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Watchmen: Director's Cut (Blu-ray)
Warner Home Video / 2009 / 186 Minutes / Unrated
Street Date: July 21, 2009
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Reviewed by M. Enois Duarte
Friday, July 17, 2009
In the latter half of the 1980s, three illustrated novels challenged the mainstream perception of comic books. While the Pulitzer Prize-winning 'Maus' by Art Spiegelman introduced emotionally complex subject matter and established the genre as a viable literary format, Frank Miller's 'Batman: The Dark Knight Returns' scaled national bestseller lists and demonstrated that superheroes struggle with the conditions of the world they feel destined to protect. When the 12-issue limited series of 'Watchmen' by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons was published as a novel-length comic, it stunned audiences with its commercial success and its innovative structure layout. The book's narrative also took a radical approach, scrutinizing the concept of superheros and offering a sort of "deconstruction" of their being, one which has pervaded the comic book world, including film adaptations, ever since. Over twenty years later, director Zack Snyder finally brings to the screen what so many once thought could never be filmed.
Taking place in an alternate reality of America, where Richard Nixon is serving his fourth term as president after winning the Vietnam War. The Keene Act of 1977 has outlawed all acts of masked vigilantism, forcing many into retirement. One October night, the murder of Edward Blake interests Rorschach, a masked avenger seen by the public as more a psychotic criminal than a hero. His investigation leads him to discover that Blake was the man behind The Comedian, a fellow crime fighter turned government operative. Fearing a conspiracy against costumed adventurers, he sets out to warn his former comrades: the Batman-esque Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl, the successful businessman Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias, an angst-ridden Laurie Juspeczyk/Silk Spectre, and the only true superhero of the bunch Dr. Jon Osterman/Doctor Manhattan. As the investigation progresses, the band of superhero outcasts uncovers a plot more sinister and gruesome than they initially expected, revealing an enemy no one would've anticipated.
At the time of its theatrical release, the film version of the popular graphic novel was seen as a mild success, never coming close to expected box office figures. It was also heavily criticized by fans on internet boards around the globe for failing to truly capture the spirit of the series. Being one of those critics (yes, I am that kind of a nerd), the 162-minute adaptation felt rushed and heavily cluttered, as a wealth of information was quickly thrown at the audience with little time to digest it all. Those unfamiliar with the novel were alienated by the onscreen events, while the core fans saw a large amount of exposition skimmed over for the sake of time. Ultimately, what is now considered the theatrical cut seemed more concerned with reverence for its source, rather than a commitment to acting as a legitimate film that stood on its own. Much of the novel's power and depth was lost in the translation.
Now, in this Director's Cut, Snyder is allowed to thicken the plot and create a better flow within the already-trimmed narrative. Arguably, Snyder shows more style over substance, seemingly imitating the original look of the comic rather than offering his own interpretation. But with 24 minutes of footage now added to the story, the film captures the comic's dark, gritty appeal nicely, giving it more of a realistic feel and creating more human fascination. These masked vigilantes are confronted with contemporary real-world events, where they are frequently made aware of the Cold War reaching the breaking point and the fact that nuclear holocaust is imminent. As gloomy and pessimistic as that may sound, the idea posits these would-be superheroes against issues of power and the failure of salvation. They must cope with the world as it truly is: a dark and unpredictable existence, driven by fear and uncertainty of the future.
This band of costumed avengers challenges what normally typifies the superheroics of their peers. They are flawed humans and deeply haunted by their pasts, primarily a shared experience of feeling unwanted from The Keene Act. Their interactions with one another and society at large expose questions about the limitations inherent to the superhero archetype trying to save humanity from itself. It's the reason why fans are attracted to the two most complex characters in the series: Rorschach and The Comedian. While one idealizes his fight against injustice as a battle that must be won, the other possesses a harshly cynical worldview of civilization doomed beyond repair. The narrative also opens doors to discussions on power relations and politics, issues of certainty and doubt, metaphysics and existential nihilism, moral ambiguity, and Ozymandias's actions bring to mind Nietzsche's central theme of the "Master-slave morality".
Coming in at 186 minutes, 'Watchmen: Director's Cut' may be daunting to some viewers, but for fans, this will be the closest we'll ever come to seeing a faithful adaptation of the ragtag group of outcasts. Some of its drawbacks, I feel, are quickly outweighed by the overall sense that the comic book's central conceit is maintained and clearly expressed with a genuine approach. Granted, certain aspects are still missing, but I admit they are necessary alterations to make the transition into film a success. As a long time fan of the illustrated novel, this director's cut of 'Watchmen' easily bests the theatrical version, making it worthy of multiple viewings to take in its dense and complex implications.
Considering the high expectations and the strong following, anything less than spectacular from this freshly-minted transfer would not suffice. Thankfully, the 1080p/VC-1 encode (2.4:1) delivers stunning picture quality that is sure to please fans. Not only does it faithfully reproduce 'Watchmen' as it was shown theatrically, but it also embodies a beautiful cinematic appearance that remains consistent throughout.
Stylistically, the film is drenched in heavy, dark shadows, so black levels are very important to the overall effect. Fortunately, they don't falter and are exceptionally well rendered, coming across as inky and intense with objects clearly distinguished in the darkest areas of the picture. Details are remarkably sharp and distinct, which only adds to the terrific dimensionality of the image. Facial complexions are equally impressive, appearing natural with incredible lifelike texture. Contrast is intentionally muted for a dreary tone which complements the subject matter, but offers plenty of visibility of background information with crisp, clean whites. The palette consists generally of pastel colors, and they yield a strong, bold tonality with accurate vividness.
If there are any nitpicks, it would the minor banding around Doctor Manhattan's blue glow and in the blue flames that burst from Archie's thrusters. However, they only occur for less than a second in a couple of scenes and are barely noticeable while enjoying the film. As such, I find them to be negligible, since they don't distract from the otherwise gorgeous film-like quality of 'Watchmen' on Blu-ray.
Marking Warner's first venture into the DTS-HD Master Audio codec, the lossless soundtrack on this Blu-ray edition of 'Watchmen' is nothing short of reference quality. The sound design isn't dependent on a loud, aggressive, in-your-face attitude. Rather, it remains focused on subtle ambiance and generating a believable environment for this parallel universe of masked avengers.
Dialogue reproduction and character interaction is perfectly discernible, even in the whispered conversations of Laurie and Dan, and remains fixed in the center of the screen. Dynamic range is clean and spacious, conveying terrific differentiation between the highs and mid-levels while in the middle of all the thunderous action. The original musical score by Tyler Bates fills the entire soundstage with great separation and room penetration, feeling warm and wide. Imaging is convincing as atmospheric effects nicely extend the soundfield into the background, enveloping the listener with great depth, clarity and definition. Pans are smooth and seamless, with no loss to details as objects move between the channels. Low-frequency effects carry a hefty and nicely refined punch, adding serious weight to each action sequence.
Warner Home Video has ported over the same bonus material from the 2-Disc special edition released on the same day. Only on this Blu-ray version of 'Watchmen: Director's Cut', fans are rewarded with a nice collection of exclusive features that span three discs, sure to entice anyone still sitting on the fence. The webisodes which were released prior the film's theatrical release are preserved here as "Focus Points". Each featurette is also presented in high definition and quite enjoyable.
- Featurette: "The Phenomenon: The Comic That Changed Comics" (HD, 29 min) - Featuring interviews with the cast and crew, execs at DC Comics, John Higgins, Dave Gibbons, and others, this entertaining short doc examines the comic book's creation and its impact. At times, some comments come across as shallow, but overall, this is an enjoyable featurette as each person offers their thoughts and opinions of the novel and its relevance.
- Music Video (HD, 3 min) - My Chemical Romance performs their song "Desolation Row".
- Digital Copy - The third disc in the package offers a standard definition copy of the film's theatrical cut for portable devices, via iTunes or Windows Media Player.
As if the film weren't enough of a temptation to purchase, Warner also throws in some serious exclusives that only Blu-ray enthusiasts are allowed to enjoy. Again, supplements are presented in HD and very entertaining after the film is over.
- Featurette: "Maximum Movie Mode" - This very cool feature enhances the best parts of the In-Movie Experience (IME) found in many of Warner's Blu-ray titles to create an entirely new experience. The assortment of timeline sequences, comic-to-screen and storyboard comparisons, links to a still gallery and pop-up trivia are only half of the fun, as the film seamlessly branches into a Picture-in-Picture commentary that's immersive and provides an incredible wealth of information. Director Zack Snyder stands in between two screens, where one sees the film in real-time and the other shows behind-the-scenes footage, and he talks us through a variety of details while comparing them as before-and-after shots. Most impressive is the fact that none of this comes off as some kind of parlor trick or even a distraction from the film's enjoyment. This is really one of the best interactive features Warner Home Video has to offer on the Blu-ray format and I hope to see more innovations like it.
- Featurette: "Focus Points" (HD, 37 min) - For fans not in the mood to re-watch the entire film with Maximum Movie Mode, many of those informative featurettes are also included here separately as brief standalone segments. The segments are "The Minutemen", "Sets & Sensibility", "Dressed for Success", "The Ship Has Eyes", "Dave Gibbons", "Burn Baby Burn", "Shoot to Thrill", "Blue Monday", "Attention to Detail", "Girls Kick Ass", and "Rorschach's Mask".
- Featurette: "Real Super Heroes: Real Vigilantes" (HD, 26 min) - Arguably the most interesting doc of the bunch, this is an extensive look at real-life vigilantes and people who take matters into their own hands. It examines the ways in which people romanticize the idea of protecting society from crime and how their behavior leaves them walking the very thin line of being criminals themselves.
- Featurette: "Mechanics: Technologies of a Fantastic World" (HD, 17 min) - Another interesting featurette (especially if you're a science geek like myself), this interview with Dr. James Kakalios, Professor of Physics at the University of Minnesota, gives fans of the 'Watchmen' comic a fascinating opportunity to think of the science in the book as a plausibility. The professor also joined the film crew as an advisor to the production and set design, ensuring that everything Doctor Manhattan worked on had a reality base.
- BD-Live - A BD-Live link takes you to Warner's online portal, where you can view various trailers, including one for the 'Watchmen' film, and sign up with Facebook. At the time of this writing, Warner has announced a live community screening with director Zack Snyder on July 25, 2009 at 9:30 pm (Pacific Standard Time). Chat with the director while he screens the Director's Cut from Comic-Con. Visit this website to sign up for this limited event.
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After twenty years of hardcore fans hearing that the 'Watchmen' comics are "unfilmable", Zack Snyder defies logic and gives audiences the closest we'll ever come to experiencing the novel on film. In the 'Watchmen: Director's Cut', Snyder is allowed to flesh out the details better and create a smoother narrative flow, offering an improved vision of this alternate reality. The Blu-ray edition offers a top-notch A/V presentation and arrives housed in a 3-disc package that's sure to entertain with exclusive content and one of the coolest features yet devised in "Maximum Movie Mode". This is a must-have for fans everywhere.