"Watchmen: Ultimate Cut Blu-ray Review"
By James Harvey
For such a great movie, I was disappointed to see it take such a big hit at the box office earlier this year. Visually stunning and complex, Watchmen was definitely a movie that was very faithful to its four-color roots, but may have been something the public just wasn’t ready for. Despite being draped in the vivid colors and high-octane trappings of your typical mainstream blockbuster, Watchmen hid a very dark and depressing center, full of grey areas and characters who morally challenged the viewer on a deep level, much akin to the original graphic novel. Now, will the newly released longer cut of the movie, titled Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut – The Complete Story win over those who weren’t blown away by this stunner of a film?
A complex, multi-layered mystery adventure, Watchmen is set in an alternate 1985 America in which costumed superheroes are part of the fabric of everyday society, and the "Doomsday Clock" - which charts the USA's tension with the Soviet Union - is permanently set at five minutes to midnight. Based on the classic Watchmen graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, when one of his former colleagues is murdered, the washed-up but no less determined masked vigilante Rorschach sets out to uncover a plot to kill and discredit all past and present superheroes. As he reconnects with his former crime-fighting legion - a ragtag group of retired superheroes, only one of whom has true powers - Rorschach glimpses a wide-ranging and disturbing conspiracy with links to their shared past and catastrophic consequences for the future. Their mission is to watch over humanity...but who is watching the Watchmen?
Before I go any further, I need to admit my bias. I'm a fan of the original Watchmen graphic novel and, after my initial doubts about it being film-able, thoroughly enjoyed Synder's attempt at bringing this amazing story to the big screen. I can't speak from the perspective of the casual viewer, but I can speak, albeit poorly, as one who knows the original material, and respects its transition to the big screen. I completely understand that things need to be altered when adapting from one medium to the next, and Watchmen is no different. On top of that, I really enjoyed the Watchmen: Director’s Cut home video release from earlier this year, too.
Director Zack Synder really deserves the credit here, being able to take something considered completely untouchable in Hollywood and making a faithful, coherent, and entertaining film. It's stunning to see Watchmen, which has circled so many Hollywood drains in its long production history, finally brought to life after so many years, and done so in a completely lavish and faithful manner. Remember, while this movie is an adaptation of the classic comic, it's also very obvious this is Snyder's interpretation of the movie. He hasn't simply adapted the story, but added his own flourishes and touches to it, and the result is spectacular. There are a couple side-steps, but Snyder has faithfully adapted to the story. He's captured the core of what makes this a fascinating and addictive story and breathes new life into it, making it enjoyable to die-hard fans and (hopefully) accessible to the casual viewer, too. Much like the source material, Watchmen is by no means an easy movie to sit through, but it is worthwhile.
It still amazes me this movie got made, especially since Watchmen isn't your typical blockbuster, especially with this new “Ultimate Cut.” While it may have looked like one, and was heavily hyped as one, it's something completely different. It's dark, bleak, doesn't hold your hand, and forces you to get involved in the movie. Maybe that's why it didn't hit it as big as it should have, since it wasn’t something we could just sit there and watch. Then again, I imagine if one is not up to the task of watching such a dense movie like this, the flaws in Watchmen become all the more readily apparently. The first third of the film is an absolutely complicated set-up, unloading so much information while also making sure that the film can breathe and allow for the audience to become invested. Given the layers upon layers required for the movie to set itself up, I can see where those expecting just another brainless blockbuster would scoff and walkout. But it's a movie that rewards its audience, especially those in it for the entire duration. I was immensely satisfied with the movie, feeling completely pleased as the end credits hit the screen. All in all, Snyder is able to streamline a fairly complicated story quite effectively.
And not only does the Snyder's take on the story work so well here, but his visuals are just stunning. The sets, costumes, lighting, the flawless special effects, all of it seems perfect and just about flawless. The talented crew on this movie obviously paid attention to Gibbon's work in the book and perfectly brought it to life. Characters look nearly identical from the book, with only a handful of changes made. You have to give them credit for how they brilliantly came up with Rorschach's mask, as that really helps make the predictable design choices for Nite Owl II forgivable. And all the designs, etc., just come together so well on screen, especially with the pitch-perfect directing and cinematography. And I really like how Snyder doesn't make the movie all about these visuals. They're great, yes, but they serve the story instead of surpassing it. That being said, they're still absolutely beautiful. There's nary a shot that isn't artfully composed or easy to get lost in. The highlight of the film's artistry, to me, has to be Dr. Manhattan's origin story. It's such a brilliant ten-minute piece, covering the character's evolution from the typical "scientist caught in accident" beginnings to a near demigod growing ever more distant from this blue little planet. I can't think of a better composition of images and words coming together in Watchmen than this scene right here. There's other great moments, but this is the moment in the movie where Snyder just cracks it out of the park.
You can really feel that Snyder is trying to do something different here, different from the other comic book movies and different from his previous works. While we've seen countless movies described as "all flash and no substance," Watchmen can probably be described as "flash driven by substance." And you can see Snyder trying to step out of any pre-conceived notions that people may have of his work by trying something more story-driven. Now, The movie is violent and flashy, don't get me wrong, and it features a heaping helping of nudity and sex, but Watchmen definitely doesn't feel like any of Snyder's previous work, such as the Dawn of the Dead remake or 300, nor does it feel like any previous comic book movie. We do get a few brief moments of Snyder's signature speed ramping, but it happens a handful of times (if that) and is driven more by emotions and story than pointless fisticuffs, so it doesn't even register as superfluous.
To briefly touch the film's cast for a moment, overall I feel Snyder did a fine job with casting the movie, with nearly every actor disappearing into their respective roles with ease. Going with a relatively unknown cast really helps with the film, with Billy Crudup, as Dr. Manhattan, being arguably the biggest name on the docket. Now, film enthusiasts will likely recognize a good chunk of the cast, but I imagine the mainstream public is largely unaware of the majority of cast featured here. In terms of stand-out performances, Jackie Earle Haley was born to play the role of Rorschach, with his work on the character an absolute breakout. That's no big surprise given he gets some of the film's best moments, including his staggering showdown with Dr. Manhattan during the film's finale. Haley just perfectly captures the tormented character. Patrick Wilson is also perfectly cast as schlubby Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl II, a retired hero who realizes his best days are behind him, and finds himself lingering in the lifestyle of a civilian. Dreigberg encompasses the heart of the movie, and Wilson really allows us into the movie through his character. Dreigberg just brings us to that level we need to be at in order to let the world of the Watchmen completely drape us. The previously mentioned Crudup and Jeffrey Dean Morgan deserve recognition for their respective roles as Dr. Manhattan and the Comedian, as well.
So, with all that said, what new film content do we find with this latest home video release of Watchmen? First off, this is the third version of Watchmen to hit home video. Earlier this year we saw the theatrical and superior “Director’s Cut” versions released, and now Warner Home Video has released the new Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut – The Complete Story edition. This 215-minute cut goes deeper into the overall Watchmen world than the 186-minute “Director’s Cut” from earlier this year, and even shorter theatrical version, weaving the animated version of the comic-within-a-comic Tales of the Black Freighter into the feature film itself along with additional new scene extensions , which mostly pop up to segue into these little animated bits. Tales of the Freighter follows the journey of a shipwrecked mariner who goes to unspeakable lengths to return home and save his family from ship inhabited by demonic pirates. While not obvious at first, the plot of this side-story does effectively parallel the main storyline quite nicely.
Admittedly, the new scenes Tales of Black Freighter scenes can sometimes bring the main storyline of the film to a bit of a halt, and sometimes seem to pop up out of nowhere. Die-hard fans of the movie likely won’t be jarred by this, but I can see the casual viewer or fan being thrown off by these. This version of the film, with Tales of the Black Freighter, does kind of “complete” the Watchmen experience, yes, though I can’t say it’s any better than Snyder’s excellent “Director’s Cut” from earlier this year. It does work, I do agree, and it’s a great little nod toward the fans. However, I find this version to be a very fan-oriented release, so perhaps casual fans or fans strictly of the movie may want to stick with the “Director’s Cut.” However, I’m sure plenty will find the Watchmen film experience bolstered by the inclusion of this great little animated subplot, one that mirrors the main story-line in a very clever and creepy way.
Much like the “Director’s Cut,” the pace of the movie feels so different than the theatrical experience thanks to the new footage allowing scenes a few more seconds to breathe. Even the set-up scene extensions for Tales of the Black Freighter actually work, too. With one of the recurring complaints on the film being the tight pace of the theatrical cut, this new version should alleviate those problems. Just like how Snyder likes to really give the actions scenes plenty of room to stretch out, we get the same for the more character-driven scenes in this new director's cut. The new live-action footage consists mostly of aforementioned scene extensions, but it allows us to linger on these characters for a few more seconds, adding weight to some of the quieter moments. Jupiter gets a big helping of new scenes that flesh out her character and storyline, completely changing her overall story for the movie (and showing us where she snagged her gun). Even short insert shots, like a new one of the Comedian during Vietnam happily gunning people down from a helicopter, or the camera simply staying focused on Jupiter's character for a few additional beats after her restaurant visit with Dreigberg, says volumes about the characters. These new scenes really punctuate the story in a way that was missing from the theatrical cut. The story can actually breathe here, which helps tremendously.
Not all the additional scenes feel important to the overall story - such as Veidt's assistant getting her hand blown off or some more extraneous posturing by Rorscach - but the majority of which do add a welcome new layer to the already dense movie while others are , I suppose, just fun little add-ons here and there. Outside of the new animated Tales of the Black Freighter footage, the death of Hollis Mason and an additional flashback to Laurie's past are the major highlights in the new footage, as both scenes give the story that additional "oomph" that many thought was lacking in the theatrical cut. And the Hollis Mason death scene? Absolutely stunning. Possibly the best scene in the entire movie.
As I briefly mentioned earlier in the review, there are a few little flaws here and there in the movie, but nothing that cripples it by any means. I found some of the make-up effects, mostly used to either age and de-age some characters and transform actors into political figures, to be pretty weak and unconvincing, notably in the movie's attempt to make actor Robert Wisden resemble President Nixon. Similarly, some of the song choices in Watchmen tend to raise an eyebrow and can be considered distracting. I can also easily say there a couple beats from the book that should have been included in the movie, but that could be said about any "book to movie" adaptation. And, with this new Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut – The Complete Story edition, there is actually little left unexplored. Besides, when you look at the finished product, it's quite evident that Snyder has done a masterful job adapting a story deemed "unfilmable" to the big screen. Even with all the little nitpicks and complaints from Watchmen that could be endlessly dissected, Snyder deserves props for making this gutsy blockbuster.
There's so much more that can be said about this movie, but I'm sure my lack of writing talent, as evident by this rambling diatribe, is testing the patience of many, so I'll just wrap this up. Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut – The Complete Story truly brings the complete live-action to life here, leaving barely anything unturned or unexplored. It's a huge super-hero blockbuster that delivers on an intellectual level, drenches us in lavish visuals and features a host of great characters. It's just a great movie that, even with a few niggling nitpicks here and there, is a mind-blowing piece of art. I guarantee you that this film will not be what you expect, and you should be happy for that. It's rare to see a movie of this caliber, one that goes against the grain of what a big-budget Hollywood movie is supposed to be, and it's absolutely refreshing. When you boil it down, Snyder did right by Moore and Gibbons and the original Watchmen graphic novel, so you should do Snyder right and experience this great piece of work. Now, all that’s really left for the viewer to decide is if they want the story sans Tales of the Black Freighter (and, if so, check out the previous Watchmen: Director’s Cut Blu-ray release) or with it here. A stunning piece of work that truly brings the graphic novel to vivid life, Watchmen comes Highly Recommended.
Arriving on home video in its third “cut,” Warner Home Video has created a great little package for this latest Watchmen release. Both a regular Blu-ray case and a digi-pack case are nicely snuggled in the sturdy Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut – The Complete Story cardboard box. Breaking it down, the digipak houses three discs in individual plastic trays, the discs including the feature film, another the special features and the last a Digital Copy of Snyder's theatrical cut. In the Blu-ray case, well, it seems to be the Watchmen: The Complete Motion Comics release from earlier this year. It’s odd, without a doubt, but it does fit nicely within the packaging so it isn’t a cause for alarm. Perhaps Warner Home Video was just looking to unload some overstock of the title and put it in this collection as is? Regardless, it’s a very attractive set, no question. It’s definitely something that will pop out on shelves and catch the eye, especially during the holiday season we all find ourselves currently ensnared in.
Digging in, let’s start off by focusing on the audio and video quality on this release. It should come as no surprise that, yet again, Warner Home Video has produced something gorgeous. In short, the 1080p/VC-1 transfer boasts a striking film presentation, complete with crisp definition, sharp detail, and surprisingly deep and pure skintones. It looks great, plain and simple. And, thankfully, both the live-action content and animation content seem to mix quite well in terms of video quality. There’s some slight banding for the animated segments, but it’s hardly noticeable. It’s surprisingly consistent, actually. Moving on to the audio, Warner Home Video has provided a solid Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track. Everything is balanced to near-perfection with this release, with dialogue coming out clear, fully audible and meticulously balanced. Whether it’s a hushed conversation between two of the characters or a full-out brawl, the mix is really well handled in every aspect. Everything resonates as it should, making for a splendid listening experience that is arguably perfect.
Moving on to the bonus features, up first are two audio commentaries, the sole extras on the first disc in this collection, featuring director Zack Snyder and comic creator Dave Gibbons. Snyder is a solid listen, I’ll admit, though it lacks the punch of his “Maximum Movie Mode with Zack Snyder” commentary from the previous Watchmen: Director’s Cut release. Still, fans will find it a worthwhile listen. He points out easter egss, discussion production and cast experiences, and even the animated Tales of the Black Freighter scenes and how they were inserted back into the movie. On the quieter front, the separate commentary track featuring Dave Gibbons is a humble affair. While he focuses more on the movie than on his actual work on the original Watchmen comic, it’s a solid listen for the die-hard fans. BD-Live functionality concludes the first disc.
"The Phenomenon: The Comic that Changed Comics" kicks off the second disc, presenting a surprisingly detailed featurette covering the creation and subsequent praise for the Watchmen graphic novel. We hear from Watchmen co-creator Dave Gibbons, the movie's cast and crew, DC Comics executives, and handful of comic talent, but as you can expect, Alan Moore is nowhere to be found. While the feature heaps endless praise on the book, it also spends time dissecting it , bringing a nice balance to what could have been a very lop-sided featurette. The second featurette, "Real Super Heroes, Real Vigilantes," uses Watchmen to springboard into a look at vigilantism in real-life. If you can get past some of the silly trappings, it's actually a pretty interesting featurette looking at how the world twists the view of vigilantism. After that is a pretty standard look at how the creative team behind Watchmen film worked to make sure everything in the film could be plausible in the real world in "Mechanics: Technologies of a Fantastic World." The faux documentary “Under the Hood,” originally featured on the Watchmen: Tales of the Black Freighter home video release, is included here to fully round out the Watchmen story, providing sufficient background on the characters. “Story Within a Story” looks at the secondary stories and additional material used in providing more layers to the already complex story of Watchmen, bringing attention to some aspects of the movie that some viewers may not have noticed. A collection of brief featurettes under the collective title Watchmen Video Journals and the My Chemical Romance "Desolation Row" music video top off the second disc.
The third disc in this collection presents the Watchmen: The Complete Motion Comic Blu-ray release. Included is the complete Watchmen motion comic, a brief featurette highlighting the differences between the film and the comic, and a trailer for the 2009 Wonder Woman animated feature. As previously stated, it’s housed in its own Blu-ray case, which thankfully fits snug in the overall Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut – The Complete Story package.
Moving on to disc four and final disc, the sole content is a Digital Copy of the Watchmen theatrical cut.
Overall, Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut – The Complete Story is a bit of a mixed bag. The “ultimate cut” of the movie truly does provide the full Watchmen experience, but it’s really no better or worse than the “Director’s Cut” from earlier this year. Yes, the addition of Tales of the Black Freighter is nice, I agree, but it doesn’t seem absolutely crucial. Thankfully, it doesn’t take away from such a great movie and does provide a sense of completion. And the same can sort of be said about the bonus features. They don’t really surpass the bonus features on the Watchmen: Director’s Cut, but seem to compliment them nicely. For example, any gaps in the bonus features department on Watchmen: Director’s Cut is filled here with Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut – The Complete Story and vice versa. Owners of the Watchmen: Director’s Cut Blu-ray release will want to hang on to that title, not just because it serves as a fine compliment, but also due to the still-amazing “Maximum Movie Mode with Zack Snyder” bonus feature. As if cunningly planned out by Warner Home Video, fans will need both the previous Watchmen: The Director’s Cut and this Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut – The Complete Story in order to get the complete Watchmen experience.
Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut – The Complete Story is worth seeking out, especially for the die-hard fans. I’m not sure if it’s worth picking up for the casual viewer, as I imagine the Tales of the Black Freighter segments could turn away those who don’t understand the layered complexity of Watchmen, but fans should pick this up. A satisfying and ultimate worthwhile collection, Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut – The Complete Story comes Highly Recommended. Watchmen definitely won’t appeal to everyone, and this “Ultimate Cut” will do nothing to change that, but I find Watchmen is worth experiencing again and again. While the Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut – The Complete Story doesn’t really add anything new, the inclusion of Tales of the Black Freighter does freshen things up nicely, and the bonus content, though the majority repeated, provides a good look into how this vastly underrated picture came together. It's something completely different, the anti-blockbuster with a brain, and there's a good chance we'll never see anything like this on the big screen again.
Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut – The Complete Story is now available to own on Blu-ray and DVD.