Warner Bros. // 2009 // 64 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // March 19th, 2009
From the graphic novel and unseen in the Watchmen movie!
Before getting into a discussion of the new-to-DVD Watchmen supplementary films Tales of the Black Freighter and Under the Hood, let me make a confession: I have seen Zack Snyder's film version of Watchmen twice and I really like it. I know this makes me unpopular in both critic and fanboy circles, who have each largely rejected the movie on totally different grounds. It's fine. I get it. And I still disagree. I have read and enjoyed Alan Moore's comic, and this movie takes nothing away from that. The comic is the comic; the movie is the movie. I think Watchmen is going to be better appreciated in five or 10 years; maybe that makes me ahead of my time or maybe that makes me delusional. Whatever the case, I loved Watchmen.
Having said that, I have no idea how Tales of the Black Freighter or Under the Hood can possibly work in the film. Watchmen already runs over two and a half hours, and word is that Zack Snyder is hoping to release a DVD cut that's at least an hour longer. As a fan of the movie, I welcome a longer cut (I still prefer the longer versions of the Lord of the Rings movies to the theatrical versions). I'm hoping much of what was left out of the book makes its way back into the movie -- chiefly, a greater sense of growing paranoia and dread around New York so that the endgame will make more sense. But as someone who thought the pacing was pretty good in the theatrical version of Watchmen, I'm worried that another hour won't give the movie a chance to breathe -- it will turn into overkilling bloat. I hope that's not the case.
Whatever the end result is, I can't imagine a way that Snyder can work in the animated Tales of the Black Freighter, which is now being released on its own DVD (along with another feature, the fake news magazine show Under the Hood). Designed to bring to life the pirate comic being read by a character in Moore's Watchmen (which eventually reveals itself as a parallel to another character's fate), Black Freighter is very well done. Running around 20 minutes, the hand-drawn cartoon finds a nice way of connecting all the story fragments from the comic into a cohesive narrative. The animation looks great. Gerard Butler (from Snyder's 300) does a nice job narrating the story of a stranded captain, ship destroyed and crew killed, desperate to return to his wife and child. What I liked best about Black Freighter is that it doesn't shy away from the more horrific elements present in the original story; it's as dark and intense as Snyder's Watchmen. On its own, I feel very positive about Tales of the Black Freighter.
The problem is I don't feel like it can be inserted into Watchmen without destroying the momentum of the story. In a comic, it's easier to do; you can devote one or two panels to the pirate story and it's almost like the moments overlap; they comment on each other simultaneously. Told in a more linear fashion, Black Freighter almost has to disrupt the main story.
The same can be said for its companion piece, called Under the Hood, which is also included on this DVD. Running just under 40 minutes, the feature attempts to recreate a news magazine show from the 1970s where Hollis Mason, the author of the tell-all costumed hero memoir Under the Hood and others are interviewed about the good old days of crime fighting and how it all fell apart. But where Black Freighter is successful on its own, Under the Hood is not. For starters, it tries to make visual what was included only as text in the comic, and is rather clumsy with its news magazine device. What's worse is that the whole thing feels inauthentic; it neither looks nor feels like it was made in the '70s (though it sure tries), and isn't anywhere near the standards of attention to detail set by Snyder in Watchmen. The piece does nothing but try to cram in a whole bunch of backstory and give more screen time to periphery characters largely cut out of the film (Rorschach's psychiatrist, the news vendor, Wally Weaver) even though they don't necessarily belong. It also basically just repeats information that's either included in the film or hinted at enough to work; there's little in this 30-plus minute feature that isn't covered -- and better -- in the stellar opening sequence to Watchmen.
Of course, I can't review Tales of the Black Freighter on the basis that it might not eventually work when included into a larger film. These are all just hypothetical objections. But, at the same time, the fact that it will be a part of the longer cut of Watchmen makes this disc a little unnecessary. If you're a Watchmen fan, I could see checking it out as a curiosity. But does it warrant repeat viewings on its own? Not really. Its release is likely just an attempt to cash in on Watchmen fever (which, now that the movie has come out, isn't quite the phenomenon the studio was banking on when they planned this DVD release). If they're eventually incorporated into the longer cut of the DVD release, this disc will become obsolete.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 64 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* IMDb: Tales of the Black Freighter
* Watchmen Official Site
* IMDb: Under the Hood