Warner Bros. // 2009 // 215 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // November 10th, 2009
The complete story.
A long film that was given an even longer director's cut now gets an even longer "ultimate cut." is this new 5-disc set worth upgrading to, or should you stick with the previous release?
Our story begins in 1985. To be more specific, it begins in an alternate "what if" version of 1985. What if men and women of the WWii era had decided to dress up as costumed heroes and battle crime? What if a horrible accident had created a god-like superhero in the late 1950s? What if that god-like superhero had intervened in Vietnam, and America had won the war? What if ordinary masked heroes had been banned in 1977 due to public outcry? That is the world that we are presented with. As the film begins, a notorious masked hero named The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, The Accidental Husband) is murdered in his apartment. A fierce right-wing vigilante named Rorschach (Jackie Earl Haley, Little Children) quickly becomes convinced that someone is picking off masked heroes, and subsequently goes to warn other current and ex-heroes like Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson, Hard Candy), Ozymandias (Matthew Goode, Match Point), Silk Spectre (Malin Ackerman, Couples Retreat), and the aforementioned god-like superhero, Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup, Big Fish). Slowly but surely, these characters work together in ways both intentional and unintentional to unravel a very dark conspiracy.
After some 20 years of production nightmares, failed attempts, and messy lawsuits, Watchmen finally made it to the big screen. Ever since Alan Moore wrote his now-legendary 12-issue comic book miniseries back in the mid-to-late 1980s, it seems that naught but chaos has ensued in the aftermath. The likes of Terry Gilliam, Paul Greengrass, and Darren Aronofsky tried and failed to turn Watchmen into a cinematic experience, all meeting defeat for a variety of complicated reasons. Many comic books of the following decade attempted to mimic the dark and gritty tone of the story, and wound up cheapening the entire industry as a result. After a while, it was more or less assumed that Watchmen was a property best left alone. When 300 director Zack Snyder determined to take a stab at the film, the odds were against him both legally (20th Century Fox and Warner Bros. would become embroiled in a nasty rights battle) and artistically. Perhaps it is therefore appropriate the man who helmed a film about 300 Spartans doing battle in the face of insurmountable odds was the man who finally succeeded in doing what many thought was impossible: Making Watchmen into a feature film...and more importantly, making it work.
One could easily dedicate 10 or more paragraphs to detailing the plot of Watchmen, but it would be very difficult to do so without spoiling a large chunk of the viewing experience. Watchmen is a unique story that is laying the groundwork and advancing the plot simultaneously. it accomplishes this via non-linear means, employing flashbacks, character histories, and other fragmented pieces of essential information as the murder mystery plot unfolds. The theatrical adaptation was a little less complicated structurally than the comic, omitting some subplots and side items in favor of focusing on the essential meat of the story. The Ultimate Cut adds some of that material back in, the merits of which are certainly debatable (more on that in a while). Regardless, what Snyder's Watchmen achieves is quite impressive, offering one of the most substantive and thoughtful comic book movies to date. This is quite a change of pace from Snyder's adaptation of Frank Miller's 300, a bloodthirsty and empty version of a similarly unimpressive story. Working with infinitely stronger source material, Snyder often soars.
Some have complained that Snyder has been too faithful to the comic, killing any sense of movement or life in the cinematic version. That's not really true. Snyder has not simply duplicated the comic book (for that, see the somewhat bland Watchmen: The Complete Motion Comic included in this set), but rather recreated the feeling of reading it. Look carefully, and you'll see that many things have been re-arranged, altered, edited, or removed completely. There are few dramatic changes, but in almost every scene, Snyder has cautiously tinkered with the available elements in order to make a comic book scene work in a different medium. Most of the time, he is quite successful. Sure, there are moments that do feel a bit like reverent line readings from the graphic novel (certain lines just come across better on the page than they do when said aloud), but the majority works very well. The biggest alteration here is a variation on the ending and, to my surprise, it actually works even better than Alan Moore's original finale (even if the film doesn't recapture the raw emotional power of those six famous splash pages).
One of the most thrilling, maddening, and compelling aspects of the film is its music. While i don't think Watchmen resorts to "music video-style" filmmaking, there are quite a few scenes that allow the music to come front and center to carry the scene. Snyder's song choices (many of which were inspired by the graphic novel) are top-notch almost every single time, the images and music working together to create very memorable sequences. The Comedian's death scene is underscored by Nat King Cole's "Unforgettable" and the results are, well, unforgettable. Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changing" plays over a very interesting title sequence, and the Jimi Hendrix version of Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" turns up later in the proceedings. Several superb selections underscore Dr. Manhattan's origin story, with composer Phillip Glass' cold, intellectual ideas the perfect match for this material. A striking love scene set to Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" is so effective the audience i saw the film with burst into spontaneous applause at its conclusion. And yet, for all these great moments, the picture is cursed with an underscore by composer Tyler Bates that can kindly be described as "dreck" and ends on a very jarring note with a horribly misfired take on Dylan's "Desolation Row" courtesy of My Chemical Romance.
The performances are solid across the board. Many will be impressed with Rorschach, a rather frightening figure that somehow manages to ingratiate himself with viewers. Haley's gruff, Chandler-esque dialogue provides a gritty humanity that contrasts beautifully with the more detached philosophy of Dr. Manhattan. Speaking of which, Billy Crudup manages to make Manhattan the most soulful CGI creation since Gollum, finding just the right tone for the character. Patrick Wilson is touching as Nite Owl, a fumbly Clark Kent character without a Superman alter ego to fall back on. Malin Ackerman has been widely criticized for her performance, but I thought she was adequate in the role of Silk Spectre, though hardly Oscar-worthy. Jeffrey Dean Morgan impresses me more and more, each time I see the film, infusing The Comedian with a gleeful sense of horrific anarchy and making a very big impact in a limited amount of screentime. Finally, Matthew Goode has a carefully-modulated turn as Ozymandias, toning down the character's Christ-like aspects and coming across as more of a calculating humanitarian. Without saying too much about the character, let it be said the motivations for his actions seem considerably more credible and intelligent in this version of the story, though slightly less fascinating from a symbolic standpoint. The only real weakness in the cast is Robert Wisden as Richard Nixon, whose role is slightly expanded here). His hokey impersonation of the former President is incredibly distracting, and the Craig T. Nelson-esque make-up doesn't help either.
Despite cramming 215 minutes of film onto a single disc, Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut looks more or less fantastic on DVD. Even with the occasionally artificial look of the film (all that green screen does become a tad overwhelming after a while), the image generally seems slick, polished, and clean. Darker scenes have stellar shading and considerable depth, and flesh tones seem warm and accurate. The animated sequences also look solid, though I find the animation to be a bit too murky. The audio is fantastic, as the songs and score come through with strength and clarity. Your speakers will get a solid workout, thanks to this smoothly-mixed and immersive 5.1 track. Even the subwoofer sees frequent action.
Even though this is a 5-disc set, the extras aren't as overwhelmingly thorough as you might expect. The first disc includes two new audio commentaries, one featuring Zack Snyder and the other featuring original artist Dave Gibbons. Disc 2 ports over featurettes from the Director's Cut (Blu-ray) release and items from the separate Tales of the Black Freighter disc: "Real Super-Heroes, Real Vigilantes" (26 minutes), "Mechanics: Technologies of a Fantastic World" (17 minutes), "The Phenomenon: The Comic That Changed Comics" (29 minutes), video diaries previously integrated into the "Maximum Movie Mode" feature (37 minutes), and a My Chemical Romance music video (3 minutes). You also get the "Under the Hood" faux documentary, and "Story within a Story: The Books of Watchmen" (25 minutes), a rather dull featurette that discusses the text pieces and Black Freighter sequences contained within the graphic novel. Disc 3 contains a digital copy of the theatrical version of the film, while Discs 4 and 5 offer the 6-hour Watchmen: The Complete Motion Comic (for more details, check out reviews by myself and Chief Justice Michael Stailey).
I have a few bones to pick with this set. Let's begin with the film itself. I don't like this Ultimate cut nearly as much as the Director's Cut or the theatrical version. Why? Because of the inclusion of the Tales of the Black Freighter animated material. I didn't feel the material worked all that well in the comic, and it's equally ineffective here. This isn't because of thematic irrelevancy, but rather pacing issues. The movie grinds to a halt every time another chunk of the animated story turns up, and it completely throws off the flow of the story. However, this version of the film is certainly the most slavishly faithful to the graphic novel, so some may appreciate it for that reason alone. I would have much less of a problem with this release, if viewers had the option to select either of the other two versions of the film. Unfortunately, we don't (unless you count the digital copy of the theatrical version, which I don't). As such, you're probably going to want to hang onto the Director's Cut.
One more comment about the bonus materials. To date, the very best Watchmen-related special feature has been the "Maximum Movie Mode" interactive commentary by Zach Snyder on the Blu-ray release, which is not included here (understandable, given the absence of the Director's Cut). Also keep in mind the complete version of Tales of the Black Freighter is not included. So, if you really want to own all things Watchmen, you'll need to keep both the Director's Cut and Black Freighter, since key elements from both are suspiciously absent.
Watchmen is a very good film, slightly less so in its 215-minute incarnation. Though this Ultimate Cut is bulky and attractive, you get more for your money (and a better version of the film) with the Director's Cut set. Sorry, but i can't recommend an upgrade. Heck, I can't even recommend that you purchase this set if you don't own any version of Watchmen yet. My advice to diehard Watchmen fans: Rent the first disc to see the expanded version of the film and maybe check out the new commentaries. Warner Bros. really dropped the ball on this one.
The film is not guilty, but the Ultimate Cut is.
Review content copyright © 2009 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 215 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Short Film
* Motion Comic
* Digital Copy