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Improving On Perfection: Watchmen - Director's Cut (Blu-ray)

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Tuesday, Jul 21, 2009
Watchmen: Director's Cut is released today in both a Standard DVD and Blu-ray Edition. The film can also be seen On Demand, and ordered from ITunes
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Watchmen: Director's Cut 2 Disc Special Edition (Blu-ray)

Director: Zack Synder
Cast: Jakie Earle Haley, Jeffery Dean Morgan, Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Goode

(Warner Brothers; US DVD: 21 Jul 2009; UK DVD: 21 Jul 2009)

We film critics hear it all the time - the endless creative mantra from the men behind the camera. “The studio made me trim it.” “The MPAA did most of the damage.” “Test groups didn’t like the (insert movie specific reference here) subplot, so it had to go.” “The ending didn’t ‘test’ well.” The need to edit, the contractually mandated rating (or running time), have long scuttled many an aesthetic aim. It’s almost as if - conspiracy theorists, listen up - a mediocre version of the movie is purposefully created for the mainstream so that the lowest common commercial denominator is fed and then forced aside.


Initially, the invention known as home video offered little solace. The VHS version of a film was supposed to be a full screen mimic of the theatrical experience - artistic compromises and all. Laserdisc promised more access to the “original” content, though it rarely had the opportunity to deliver. By the time that DVD was arriving, some studios saw a value in introducing the “extended” or “director’s” cut to their sell-through catalog. But it really took the new digital domain - and its even more complex cousin, Blu-ray - to pay true homage to the hard work of these marginalized moviemakers. In fact, today is seems like every new release is offered in both a theatrical and some manner of “unrated”, “uncensored”, or unabridged version.


Of course, some of these after-thought entries into the comprehensive collection ideal were fully anticipated. The ratings uproar over the first few Saw sequels caused director Darren Lynn Bousman to promise (and eventually provide) the true “blood and guts” vision of his horror titles. Indeed, almost every scary movie made is trimmed of some violent (or carnal) excess, only to see it restored later on. And then there is Watchmen, Zack Snyder’s brilliant adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ “unfilmable” graphic novel masterwork. Almost from the very beginning, the man behind the Dawn of the Dead remake and 300 alerted fans that he would have to eliminate some beloved material to make the movie version more ‘linear’. Some feared he would completely ruin the revered book.


They were dead wrong. As we learned back in March, Watchmen was and remains an epic masterpiece, a visually stunning tour de force that provided as much spectacle as subtext. In telling the story of a group of former masked avengers, it soared to unimaginable inventive heights. While you can read reviews and reactions to the theatrical version here (a good place to start, FYI), it’s clear that, after a disappointed performance at the box office, many wondered in the mandated cuts and missing material would make a difference. Now Warner Brothers is releasing the first of what will be two completely different edits of the film. While the “Ultimate Edition” won’t make it to stores until December, the first offering out of the box, featuring Snyder’s latest compilation, is nothing short of monumental.


Indeed, the new Director’s Cut, running 24 minutes longer than the theatrical release, is a revelation for both original fans of the film and those who thought the initial outing was, let’s say, less than impressive. Snyder adds dozens of new scenes, shots of original Nite Owl Hollis Mason getting his unjust final desserts, moments of sheer blood-shedding as Dr. Manhattan overruns Vietnam. The big blue God gets his relationship with Laurie Jupiter (aka Silk Specter II) expanded, while formerly forgotten characters like the News Vendor and the Comic Reader have been reintroduced - if barely - into the narrative. In all, many of the complaints leveled against the film have been addressed. It flows better, has more of a psychological and emotional bite, and really highlights the superhero deconstruction which made Moore’s literary interpretation of the genre a considered classic.


Some may feel cheated when they learn that separate projects previously released on digital - the animated Tales of the Black Freighter and Watchmen: The Motion Comic as well as the mock doc Under the Hood - aren’t present here. They are being reserved for the bigger, more impressive five disc set a few months from now. But for anyone who has a question as to whether or not to purchase this particular version of the film, the answer is a solid “yes”. Not only do you get one of the best films of 2009, a rarity in both content and creativity, but you walk into one of the most immersive, in-depth home video experiences ever…especially on Blu-ray.


There, the 2.40:1 image is stunningly recreated in pristine 1080p. The movie looks almost three dimensional in its crystal clarity. The sound is also amped up thanks to the lossless DTS HD Master 5.1 English audio mix. The overall technical experience is immersive, matching the Cineplex presentation facet-for-facet. But where fans will really rejoice is in the added content department. Warners has asked Snyder to take all the EPK material and making-of documentaries created for the film and incorporate them into a point-by-point feature known as “{Maximum Movie Mode". With the noted director as our host and guide, we get three hours of video commentary and asides, picture in picture clips and tag-along Q&As with the cast, as well as a trivia timeline comparing the real world to the Watchmen universe.


It's here where we learn the intricacies of the rough cut run through. Snyder explains why certain scenes were trimmed, offering insights into "creativity by committee" decisions and the implied needs of the audience. He also highlights little details often overlooked by first-time viewers and direct shout-outs to Moore and Gibbons. Elsewhere, the actors discuss their desire to stay true to their characters while bringing these complex beings to life, and the crew addressed concerns regarding the use of CGI, how Dr. Manhattan was created, and the decision to be less "realistic" with the recreation of famous faces within this parallel universe. Along with three excellent supplements on the second disc, we have reason enough to own this particular package.


But it's Watchmen itself that needs one more additional push. While it failed to wholly deliver on its pre-determined blockbuster status, this is still a fantastic film. It has gravity and weight, the underlying horror of global thermal nuclear war reminding us that, at least back in the early '80s, we had more to fear than criminals and the masked men and women who chased after them. The looming threat, the notion of human extinction placed alongside the dying breed of vigilante's gives the movie an edge and a somber subtext that hard to shake. With pitch perfect performances from everyone in the cast (especially the Oscar-worthy work of Jackie Earle Haley as the psychotic soul of the Watchmen, Rorschach), it's up to Snyder to guide us through this well-woven web of intrigue, doubt, and deception -and he does so effortlessly.


In a clear case of "improving on perfection", the new director's cut of Watchmen takes an already stellar work and makes it even more powerful. Time will grant this astonishing effort the critical consensus it so richly requires. This is a film that submerges us into this world of disgruntled heroes, tired villains, weak-willed politicians, and the one unknown force that is driving them all toward Armageddon. It's a dense ride, often needing, nay mandating more than one visit to figure out all the nuances. But those with the patience to work their way through the intricacies will be rewarded with something grand indeed. As well as Watchmen worked the first time around, this extended version is even better. It just goes to prove that, sometimes, a required revisit it well worth the wait.


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