especially considering the deliberately "dumbed down" visual non-splendor of Under the Hood. My recommendation to fans is to Rent It first to see if it's something you'll want to return to, thereby justifying an eventual purchase.

"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet

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