Watchmen has been called a lot of things – a masterpiece, a seminal event, the defining comic book of its time – but comic book property most likely to be adapted to film is not one of them.
There have been attempts over the years, including a valiant effort in the 80s by Terry Gilliam, but none had ventured past pre-production. The novel is a non-linear, sprawling epic that is difficult to whittle down into a commercially viable motion picture; a property that its creator, Alan Moore, infamously referred to as “unfilmable”.
That all got thrown out the window, for better or worse, when Zack Snyder brought his vision of Alan Moore’s classic novel to theaters last March.
Snyder did the impossible, even in the midst of a public and embarrassing legal battle, and brought the geek property to the big screen. And while the film is a testament to his technical direction and a visually striking adaptation, to call the end result divisive is an understatement.
Watchmen, a cumbersome 162-minute long tentpole event, buckles under the weight of its own ambition; a technical masterpiece with deep reverence for its source material that never manages to become a compelling film. It never quite gels as a coherent film either, leaving the audience with a visual retelling of the graphic novel that feels more like a companion piece than a full-fledged adaptation.
That leaves the onus on the Blu-ray Director’s Cut to address the glaring flaws that mar an incredible production, but poor storytelling effort. And while Snyder gives fans a little bit more to chew on and loaded it with supplemental material worthy of its price tag, it’s still too much for a project that likely needed to be a lot shorter or a lot longer.
Watchmen, at its core, is a deconstruction of the modern superhero as we know it. When the novel was introduced, it transformed the comic book industry by ushering in a new era where spandex-clad characters were no longer boyscouts or puppy-killing jerks. These characters had problems – real problems – and they often straddled an area so gray that the line between black and white seems non-existent. It’s nihilistic and pulpy, and it is a fantastic mystery that has a lot of layers.
The character that connects all the Watchmen is The Comedian, whose death sparks an investigation by the paranoid, and psychopathic Rorschach. He fears that someone is beginning to knock off old costumed heroes (all but banned by the government in an alternate timeline) and The Comedian’s death draws all the other characters into the fold – Nite Owl, Silk Spectre, Ozymandias and Dr. Manhattan.
To say that this covers just part of the story is an oversimplification, because Watchmen spans decades as it dissects the impact of the characters’ mentors, parents and society on their psyche. At the end is a terrific twist, one of the few significant changes from the graphic novel, but it works.
And it’s odd, because when Snyder takes liberties from the material, he’s met with uniformed praise. Such as the incredible opening credits set to Bob Dylan or the modified ending with Rorschach. Although, to be fair, just about anything with Rorschach turns out to be gold, since his character is absolutely nailed by Jackie Earle Hailey.
But it raises the question as to why Snyder didn’t make a film instead of live-action storyboard. Watchmen needs to be a rather straightforward neo-noir with a streamlined cast or a non-linear miniseries, but Snyder opts for the middle ground and the result is a dull, technically proficient film.
The additional footage doesn’t seem to help – it just makes an already long film that much longer. And while it was nice to see Hollis Mason get the closure his character deserved, his powerful scene is botched by the poor acting and poor costume design of his assailants.
Snyder also interjects the film with unnecessary violence, which seems like a shallow bid to captivate viewers who likely fell asleep fifteen minutes in. Coupled with some odd music selection, awkward make-up effects and incoherent narrative, the film can leave a bad taste in your mouth.
That’s not to say it’s awful, because it’s not. There are a handful of memorable action sequences, its very well cast, features some clever humor on occasion and some sequences are literally taken panel-for-panel from the graphic novel.
And it’s likely the best film adaptation of Watchmen that audiences could get, without taking wholesale liberties with the source material.
Snyder veteran hand, Larry Fong, once again serves as his DP on this production in what is probably his most ambitious effort to date. Like Snyder, Fong is from the MTV school of filmmaking, with that distinct “stylized realism” that only the world of video music production can cultivate.
Yet, Watchmen turned out to be a more traditional production. There were no compositions with multiple cameras – it was a one camera show all along.
Seeing Snyder, Fong and Co. merge traditional filmmaking with emerging technologies to create this beautifully shot film is easily worth the price of admission alone.
Furthermore, Watchmen looks brilliant in its native 2.40:1 widescreen format at 1080p and benefits immensely from Blu-ray because of the film’s rich color palette. The detail is crisp and the film is gorgeous, and this as about as sharp as a modern Blu-ray can look outside of a Pixar flick.
Warner Bros. switches from the TrueHD format found on The Dark Knight release for a lossless DTS-HD 5.1 mix for Watchmen. It turns out to be irrelevant, as it sounds fantastic. Audiophiles might be disheartened to learn of the lack of a 7.1 soundtrack, but the sound mix is solid all around, with front loaded dialogue and directional audio that complement each other well. Sound effects carry real impact and the quality of the film’s electric soundtrack shines through.
As soon as Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” blasts through your speakers, you might want to turn off your set. Just a warning.
Watchmen comes home on a BD-50 disc with a cardboard slipcase featuring a lenticular one-shot similar to that on the cover of the Blu-ray case. It’s a three disc set, with the first disc containing the Director’s Cut and the much hyped “Maximum Movie Mode”, the second disc featuring supplemental material related to the novel and the third disc being a DVD with Digital Copy support.
“Maximum Movie Mode” is a picture-in-picture option with eleven distinct featurettes that you can watch during the movie or independently from. The really neat way is how this is executed, with Zack Snyder literally walking in on the movie, and detailing the production as it plays on screens behind him. It’s an intimate look at production and extremely interesting if you’re a fan of the material.
The other supplemental material talks mostly about the graphic novel itself, including its impact on pop-culture, realistic heroes and the real-life science behind the universe. For fans, it retreads a lot of well known discussions and analysis, but for those unfamiliar with the work, it can be engaging.
The kicker here is that there is no real commentary, but considering the effort put into “Maximum Movie Mode” and the need to sell copies of the Ultimate Collector’s Edition due later this year, it’s understandable why. Still, Snyder’s zest for the source material and behind-the-scenes look at a production highlight the bonus features on this edition.
As an unabashed Watchmen fan, owning no less than three editions of the graphic novel in my collection, it’s painful for me to say that sitting through the Director’s Cut is a tedious endeavor.
But it is.
It becomes evident pretty quickly that this was a labor of love for the crew, and like most projects of this sort in Hollywood, the filmmakers try so hard to stay faithful to the source material that they forget what makes a good movie.
It’s a tough recommendation, especially since there are some that regard this as the next Blade Runner – a woefully misunderstood film that will be remembered as ahead of its time. And for others, it was a good faith attempt to film the “unfilmable”, but bogged down in its reverence.
The Blu-ray is almost an essential purchase for anyone interested in how a production of this magnitude comes together, and how emerging technologies and traditional filmmaking are colliding to construct more ambitious blockbusters. “Maximum Movie Mode” is a winner and something I hope to see Warner Bros. utilize with feature releases. And from a picture and sound standpoint, it’s a showcase title for sure. Though, one wonders how much the value of this release will depreciate when Warner Bros. drops the 5-Disc edition later this year.
As is, it’s a wonderful release of a very mixed bag.
Verdict: 3/5 – “BUY”