Warner Bros. // 2009 // 186 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // July 21st, 2009
Who Will Save Us Now?
Perhaps it should have come with a time machine. Then the intended demographic, that wasn't even born before the arrival of this influential graphic novel, would have the practical and personal context to see what Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons were really on about. Maybe an advance copy of said masterful book for every audience member would have helped. Aside from a single significant plotpoint, director Zack Synder more or less recreated it panel for panel. Each attending viewer could have been given an IQ test. Then those most prone to appreciating garbage like this Summer's insanely stupid Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen could be weeded out in favor of those who appreciate a little brains with their cinematic comic booking. And finally, it would have helped -- a lot -- if the hype machine hadn't geared up so far in advance, expectations egged on by a seemingly non-stop marketing blitz and the indirect promise of a project like the previous year's The Dark Knight.
Instead, Watchmen came and went without making the massive blockbuster splash everyone expected. Some blamed the vacant teens who wanted their superheroics spoon-fed to them. Others cited solidarity with the perpetually pissed off Moore and simply refused to validate this translation. There were those who felt the film underwhelmed, leaving out necessary emotional elements like heart, empathy, and a vested human interest. And let's face it, there were always going to be a handful who could never be made happy, not even if Synder and crew cast the film flawlessly and meticulously recreated each four color frame image for image. So what we end up with is a dilemma, and an enigma. To this critic's mind, Watchmen is a masterwork that gets better over multiple viewings. Thanks to this new three hour extended director's cut, what was already pristine gets even more powerful.
When famed fallen idol (and former US undercover agent) The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Grey's Anatomy) is killed, his former colleague in crimefighting Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley, Little Children) decides to investigate. His inquiries lead to a horrific conclusion -- someone may be murdering masked vigilantes in an attempt to keep them from interfering in world events. Outside of true superhero Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup, Big Fish) -- a scientist transformed into a literal god when a radiation experiment goes awry -- the former crusaders are the only individuals influential enough to prevent an oncoming World War III. When Rorschach is framed and sent to prison, it is up to his only friend Dan Drieberg (Patrick Wilson, Lakeview Terrace), aka Nite Owl II, to rescue him. Along with new lady love Silk Spectre II/Laurie Jupiter (Malin Akerman, The Heartbreak Kid) he will try to spring his angry ally. In the meantime, the Doomsday Clock ticks ever closer to Armageddon, and all paths appear to lead through former champion Ozymandias/Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode, Match Point) and his massive multinational conglomerate.
Oh my god -- WHERE'S THE SQUID?!?!
In some ways, Alan Moore has every right to complain. After the butcher job on The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, the half-hearted effectiveness of From Hell, and the Wachowski-ization of V for Vendetta, his tainted track record with Tinsel Town would make anyone angry. Here is someone who literally redefined the graphic novel, whose created several works of lasting literary relevance, and yet "smarter" men in expensive suits have systematically acted like they know how best to handle his already excellent ideas. So is it any wonder he's distanced himself from a version of his consistently hailed masterwork, Watchmen? Even with obsessed fan Zack Synder behind the lens, Hollywood's weak reputation with his work precedes it. Too bad then that Moore made up his mind early and unequivocally. While missing just a smidgen of the magic that made his seminal tome a lasting classic, this is perhaps the best adaptation of a comic book ever to grace the big screen.
Indeed, Watchmen the movie is a masterpiece of style and substance, a visionary work by a director given the tag one film too early. While 300 remains a work of staggering imagination and nerve, it lacks the underlying context of Watchmen. Besides, while still trying to mimic the work of another great artist (it was Frank Miller before, Dave Gibbons now), Synder settles in to give us an epic that really takes into consideration the most universal and unsettling of truths. Some have called Watchmen a deconstruction of the whole superhero mythos, and that's partly true. But the problem with said description is that it avoids all the surrounding elements that make such a humanizing look possible. From government interference and personal problems to the ever-present specter of global thermal nuclear war, the reason behind the lack of masked avengers has less to do with the desire of those willing to take up the cause and more with those threatened by their actions...and existence.
At its core, Watchmen is all about "the bomb." It uses nuclear proliferation and its socio-political side effects to mark everyone involved. It provides motivation for the main crime, the conspiracy behind it, and the actions of the individual in charge. It scares some (Laurie, The Comedian), inspires others (Rorschach, Dr. Manhattan) and forces a couple even further into their shell of insularity (Dan). The time machine reference in the introduction is crucial, since this parallel world is meant to mimic the kind of unsettled state of the real world circa the early '80s. As Englishmen, Moore and Gibbons could see through the superpower bravado of the USA and then USSR to calculate just how close we all were to the end. For them, the destructive power of atomic weaponry was evident without a single missile being launched. In fact, the entire narrative of both the book and the movie is laced with the omniscient threat of mutually assured destruction. It colors all the actions. But if you didn't live through it (anyone under 30 is probably too young to remember), some of Watchmen's significance will be M.I.A.
Similarly, the current flood of comic book adaptations doesn't help Watchmen work -- at least not as a simple mainstream entertainment. This is Dark Knight level storytelling, fictional characters peppering a real (if oddball) universe. As the Nixon Administration plots and perverts, as Rorschach runs his one-man crusade against a society gone sour, we wonder where the action is. In the case of Christopher Nolan, he made his Caped Crusader stuntwork so spectacular that everyone forgave its rarity. But with Watchmen, Snyder suffers from a lack of available scope. Fights are mostly one on one, even when they occur in a big expanse. Similarly, as per Moore and Gibbons' designs, the ideas at work are more epic than the character face offs. When they are present, the clashes crackle with the standard four panel panache that Snyder is known for. But when audiences are lining up for the disposable, dunderheaded eye candy of a certain Michael Bay, insight is the last thing on their mind.
In the end, Watchmen's biggest flaw is how immersive it is. This is a film that relishes its attention to detail, which wallows in a world that doesn't offer easy answers or quick fixes. Death is all around, and no one is immune from its impact. Sure, some may quibble that the last act revelation suffers from missing its more "extraterrestrial" facets, and they would have a point. Yet the argument against the Squid is as valid as the reasons for including it. Remember, this is a movie being made nearly three decades after the fact, a kind of creative temporal displacement that mandates that certain contextual distinctions be made. Because of our current War on Terror clime (referenced more than once in the film) and failure to address our ongoing energy needs, Snyder and company decided to make that threat, and its possible source, a more cogent and recognizable villain. It certainly brings the entire premise up to date, and delivers a finale that meets the source material head on. Still, for a few purists, that will not be nearly enough.
Of course, what fans of the theatrical film will want to know is what, exactly, makes up that touted director's cut -- nearly 24 minutes of extra footage. First and foremost, the original Nite Owl Hollis Mason gets the send-off his storyline deserves. Instead of dying as an after thought, we get to see a terrific fight were our former "mask" remembers villains from his past in full blown monochrome flashback. Each punch landed becomes a page in this particularly painful (and final) scrapbook. In addition, we spend a little more time in Vietnam, Dr. Manhattan's presence on the battlefield extended so we can indulge in a little more of his matter-defying carnage. There is also more of Mr. Blue's interpersonal tangles with disgruntled honey Laurie Jupiter. These new bits add a depth to their relationship that seemed missing in the original version of the movie. Laurie's mom Sally also gets a few more choice scenes, as does Nixon and his weird war mongering cabinet. Finally, the news vendor and the ever-present African American kid sitting on the corner, reading a famed comic book, have a couple of added nods.
Which brings us to the biggest gripe with this release. Oddly enough, what's not here in the new cut is the promised supplemental material -- the documentary Under the Hood or the animated short Tales of the Black Freighter. Even though we get a running time of over three hours, none of this separately created stuff is even mentioned. It's not in the director's edit, and it fails to make an appearance as part of the three disc offering. Of course, the reason becomes quite obvious when you open the packaging. Apparently, Warner Bros. is already PLANNING a double dip for December. Said five DVD set will include yet another cut with the Black Freighter material incorporated, as well as discs offering Under and the equally wonderful Watchmen: The Complete Motion Comic. In some consumer's minds this will be reason enough to pass on this version. Still, one imagines Warners will measure out the added content in such a way as to require you to purchase both. As with all cases of caveat emptor, the decision is totally up to you.
From a technical standpoint, this Blu-ray is practically flawless. Warners has done a near definitive job of transferring Snyder's oversized vision to the home theater domain. Of course, the massive scope of the ending really can't be captured on the small screen, but the pristine 1080p high definition is stunning in its clarity and intricacies. It expertly preserves the original 2.40:1 look of the film, as well as adding captivating aspects all its own. This is especially true of the entirely CG character Dr. Manhattan. The smallest facial movements and tics are translated to the audience effortlessly, thanks to the new format. As for the sound situation, Watchmen's lossless DTS HD Master 5.1 English audio track is tremendous. It's big and boisterous, filled with classic era-appropriate songs and a unique ambient oriented soundtrack from composer Tyler Bates. There is excellent use of the speakers in defining space, especially during scenes were location (Dan's underground lair, Adrian's Antarctica retreat) matters most. The dialogue is always upfront and understandable, and for those outside America, Warners provides a French track (in 5.1) and a selection of subtitles.
The big news, aside from the always marketing-mandatory digital copy of the film, is the exciting bonus features offered. Remember, Warners will probably NOT repeat these bits of added context come December, so if you are interested in the information provided here, you may need to buck up and buy this particular release. The only supplement on the director's cut disc is the brand new Immersive WB Maximum Movie Mode. A short description of this new multimedia display would be as follows -- the studio takes all the standard extras (featurettes, making-ofs, interviews) and incorporates them into the running time of the film. They accomplish this via split screen, prompted menu access, video commentary and asides by director Snyder, picture in picture clips and tag-along Q&As with the cast, as well as a trivia timeline comparing the real world to the Watchmen universe. While it doesn't always function seamlessly (which may have more to do with the individual Blu-ray player than the title itself), it's a unique way to look at the film from dozens of differing angles.
Similarly, the second disc offers three unique and inventive documentaries (all offered in 1080p high def, FYI). The Phenomenon: The Comic that Changed Comics is an in-depth -- if once again, Alan Moore free -- take on the original Watchmen graphic novel and how it impacted and altered the entire 'funny book' industry. Gibbons is on hand, and his insights are crucial to gaining the proper perspective about what Watchmen really means. There is also a weird little item dealing with the whole concept of citizen justice. Real Super Heroes, Real Vigilantes utilized interviews with the Guardian Angels and other Neighborhood Watch advocates to trace the history of non-law enforcement law enforcement. It truly is a quirky little piece. We then get a look at something called Mechanics: Technologies of a Fantastic World that tries to explain, scientifically, the various superhero devices and designs used in comic books. Again, it's an unusual and quite compelling inclusion. You can also access all 11 of Watchmen's video journals check out the music video for My Chemical Romance's remake of "Desolation Row," and if you can figure it out, share your Blu-ray experiences with the BD-Live! feature.
In truth, it was a no win situation from the start. Obsessives were going to balk loudly and frequently about the various minor changes made, while those outside the Moore/Gibbons loop were going to look at the luxuriant dedication to detail and tune out automatically. It's their loss, sadly. While it may not be recognized as one now, it is easy to see Watchmen going down as one of the best films of the new millennium, a stark and dire blockbuster that demands as much of its audience as the adaptation to an award winning novel could. Some have said it was unfilmable. Others proudly proclaimed that Snyder let ambition and creative arrogance get the best of him. But even if you dismissed it before, go back and take another look at this amazing movie. It may not be the most emotional cinematic rollercoaster ever crafted and there are still elements missing that made the graphic novel great. But for what it could have been (read: just horrendous) and what we eventually got (faithful, dedicated, demanding), it's a worthy comic complement.
Not Guilty. A great film flummoxed by an awkward word of mouth that really
didn't understand what they were complaining about.
Review content copyright © 2009 Bill Gibron; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Top 100 Discs: #97
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 186 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Maximum Movie Mode
* Video Journals
* Music Video
* Digital Copy
* Official Site