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Watchmen: Director's Cut

(2009) *** 1/2 R
186 min. Warner Brothers. Director: Zack Snyder. Cast: Billy Crudup, Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Haley, Malin Akerman, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Matthew Goode, Carla Gugino, Matt Frewer.


Perhaps it's the relative "space" and time in the months since Watchmen's initial theatrical release, attended by hype and high expectations. Or perhaps it's the breathing room afforded by a little over twenty-four minutes of new footage. Probably both. At any rate, Watchmen: Director's Cut seems signifcantly more satisfying than its trimmed predecessor. Released to a handful of theaters in anticipation of its DVD and Blu-ray debut, Watchmen: Director's Cut offers an opportunity to reevaluate Zack Snyder's epic adaptation of the comic industry's standard bearer.

The seminal limited comic book series Watchmen (the first to be published as a "graphic novel") still stands as a high water mark of comic-book artistry. Over twelve issues spanning 1986-1987, writer Alan Moore and illustrator Dave Gibbons conjured a fascinating and alarming alternate reality for 1985. If superheroes functioned within the continuum of American history, they would, of course, affect the course of human events, and the course of human events would affect the superheroes in return. As the graphic novel was a postmodern comic book, director Zack Snyder's adaptation qualifies as a postmodern superhero movie. Both ask us to consider what superheroes mean to us, why they have such a hold on our imagination. The answer should rattle the nation's mallrats or, at the very least, confuse them. So far, so good.

As seen in Snyder's faithful but somewhat limited rendering, Watchmen explores an America in which most superheroes saw their vigilantism outlawed by the government. Nevertheless, two sanctioned heroes-a Nietzschean "Superman" imbued with nuclear capability (Dr. Manhattan) and a costumed hero coopted as a secret operative (The Comedian)-made Vietnam a cakewalk, Nixon a five-term president, and established a tentative world peace with their super-deterrence. When a killer throws The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) through the plate glass window of his high-rise apartment, disbanded heroes reunite to mull over the possibility of a "mask killer" picking off superheroes; meanwhile, Dr. Manhattan (a motion-captured Billy Crudup) skips the planet, advancing the Doomsday Clock by tipping the Cold War balance of power toward World War III.

Screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse render the complex plot in a complex but coherent fashion. In his comics, Moore wrote himself a Gordian knot, then undid it in an audacious climax, one that the film necessarily streamlines. Refusing to believe a film of Watchmen could artfully tell the same story, Moore removed his name from the project long ago. "With a comic, you can take as much time as you want," Moore said. "But in a film, by the nature of the medium, you're being dragged through it at 24 frames per second." Terry Gilliam, one of three major directors once attached to the project, concluded it could only be done honorably as a five-hour miniseries. The Director's Cut still suffers from the loss of civilian perspective offered by scenes set at the newsstand, and the unnerving parallel content of its "Tales of the Black Freighter" comic book, but there's no doubt that the story breathes more deeply in the Director's Cut. And with a pending Ultimate Collector's Edition promising to weave "Tales of the Black Freighter" back into the narrative, the distinct possibility arises that the film could become even better in a third incarnation.

Undeniably, Watchmen retains a healthy saturation of subversion in its deconstruction of archetypal superheroes, from the cigar-chomping punisher that is The Comedian to Dr. Manhattan's blue nudity and dangerously philosophical quantum perspective on the universe (I guess that's why they call it the blues). The characters are accurately interpreted as psychologically damaged: the psychopathic Rorshach (Jackie Earle Haley, ideally cast), with his ever-shifting mask of ink blots; Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), a super-genius with a God complex and an ancient-world fetish; retired Silk Spectre Laurie Juspeczyk (an underwhelming Malin Akerman), with self-esteem issues borne of being Dr. Manhattan's estranged lover; and one-time Nite Owl Dan Dreiberg (standout Patrick Wilson), who pines for Laurie, but has been rendered impotent since being forced to hang up his cape. The film retains one of the novel's most pungent jokes: that only breathless violence and costumed role play can cure what sexually ails Dan.

The graphic novel brimmed with significance, but the film fails to evince a clear perspective on its various elements: the flash and dazzle too often drown out the ideas, and besides, Moore was right: the necessarily ruthless forward momentum allows no time to ponder them anyway. Savored on the page, Watchmen evokes contemplation and an emotional response; in his screen version, Snyder excels at recreating the spectacle (with the help of Fight Club production designer Alex McDowell) and retains the toughness of the story, but only sporadically connects with its funkiness (one of Gibbons' best gifts) and its transcendent, contrapuntal layering of meaning (one of Moore's).

Where the comic mostly created its own pop culture references, the film uses existing ones to good effect (a McLaughlin Group scene that accomplishes grounding exposition and chuckles) and bad (the clichéd and distracting recreation of Kubrick's War Room from Dr. Strangelove). Snyder's (over)use of source music is likewise hit and miss ("Unforgettable" and "All Along the Watchtower": yay; "The Sound of Silence" and "Hallelujah": nay). The director of the Dawn of the Dead remake and 300 is least impressive when obviously relishing the gory bits, the juvenile but happily fleeting way Snyder applies his authorial stamp.

/content/films/3358/9.jpgOverall, Snyder should be commended for what he's pulled off here, in particular a flat-out brilliant opening-titles sequence that, for once in the film, explores a clever double-meaning. Using montage and Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'," Snyder both primes the story with a review of superhero history over decades of change, but also schools the audience: pay attention, for the times you know, they are a-changin' to an alternate reality.

The Director's Cut most notably restores the moving death scene of a key character, though there are also useful added scenes for Rorshach and Laurie. Many other scenes have been extended, including the crucial conversation on Mars between Laurie and Dr. Manhattan. Whatever Watchmen's faults--now mitigated in the improved Director's Cut--any film that depicts a "superheroic" rapist-brute as a self-styled parody of America's "true face" can hardly be accused of thematic squeamishness, and any film that sends readers back to the comic for Moore (and Gibbons) has served the public interest.

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Aspect ratios: 2.4:1

Number of discs: 3

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 7/21/2009

Distributor: Warner Home Video

On Blu-ray, Watchmen: Director's Cut is a bona fide event. Not only does the film grow by twenty-four minutes, but the Blu-ray format grows to accomodate the film's special presentation with the introduction of the WB Maximum Movie Mode. The A/V quality is perfection, with a tight, crisp, clean image of vibrant color and depth matched by astounding DTS-HD Master Audio. Any complaints in this department would be as loony as Rorschach.

So what's this Maximum Movie Mode? It's a high-def viewing alternative (somewhat awkwardly) hosted by director Zack Snyder. Though it doesn't provide the wall-to-wall commentary some fans might have been anticipating (perhaps in the next edition), this unique "exploration" of the movie incorporates several types of bonus features into one. Snyder's "walk-on" segments find him flanked by two widescreen TVs as he explains his intentions and how scenes were shot, also at times pointing out ephemera in the film's frame (and pausing the film as necessary to do so).

Next, the Maximum Movie Mode periodically pops up with a Timeline comparing events from "Their World" to those of "Our World"; inset comic book panels and storyboards matched up to the film; or Picture-in-Picture video, which includes behind-the-scenes B-roll, time-lapse montages of set builds, and interview clips with Snyder, Gibbons, McDowell, Chow, art director Helen Jarvis, Akerman, Wilson, Desjardin, Gugino, Morgan, editor William Hoy, Crudup, Fong, Matthew Goode, Wilkinson, Erickson, Caro, Haley, and special makeup effects artist Will Huff.

At various points, the Maximum Movie Mode also offers click-away access to Still Galleries (with storyboards, set photos, production art, blueprints) or one of eleven Focus Points (each a few minutes in length): "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." All of the Focus Points can also be accessed from the disc's main menu. Interviewees include Snyder, Watchmen graphic novel co-creator & illustrator Dave Gibbons, Stephen McHattie, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Carla Gugino, Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Jackie Earle Haley, Patrick Wilson, production designer Alex McDowell, producer Deborah Snyder, director of photography Larry Fong, chief lighting technician Dennis Brock, VFX supervisor John "DJ" Desjardin, SFX coordinator Joel Whist, Chris Gilman of Global Effects, property master Jimmy Chow, set decorator Jim Erickson, co-producer Wesley Coller, costume designer Michael Wilkinson, head sculptor Jack Gauvreau, SFX assistant/electronics Andrew Verhoeven, still photographer Clay Enos, stunt coordinator/fight choreographer Damon Caro, Canadian stunt coordinator Douglas Chapman, and fire technicians Colin Decker & Dustin Brooks.

The Maximum Movie Mode also handily auto-bookmarks your place when you exit, giving you the option to resume your previous session (or begin at the beginning) on your return.

Lastly, Disc One includes Warner Bros. BD-Live accessibility for further content, such as a live event with Snyder and the sharing of fan-made commentaries.

Disc Two gathers three boffo featurettes, all presented in HD.

"The Phenomenon: The Comic That Changed Comics" (28:46, HD) explores the initiation of and creative choices behind the original graphic novel, its impact, and its themes. Participants include Akerman, Haley, Gugino, Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance, Time Magazine book critic Lev Grossman, Crudup, DC Comics Senior VP/Creative Director Richard Bruning, DC Comics President & Publisher (1981-2002) Jenette Kahn, Snyder, Deborah Snyder, DC Comics Senior VP/Creative Affairs Gregory Noveck, Gibbons, former DC editor Len Wein, Watchmen graphic novel colorist John Higgins, DC President & Publisher Paul Levitz, producer Lloyd Levin, Watchmen and Philosophy editor Dr. Mark D. White, Morgan, and Coller.

"Real Super Heroes: Real Vigilantes" (26:17, HD) takes a fascinating look at exactly what the title describes, from Bernie Goetz to modern-day costumed heroes who actually patrol our streets. Joining the provocative discussion are Snyder, Federal & Superior Court-qualified deadly force/tactics expert Scott Reitz, professor of American History Dr. Thomas Spencer, Gibbons, Grossman, Alliance of Guardian Angels S.E. Coast Director William "Gladiator" Cruz, Alliance of Guardian Angels founder & president Curtis Sliwa, Sunday Mirror UK Investigations Editor Graham Johnson, White, Guardian Angel Mary J. Gethins, Deborah Snyder, Haley, Crudup, Spencer Weiss of International Tactical Training Seminars, "Tothian," "Ecliptico," and Wilson.

"Mechanics: Technologies of a Fantastic World" (16:48, HD) finds University of Minnesota Professor of Physics James Kakalios wittily recounting his involvement with the film and how it does or does not live up to principles of physics. Also on hand are Snyder, Erickson, McDowell, supervising art director François Audouy, and Crudup.

Lastly, the disc includes the "'Desolation Row' Music Video by My Chemical Romance" (3:14, HD).

A third disc offers a Digital Copy of the Director's Cut for flexibility of portable playback. This set comes highly recommended, whether in the regular three-disc Blu edition or in Amazon's exclusive Nite Owl edition packaged in a light-up Archimedes miniature complete with sound effects. Coooool.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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