Monday, March 30, 2009

Repost: Watchmen: Tales of the Black Freighter

This review was posted to the old essays.ajs.com, and is being re-posted here because it's still fairly relevant.

I won't review Tales as if it were a stand-alone work. That would be unfair, since it's the B-story inside a larger work. Instead, I'll deal with its merits as an adjunct to the Watchmen film.

First off, the details. I got Freighter on Blu-Ray which was probably overkill. The animation quality isn't really that impressive, and DVD might have been the better choice in order to let its slightly retro look blend a bit more rather than having every pencil line (yep, hand drawn by Korean animators) pop out of my screen. It's animated in a very Heavy Metal style, though it's much smoother and obviously computer-colored. I think it's a good look, and certainly a less realistic style was the right choice to pair with Watchmen's over-sharpened reality.

As with the hacksaw scene from Watchmen, there's a problem with this story that's not really its fault: a man stuck on a desert island that starts talking to a head has been done between when Watchmen became popular and today. It doesn't feel derivative here as I'm sure leaving the hacksaw in the movie would have, but it does take a bit of the impact out of his growing insanity.

The major points of the story hold up well. The colors are as hellish as they need to be. The growing tone of madness and despair is palpable and the voice work is perfect.

That's where the praise and criticism really has to stop though because there are only two options here: either you are a fan of the book enough to have wanted to see this the moment it came out, or you should wait. The extras on this disk make it abundantly clear that there's a special edition in the works that will thread Freighter and Under the Hood back into the movie the way they were in the original book. That's really the one to buy. This is for fanboys like myself.

That brings me to Under the Hood. This is a live-action short that follows some of the back-of-the-book text from Watchmen as a series of interviews. Some of this is directly out of the book and some is not. Some of it has been re-written so that it will work as a single piece. I won't say I like or dislike it, but I will say that where Freighter and Watchmen felt a bit rushed, this felt slow. That might work out well once the whole film is stitched together, but for the stand-alone it just doesn't work out very well. It's very nice to see more of the first wave of heroes who get limited screen time in the film (except for Comedian). The interviews are well constructed. There's also a bit of repetitious use of some sequences (I'm now sick of the Minutemen group photo), which could use more aggressive editing before it's added back.

So to wrap up: these are very faithful adaptations of the book. They capture what the book brought to bear, but without the main story they feel disembodied. I would recommend that anyone who isn't absolutely foaming at the mouth to see them wait for the special edition of the movie.

Notes from the behind the scenes extra:

  • The showed the attack on Hollis being filmed, so I expect that to be either back in Watchmen for the DVD or in the deleted scenes.
  • A nice point about Rorschach's first journal entry being a play on lines from Three Penny Opera (the origin of the Black Freighter story)
  • They do seem to have filmed sequences to bridge between the main story and Freighter with the boy reading the comic at the newsstand.
  • I don't know why, but showing the year that the interview is from in the lower right hand corner bothered me.