Watchmen: Tales of the Black Freighter (UK - BD)
Set adrift at sea, Marcus is obsessed with getting back to Davidstown...
After being the most noticeable omission from the recent Watchmen movie, we now get the first look at the adaptation of Tales of the Black Freighter. The story within a story from the original Watchmen graphic novel that tells the tale of a lone survivor’s (Gerald Butler) struggle to get back to his home, Davidstown, before the Black Freighter gets there first and kills everyone he loves, like it had his shipmates.
Within the pages of the Watchmen Graphic novel, Tales of the Black Freighter is used as a subtext to the main story and very much a key to understanding the motivations behind the story's closing events (amongst other things). So the question is will it work as a standalone story? For me, The Black Freighter is a key ingredient to what makes Watchmen so bloody great. Without it, Watchmen is incomplete and when this side-project was announced in the long build up to the Watchmen main feature, I was delighted that it hadn’t been ignored by Zack Snyder, which in all honesty, seemed like the obvious thing to get shelved for the sake of the big screen audience's sensibilities.
Sitting down to watch this, the first thing that struck me was that we’d never had a complete Black Freighter story. In the graphic novel, we drop in and out of the story with key moments reflecting the world outside of its pages. Lines of dialogue resonate out into the unfolding Watchmen plot and while, at first, it feels unrelated, by the story’s end you realise it has all the answers. Anyway, back to the point, you realise we’d never had a complete story when this animated project starts filing in the gaps between our glimpses in the graphic novel. Opening with a more complete record of the mariner's situation, watching his ship mates die and his struggle coming to terms with what's happened and more importantly what's going to happen if he doesn't get back to Davidstown before the Black Freighter.
In addition to this, there are scenes that involve the voice of a dead shipmate talking to our mariner and struggles with the weather around his drifting raft. This for the most part fits nicely into the establishing tale. Unfortunately, it’s not all smooth sailing. Sadly, many of these extension and frankly unnecessary changes really begin to feel like the project is taking liberties rather than honouring the original vision. Huge chunks of new alternative scenes begin to push out the original story's classic events, and on top of this the style of the artwork begins to feel a little out of place too. At first, it feels very much like a logical step—modern, 2D animation, that cool 'metal music video' look to it all, like a big animated adaptation of a comic but this is where my enjoyment of the project really starts to unravel.
Thinking ahead for a second, to the confirmed extended version of the Watchmen movie that will be hitting our DVD/Blu-ray players later in the year, Snyder has already said that this Tales of the Black Freighteror at least segments from it, will be inter-cut into the movie as it was in the graphic novel. At this stage, I want to reserve judgment and not write it off before I’ve seen it, but I can’t help but think that this very modern, very stylized, very 'cool' take on the Black Freighter will stick out like a sore thumb in the movie. After all, within the confines of the larger Watchmen story this is simply a comic book read by a kid sitting on a street corner. More to the point, it's set in 1985 and I just don't think I’m going to buy into this much of a leap as a visual take on a comic book. In fact, after watching this Blu-ray, I think I'd prefer them to use the Black Freighter segments from the recently released Motion Comics.
As I’ve already said, I will reserve judgment until I’ve seen if this Black Freighter can in fact compliment the main Watchmen story as much as it should but I have to say, my faith that the inclusion of the final piece of the Watchmen puzzle making the entire Watchmen movie project more complete, has taken a knock.
Told with a fine mix of hand drawn and computer assisted animation The Black Freighter looks every bit as good as any of the recent DC Universe animated titles. Black levels are solid and deep, with the countered reds and oranges in the early scenes looking absolutely glorious.
As the story moves on and daylight takes over there's a shift in atmosphere and everything gets a little bleaker. It has to be said that much of this isn't quite as impressive as the bolder scenes that preceded it, however this may be more to do with the animation style as opposed to the transfer, which remains almost faultless throughout besides a few white edge halos which I thought were a thing of the past with HD. I guess not.
Once again 2D animation has impressed me and it's down to just how clean the image looks. It's not the finest example of the technique and it never impresses quite as much as it does in the opening scenes but it's still a solid presentation.
This was a whole lot more dynamic that I predicted. The rear speakers are used quite effectively to add to the mood of The Black Freighter. Pirate chants, collapsing beams, the constant presence of the ocean all add up to a pretty impressive mix, even if it’s never spectacular.
Gerald Butler's narration is strong and well placed in the front speakers, always playing the domineering role in the overall mix as it should and while it’s not exactly how I imaged the character's attitude, it fits nicely into this version of The Black Freighter.
I'll start with [/i]Under the Hood[/i]. I toyed with including this in the main feature review, even though its inclusion on this disc is very much an 'also included' as opposed to the big sell. For me, the inclusion of Under the Hood is most welcome, and clocking in at 37:26 it runs at nearly double the length of the main feature.
Told as a retro 1985 TV show 'The Culpeper Minute', the focus takes us even further back to 1975 where we see some ‘original’ footage of an interview with Hollis Mason (Stephen McHattie), the original Nite Owl and as per the extracts from the Watchmen Graphic Novel, he discusses his life and what led him up to becoming a costumed adventurer.
For the most part, this feels totally genuine, with some heartfelt and naturalistic performances and a lot of dialogue lifted directly from the extracts included in the original Watchmen graphic novel. McHattie really brings Hollis Mason to life in almost exactly the way I pictured him from the novel and to hear much of the novel's text spoken out loud and inter-cut with photos and footage makes it a nice addition.
Carla Gugino also turns up with an interview as the Silk Spectre. Her performance here is much closer to the novel than it was in the movie. A whole lot less bitter and more nostalgic about her colourful past. Also, as a nice touch, we get some 1980s commercials thrown in and even a fake advert for Veidt’s Nostalgia perfume line. At just under forty minutes, this little extra runs out of steam about ten minutes shy of its end but on the whole, this is nice little addition made for the Watchmen fans.
Delving deeper into the features, next is 'Story Within a Story: The Books of Watchmen' (25:01). This focuses on the history of both The Black Freighter and Under the Hood. Including DC editors and Dave Gibbons discussing (separately) the ideas behind the supplementary excerpts that fit into the end of each of the Watchmen chapters. In the second half, there’s a bit more input from Carla Gugino and Jeffrey Dean Morgan as well as a large amount of on-set footage from the Watchmen set. Rounding up, the feature discusses people's perceptions on exactly what The Black Freighter is and how important it is in understanding Veidt’s motivations amongst other things in the main Watchmen story. Basically, great stuff. Most of this feature very much follows the style of many of the other DC animated special features of late and quite frankly I could watch these things all day.
Next up is 'Watchmen Motion Comic Chapter One' (25:31) which is a great little preview to get people to venture out and buy this superb set too. See my recent review here for more details on that one.
Lastly, first look at ‘Green Lantern’ (10:12) is the same preview that was included on the recent Wonder Woman disc and once again, I’ll admit, I’m quite excited about this next DC animated title.
As a standalone story, The Tales of the Black Freighter works. It’s always been a great little story and the changes here thankfully don't kill the many dramatic events. How all of this will fit into Snyders vision and adaptation of Watchmen once it’s included is yet to be seen.
What with The Black Freighter and a nice, false nostalgia-rific inclusion of Under the Hood, I’d imagine this release is really only going to appeal to fans or newcomers who want to see some more after seeing the Watchmen movie.
Sadly, as a slight dampener on this great, if not exceptional release, the general feeling is that much, if not all of this will be included in a grander Watchmen special edition when it arrives later in the year, so you might want to hold out just a few more months to find out for sure if you're not a fan of doubling up on your extra content.
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.
Review by Marcus Doidge
Suitable only for persons of 15 years and over
Release Date: 6th April 2009
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1 English
Extras: Story Within A Story, Watchmen Motino Comic Chapter One, First Look At Green Lantern
Easter Egg: No
Director: Mike Smith, Daniel DelPurgatorio
Cast: Gerard Butler
Genre: Adventure, Animation, Fantasy, Horror and Short
Length: 25 minutes
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