Directed By: Zack Snyder
Starring: Billy Crudup, Jackie Earle Haley, Patrick Wilson, Malin Ackerman
Reviewing Watchmen theatrically was one of the most challenging reviews I’ve ever done. I wanted to empart the emotional and dramatic feeling of the film and the complexity of it while not getting bogged down in plot description. The movie is the most challenging super hero film ever made, not just to review, but to simply watch. It’s extremely long, and now this director’s cut is nearly a half hour longer. We’re deep into Lord of the Rings territory here and in a really unusual twist coming from me, the added time makes Watchmen even more compelling.
Not long ago, I reviewed the original Friday the 13th on blu-ray. I commented that modern audiences would find this film clichéd. The film is clichéd today because it has been re-cooked and stolen from for 30 years. Modern audiences have seen the tropes created by that film over and over again and when they sit down to watch it now; they don’t stop to think they’re looking at the innovator of the genre that has become predictable today. In that way, Watchmen has something in common with Friday the 13th. After that seminal comic book series hit shelves back in 1986, countless comic book creators went to the Watchmen well over and over again. There wouldn’t be a Frank Miller without Watchmen. Sure, he was around early on, but his best work came after Watchmen. Comic book fans have seen the flawed hero plenty over the last 25 years, but this kind of hero has yet to get representation in film and it’s really a hard pill to swallow for mainstream movie fans, but that’s not the only problem they’ll have. The story told in those comics and on the screen here is what makes a film like The Dark Knight possible.
Watchmen is a dense character driven drama first and a super hero story in a far second. The film, even with the changes made from the original book, remains one of the most challenging films ever made and definitely the most challenging super hero film ever made. I’m a huge fan of social commentary in narrative film, even if I don’t agree with it completely, and it’s soaked in this film, often in heavy handed ways and at other times, more subtly. There’s political commentary centered in the 80’s, there’s the question of humanity and what it takes to be human (classic sci-fi elements here), and other questions about what it takes to be important in the world both in an epic way and in a subtler way. A man whose father was a watchmaker now finds himself running out of time; his humanity rapidly slipping away from him and he didn’t even realize it. Another man, who has given up the life of a hero, now finds himself mentally, and physically impotent, and a woman who finds herself subservient to others as she suffers a horrible act that was perpetrated on her mother. At the same time, this re-envisioned and twisted version of the 1980’s finds itself on the brink of ultimate destruction. This barely scratches the surface of the dense story of Watchmen. The first half hour of the film is easily the most challenging as more information is slung at the audience in that act than in most complete movies. The easiest way to enjoy the film is to just let it all flood over you and plan to watch the film a second time to get the nuances.
There are action sequences in this film and they look amazing but the director’s cut of the film is just over three hours long so there are long periods where there is no action, and that’s a good thing. If you’re someone that watches Battlestar Galactica for laser fights, you’ll find yourself in familiar territory here. The action that’s in the film is fantastic but it plays second to the drama and character development. Snyder does a pretty amazing thing with the exploitation elements of the film that may be misunderstood by fans of the book. The original comics, when they came out, where considered very racy and violent. The violence and sexual elements were meant to put a fine point on the identity of the characters. By today’s standards, these scenes in the book are fairly tepid. Snyder amps up the violence and the kink and sexuality in the film in order to garner a similar impact from modern audiences. Hardcore fans of the book must understand that changes needed to be made to make the story work on film and for a modern audience. Similar situations came up with the Lord of the Rings movies and they came out ok, Watchman fares just as well. This is not a super hero movie for the kids. It is rated “R” after all. These are heroes, but they are also people and the flaws of humanity are some of the most important thematic elements of the film represented in every character in the film.
Yes, the film is too long but at the same time, not one scene of the film needs to be cut. In fact, the additions of 24 more minutes in this director’s cut are a welcome addition. Imagine if you had to tell the story of the Avengers and the Young Avengers in one movie with all of the back-stories necessary to introduce each character and you start to see the challenge of portraying the Watchmen. As much as I love the Avengers, they are missing all of the dense commentary that makes Watchmen so important. Telling that kind of story seems impossible but Snyder was able to do it here to near perfection. The biggest problem with the theatrical cut of Watchmen is that there were times when information felt crammed in while there were other times where the film seemed to give the characters more breathing room. This pacing issue had to come from the editing of the film for time because this new director’s cut remedies that pacing problem and it fills in the story to a much greater degree. Three hours is a tough watch no doubt but it’s a completely fulfilling experience.
Every character in Watchmen is important both thematically and in the main story. Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan get all of the quotable lines but Silk Spectre II and Nite Owl II are just as fantastic and as important in the story. Nite Owl II, Dr. Manhattan, and Rorschach all have a very specific way of delivering lines, essentially due to most of their dialogue being taken right from the source material. Billy Crudup, Jackie Earle Haley, and Patrick Wilson all give career making performances by really getting the reason their dialogue was originally written the way it was and truly bringing those characters to life the way they were supposed to be. The Silk Spectre II may seem more typical in many ways compared to the rest of the heroes but her growth as a character is still important and Malin Akerman’s performance is terrific. She was featured in some of the more emotional moments of the film and she made those moments real even if there is a glowing guy in the scene and some other people with super powers hanging out. Carla Gugino may be the world’s only true modern day pin-up girl both in looks and in attitude. She truly becomes the original Silk Spectre, both young and old. Others go unnamed only due to length of this article. Mathew Goode is worth mentioning because for the most part he’s good but not as perfect as the previously mentioned actors. He does a good enough job for the most part but he attempts a slight German accent that never really makes sense from a character perspective. Thematically, there are tons of reasons for the accent, but it just doesn’t quite work. Other than that, this cast of character actors is one of the best ensembles of any film in years.
A movie that runs this long requires a level of precision that is here for most of the running time. Through the middle, there is about 15 minutes that appears to bog down just a bit but it’s honestly better balanced out in this director’s cut versus the theatrical version. Also, for a 130 million dollar movie, there are a couple of instances of weak looking CGI. Overall though, the style and use of the CGI is top notch. I can see how some viewers might find themselves disconnected from the characters due to their flaws and the overall weight of the storytelling. That reaction in and of itself brings a different kind of viewing experience, not a bad experience just a different one. I found myself enthralled by the characters and the highly detailed world in which they live so much so that the emotional developments did impact me. Watchmen is one of the most ambitious films made in many years, at least since the Lord of the Rings trilogy and it will go on to influence new filmmakers for many years to come. This is a true conversation piece, not just a few hours of escapism. As much as I loved Iron Man and The Dark Knight, this film is more ambitious in form and story than either of those films could have ever hoped to be. Watchmen absolutely requires multiple viewings to take it all in and I can’t wait to watch it again. Is it my favorite of comic book movies? Hard to say, but it is the bravest of them all. Zack Snyder and Warner Brothers deserve a lot of credit for giving Watchmen the time and budget it deserves even if it does alienate so many mainstream viewers. People actually walked out of the movie part way through during the original screening I attended back when the film was in theaters. As I said, this is a challenging film and some folks just won’t be up to it. I can’t gush enough about the film. The overpowering melancholy of it all is a heavy weight to carry while watching this film but at the same time it’s powerful and truly moving, not in a tear jerker sort of way but in a more subtle and persistent way. Some people say that Zack Snyder took so much of a back seat to the graphic novel in making this film that we never see who Zack is in it. Those people couldn’t be more wrong. What we see here is intimate in that we see just how strongly this graphic novel effected Zack. Watchmen affected Snyder in the same way that Star Wars affected many of us, or how Jaws changed how we all look at the ocean. The story was at least partially responsible for making Snyder who he is today and in this film his passion for the look and story comes through loud and clear.
This 1080p (2.4:1) is nothing short of stunning. This is the perfect fanboy demo disc for why HD is a must have. This is a dark film and were it not presented properly the gorgeous set design and little details would have disappeared in the murky darkness. Fortunately the black levels are perfection. They’re inky and deep but they still reveal all of the beautiful little details that are still important to the atmosphere of the film. Detail levels throughout the film in any lighting situation are stunning. Colors in this film are extremely vivid and leaning toward pastels and again they come through perfectly in this home video presentation. Skin tones also look great and very lifelike. There’s tons of opportunity for blooming and other compression issues throughout this film and that I could see these artifacts only occur twice and they come and go so fast you really have to be looking for them to see them. Once there was some minor banding for a spilt second on Dr. Manhattan’s glow and again for a split second on the thruster fire from the ship.
If this isn’t the best looking film on Blu-Ray then it’s definitely near the top of the list.
The DTS-HD lossless audio presentation here matches the video presentation by being reference quality. The action scenes of course come alive with directional audio and immersive dynaic range but what’s more impressive, and important, are the quieter scenes of just two people talking. In those scenes the atmospheric ambient sounds subtly radiating from the entire soundstage make the world in which the Watchmen live come alive. IN the restaurant for example you feel like you’re just sitting at another table hearing a little too much of Dan and Laurie’s conversation. Dialogue is always crsip and clean, even in the whispers, and the emotive score fills the soundstage without overpowering the other sounds occurring within the scenes. Low end sub woofer usage also packs the right punch when it kicks in. Again, this is as close to perfect a presentation as we’ve seen on Blu-ray so far.
The Packaging and Bonus Features
The three disc collection comes packaged in a standard slim Blu-Ray case with the three discs monted on a hinge inside. Cover art is the same on the actual case as well as on the holographic slipcover. The art is taken from some of the original poster designs and it does a great job of selling the film. It features the main characters floating through the broken glass of the iconic window sceene from the first few moments of the film. Fortunately the art gets away from the overused floating heads design that’s too often utilized on DVD releases these days.
The biggest bonus feature, and the one that really matters, is the “Maximum Movie Mode”. This bonus feature is only available on the Blu-Ray version and outside of the stellar quality of the audio and video makes this version worth buying over the SD DVD’s. Warner has done “In Movie Modes” on other HD releases that include storyboard comparisons, links to photo galleries, timeline sequences, and pop up trivia all happening on screen while the film is playing. Add to that throughout the running time the film will change to a split screen mode with director zack Snyder standing between the two screens discussing the scenes being played out on the two screens. One screen continues to play the film while the other shows behind the scenes footage of the same sequences currently playing in the film. Snyder goes into detail discussing the creation of the given scenes. This feature is a true combination of a director’s commentary and making of featurette. It’s truly an amazing and immersive way to experience the film.
Also on disc one are eleven “Focus Points” which are in reality short webisodes that were originally made available online during the making of the film. Many of these segments are included in the Maximum Movie Mode” but it’s nice to be able to watch them outside of the film here. Each “Focus Point” covers a specific aspect of the making of the film including the costumes, the ship, the characters, various special fx, and more. All together the “Focus Points” run around 37 minutes. Watched all together they offer really nice making of the film coverage. The only hiccup here is no “Play All” option.
The rest of the bonus features appear on the second of the three discs. “The Phenomenon: The Comic that Changed Comics” is a half hour documentary about the original comic book and graphic novel. Interviews with the film cast and crew, with DC Comics executives, and with the artists that worked on the book. The doc not only discusses the impact of the comic but it also retraces the steps that brought the comic and the creators to the United States.
“Real Super Heroes: Real Vigilantes” is a half hour featurette covering real life vigilantes and examines the ways that society makes heroes of vigilantes.
“Mechanics: Technologies of a Fantastic World” is a short featurette focuses on the plausibility of the science in the graphic novel. Dr. James Kakalios, Professor of Physics at the University of Minnesota breaks it all down in the scant 17 or so minutes of running time.
Lastly there’s a music video for the song Desolation Row which is utilized in the film. The only way to get trailers, or a trailer anyway, is via the BDLive feature. That features links to the Warner Brothers website and allows you to sign up for the Warner Brothers Facebook group. There will be a special community screening of the film via BDLive with director Zack Snyder during San Diego Comic Con on July 25th. You’ll need to sign up on the Warner brothers website for this event.
There’s a ton of great stuff here. While there is no specific “making of” documentary the “Maximum View” combined with the “Focus Points” offers a ton of making of information and the “Maximum View” mode is a very unique experience. With all of this fantastic bonus stuff I couldn’t help but think there should be more. This is an epic groundbreaking film that deserves Lord of the Rings level bonus features. Throughout the bonus features that are on the two discs (the third disc is the digital copy) scenes from the motion comics that were released prior to the film were used. So, why not include the motion comic in the set? Also the whole cut out pirate section of the graphic novel was told in animated form but it’s nowhere to be found here. Also a sit down interview with just zack Snyder discussing how he became involved in the film and how he finally got it made would be excellent. What about a day by day documentary following the making of the film similar to those that are on The Devil’s Rejects and Halloween? As great as what we are given here is I can’t help but feel that there will be a double dip where a new Blu-Ray gets even deeper bonus features.
This is so close to being a perfect HD presentation of a stunning achievement in filmmaking that it hurts. Just a little more attention to bonus features would have made this release perfect. As it stands this will probably still be the best Blu-Ray release this year.
Overall (Not an Average) 9/10
The Movie 9.5/10
The Video 10/10
The Audio 10/10
The Packaging and Bonus Features (Not an average) 8.5/10
Overall (Not an Average) 9/10