STUDIO: Warner Home Video
RUNNING TIME: 26 minutes/38 minutes
• Story Within A Story: The Books Of Watchmen
• Watchmen Motion Comic Episode 1
• Exclusive First Look: Green Lantern
Because Warner Bros. loves it when 200,000 overreacting completionist fanboys don’t nail a director and his wife to flaming upside-down crosses on Alan Moore’s lawn. Hence, this DVD.
Tales of the Black Freighter: The Voices of Gerard Butler, Jared Harris
Under The Hood: Stephen McHattie, Carla Gugino, Matt Frewer, Jeffrey Dean Morgan
In Tales of the Black Freighter, the captain of a ship overtaken by a supernatural pirate vessel must make his way through unspeakable horrors to reach his homeland first before his assailants. In Under The Hood, we revisit a 1975 TV interview with former costumed adventurer Hollis Mason and others about heroism in the old days, and the current state of the world’s strangest profession.
It is still very strange living in a world where a live-action Watchmen film has actually happened and, by some foul craft, wound up not being the suck. It’s a sentiment that’s cropped up after every major comic-book adaptation, for sure, but the constant impossibility that Watchmen could actually be translated with any measure of fidelity makes this a particularly weird and wonderful time. The fact that the same people who made that happen cared enough to bring Tales of the Black Freighter to a moving medium is just as pleasant a surprise, but this DVD’s existence is something of a Catch-22. Even in an extended cut, I’m not sure how much Zack Snyder’s already dense Watchmen adaptation could benefit from animated sequences being woven into it, and at the same time, as an experience largely divorced from its original context, Tales of the Black Freighter feels surprisingly slight and weightless, though certainly not easily forgettable.
That really does sound like backhanded praise, and it does do the feature itself a bit of a disservice. This isn’t the same slapdash job the Motion Comic turned out to be, nor is it just a full-fledged adaptation. An extrapolation’s a better word for this. Because so much of Marooned happens as narration during other events on the page without imagery to match, Zack Snyder and Alex Tse have quite a bit of freedom to fill in the blanks, and they come up with some truly grim, effective stuff, though sometimes, not as artful as what they lift direct from the graphic novel, which is a similar complaint leveled fairly often at the Watchmen film. The captain having a conversation with the corpse of his dead bosun, Ridley (voiced by Benjamin Button‘s Jared Harris, to boot) is a good thing. The grisly things they end up doing to that poor son of a bitch’s head now that he’s on deck, even better. The trite dialogue they have compared to the dark poetry that permeates the rest of the captain’s narration, not so much. That same heavy handedness applies to the imagery on occasion, but really, these are just occasional sour notes in what’s otherwise a well-crafted, ever faithful translation. Gerard Butler’s voice work is icing on the cake. Having not heard his regular, not-barking-death-threats-at-Persians voice in quite some time, it’s refreshing to see (well, hear) him put in a nuanced, understated performance that fast reminded me how much I hate him for not being in anything better than Nim’s fucking Island since 2007.
But again, for all its strengths, I’m trying to put myself into the head of one of those people who hasn’t read the book, but enjoyed the movie, and for that person, walking into their electronics store of choice, and seeing this on the shelf, without any prior knowledge of how this connects to anything in the book, or the movie, and the only reaction I could really muster under those circumstances is “Well, that just happened.” Without the journey of the ship’s captain running parallel to Dr. Manhattan’s exodus from Earth, or Nite Owl realizing how much he needs the cape and cowl, it loses a lot of what made it interesting. And yet, again, I can’t imagine how this version of this story wouldn’t stick out like a sore thumb from the Watchmen film, even after the crucial second reading/viewing (which is, typically, when everyone realizes why The Black Freighter is in there to begin with).
The closest comparison I can really make in terms of filmic synergy would be The Animatrix, but in the case of The Animatrix, there’s three or four shorts on that disc that work as stand alone stories, and if you let it in, they change one’s perception of the Matrix trilogy altogether, but never actually NEED to be in the sequels, which is what a spinoff like this should be. An even better comparison is to Aphex Twin’s Drukqs, a two-CD album where both discs are meant to be played simultaneously. One disc is beautiful and innovative on its own, the other one just feels utterly meandering and pointless without its mate. At least Richard James was nice enough to package both discs together. As a stand-alone DVD, Tales of the Black Freighter feels like little more than a cryptic bone tossed to hardcore fans, and considering the price tag, and the running time (26 minutes), it doesn’t really justify its existence either way.
At least, that would be the case if Under The Hood wasn’t on the disc.
Quite simply, Under The Hood is the real main event. Presented as a 1985 retrospective on a news feature aired in 1975 on Hollis Mason after his book hit shelves, it’s about as perfect a companion piece to the film as one could imagine. Most of that praise can be hung on Stephen McHattie, who so perfectly embodies all the enthusiasm and warmth and earnestness of the graphic novel’s Hollis Mason, it’s gonna be hard to read the book and not see the sparkle in that man’s eyes when talking about Superman, or hear the gentle regret in his voice when he says “We’ve been replaced” or thinks about how he never asked out Sally Jupiter. There’s such an easy likeability to McHattie’s portrayal that being reminded of his ultimate fate in the bonus features was heartbreaking in and of itself. I can’t imagine getting through the actual scene in the Director’s Cut dry-eyed.
McHattie’s the centerpiece, but everyone involved here gets a chance to shine in a way that the film’s formatting dictates they can’t. Except for Rob LaBelle’s Wally Weaver (who never gets more than a minute of screentime in the film) and Jeffery Dean Morgan (who’s only in here for one truly glorious asshole moment), everybody else involved in Under The Hood is forced to play much different permutations of their characters in the film, and spending time with these characters ten years before the events of the film isn’t just informative in the strictest sense, in the same sense the excerpts of Under The Hood and Sally Jupiter interviews were in the graphic novel, but the performances here are imbued with such amazing, brimming subtlety, a knowledge of these people inside and out without ever feeling the need to wink at the fanboys through the camera, that it really becomes a logical extension of the graphic novel, an achievement that even the film had trouble pulling off. All those people who said something to the effect that the film is too much of a copy/paste job of the comic, and Zack Snyder really doesn’t have anything meaningful to add, kindly hand them a copy of this, along with a side order of piping hot shut the fuck up.
“You know, son…we’ve been sitting here for four hours, shootin’ the breeze about the good old days and all that, but look, we need to cut straight to the heart of the matter and say what we’re both really thinking.”
My only disappointment with Under The Hood really has nothing to do with the feature itself, but with Warners PR department, for not pushing this thing much, much harder. The reaction to Watchmen from the general public has been one of apathy, confusion, and, to some small extent, horror. This was not the superhero movie they expected, it seems, but outside of the universally adored opening credits to the film, nothing conveys a sense of the world of Watchmen better and than Under The Hood does, and it does so while giving fans plenty to chew on as well (Lawrence Schexnader’s jab at Captain Metropolis is all sorts of great and awful all at once). I can’t help but think about the way Fox pimped Independence Day and X-Men way back when, with fake documentaries like this broadcast as prime-time specials, and I just wonder what kind of effect this would’ve had on the normals had this gotten the same treatment, instead of being a sidenote on the cover of the Tales of the Black Freighter box.
A lot of tender loving care went into this documentary. It deserves better. But then, I can’t even begin to fathom how much ass had to be kissed to make these things happen at all.
There’s a half hour doc called “Story Within A Story” that doesn’t really explain anything that anyone interested enough to pick up the disc doesn’t already know about the graphic novel, but it’s worth watching if only for three things: one, the section about halfway through concerning the making of Under The Hood; two, some ever so brief glimpses at some of the stuff shot for the director’s cut, most notably the stuff with the two Bernies at the newspaper stand (including, to my concern, transitions from the newspaper vendor’s shack into young Bernie’s Black Freighter comic book), and the assault on Hollis Mason; and three, a great scene with Sally Jupiter right at the end, and no, it has nothing to do with those sexy pinup shots from the movie. Those are earlier. And they’re AWESOME.
Other than that, there’s the first chapter of the shoddy Motion Comic, and a preview of DC’s Green Lantern movie. It ain’t much, but considering all this is eventually going to pop up on whatever super fancy Special Edition Warners puts out for the film later this year, it’s to be expected.
Under The Hood: 9 out of 10