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In an alternate-timeline 1985 police are investigating the apparent murder of Edward Blake (aka the Comedian), government agent and former member of the ‘superhero’ group known as the Watchmen. When the police struggle to come up with any solid leads the only person who continues to search for the killer is Rorschach, a costumed vigilante who has been operating illegally ever since the State outlawed the Watchmen and their kind. Rorschach believes that he has uncovered a plot to kill costumed avengers, and so he sets about warning four of his retired comrades: Dan Dreiberg (aka Nite Owl), billionaire entrepreneur and ‘smartest man in the world’ Adrian Veidt (aka Ozymandias), Laurie Juspeczyk (aka Silk Spectre), and her lover Jon Osterman (aka Doctor Manhattan), the only truly super-powered member of the team. All initially reject Rorschach’s claims as nothing more than paranoid delusions.

 Watchmen
After Blake's funeral Doctor Manhattan is accused on national television of causing cancer in a number of his old friends and colleagues, and as a result he exiles himself to Mars. This turn of events throws the world into political turmoil, with the Soviet Union seizing the opportunity to invade Afghanistan due to the perceived American weakness. Furthermore, an assassination attempt on Adrian Veidt appears to vindicate Rorschach's theory about a ‘mask killer’, especially when Rorschach himself is framed for the murder of a reformed supervillain called Edward Jacobi (aka Moloch the Mystic). With the world teetering on the brink of atomic annihilation it falls to Nite Owl and Silk Spectre to free Rorschach from prison and attempt to discover who is behind the plot to destroy the Watchmen before the world comes to a fiery end.

The above summary doesn’t even get close to describing Watchmen’s densely-layered narrative, which in itself is considerably less complex than the graphic novel upon which it is based. This is probably for the best though, as trying to cover everything would mean that this review would probably be about twenty thousand worlds long. Anyway, fans of the graphic novel will already know exactly what to expect, and the uninitiated are better off going into the film without knowing all the ins and outs. Before I saw the film at the cinema back in March I was one of those uninitiated individuals, but since then I’ve taken it upon myself to seek out the graphic novel so that I would have some basis for comparison when writing this review. Now obviously I’m not as invested in the original material as the hardcore fans, but I think Zack Snyder made just about the best adaptation possible given the system he has to work within (the Hollywood system).

 Watchmen
Admittedly some of the characters do suffer in the move from comic book to screen, particularly Adrian Veidt (Ozymandias). This is due in no small part to the omission of Tales of the Black Freighter, the ‘comic within a comic’ that parallels Veidt’s story. Most of the characters' back-stories are also truncated, which isn’t a particularly big problem the first time you experience the film as a Watchmen ‘virgin’, but after you’ve read the novel you just might find yourself pining for the small character beats (I know I did). However the biggest weakness, for me at least, is the loss of the book’s minor characters. The day to day lives of Rorschach’s psychiatrist, the newsvendor, and his various customers formed part of the emotional payoff in the graphic novel. In removing them, and to a lesser extent changing the ending, the film loses some of its punch.

Of course such omissions and changes are to be expected, and one has to remember that this is an adaptation, not a literal translation. If Snyder had incorporated every little detail from the source material the film would ended up running about five hours long (and then some). Sure, the fanboys would have loved that, but Watchmen wouldn’t have made any money (most people I know have trouble sitting still for two hours, let alone five). It might lack the richness and intricately woven subplots of the novel, but if you are experiencing Watchmen for the first time there is no reason that you won’t perceive the film as a fully realised and complex story in its own right. If you are familiar with the comic you will hopefully be able to recognise the variances for what they are and enjoy one of the most skilfully crafted 'superhero' features of recent times.

 Watchmen
Unfortunately the UK has been short-changed when it comes to the home video releases. Whereas the US and Canada are getting the director's cut of the film with some twenty-four minutes of additional footage, we only get the theatrical cut. This means that we also miss out on one of the best extras, the PiP commentary with director Zack Snyder. I can only assume that this has something to do with Paramount distributing the film in the UK (rather than Warner Brothers in the US), but whatever the reason it is yet another example of UK consumers being offered an inferior product. I had hoped that regional variances would disappear with the advent of Blu-ray, especially on major releases like this, but sadly it appears that we are still not there.

Video


Watchmen arrives with a pristine 2.40:1 widescreen transfer (1080/24p AVC). Many of the events depicted in the film occur at night or in dimly lit locations, but thankfully the disc presents deep and unwavering blacks throughout. Shadow detail is also very good, with a prime example being the opening scenes of the Comedian’s death in his apartment. Colour rendition is excellent, if unnatural, but this is due to the stylised palette employed throughout. If you’re looking for ‘pop’ this isn’t the place to come, but colours are remarkably faithful to the theatrical experience and there are times when they are employed to great effect—the flames of war in Vietnam are particularly memorable, Doctor Manhattan's otherworldly glow baths everything around him in an eerie blue, and the alien landscape of the Red Planet looks sensational.

 Watchmen
Detail is absolutely fantastic, allowing you to pick out the tiniest elements from the patterns on clothing and the pulsing blue circulatory system under Manhattan’s translucent skin, to the individual grains of rock on the surface of Mars and the snowflakes at Veidt’s Antarctic retreat. You haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen a Vietcong’s ribcage fly from his exploding body in 1080p high-definition! Of course you’d expect such a recent feature to be free from film artefacts and digital nastiness, and you certainly won’t be disappointed. In fact only the presence of some light film grain dispels any thoughts of an all-digital affair. I had high hopes for Watchmen on Blu-ray, and it gets off to a great start with a superb, film-like transfer that ticks all of the right boxes.

Audio


The disc includes a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack that is every bit as impressive as the visuals. It’s incredibly atmospheric, features plenty of directionality, some fabulously subtle touches, and moments of out-and-out bombast. There are numerous aural highlights, from simple things like the sound of falling rain on the streets of New York as Rorschach patrols, to the roar of the Owl Ship as it flies over the city. Panning between channels is seamless, which is perfectly illustrated every time Doctor Manhattan teleports (the resulting ‘shockwave’ emanates from the centre of the soundstage and spreads to every other channel). Bass is powerful when it needs to be, but it is refined enough that it never overwhelms the rest of the track. Dialogue is almost universally intelligible; a couple of lines were a little indistinct, but this seemed to be due to Rorschach’s mask and Veidt’s accent rather than any problems with the track itself.

 Watchmen
The film’s music is the unsung hero of the piece, whether it be the sounds of Dylan's ‘The Times They Are A-Changin'’, Cohen's ‘Hallelujah’, Simon and Garfunkel's 'The Sound of Silence' or Hendricks’ ‘All Along The Watchtower’. In fact, one of my favourite moments in the film is made all the more enjoyable by the inclusion of Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’. Tyler Bates’ score also provides a solid accompaniment to the action. All things considered this is a stunning soundtrack that is consistently engaging and offers wonderful fidelity. As with the visual elements of the disc, you will not be disappointed.

Extras


Mechanics: Technologies of a Fantastic World (16:49 HD): In this featurette a psychics professor who was a technical advisor on the film discusses some of the science in Watchmen. He talks about quantum mechanics, specifically in relation to Doctor Manhattan's intrinsic field, his powers over matter, and his blue glow. He also examines the physics that could possibly allow the Owl Ship to fly, whether or not a man could catch a bullet, and Rorschach's mask . If only I my physics teacher had been this interesting perhaps I wouldn't have sucked at it.

 Watchmen
The Phenomenon: The Comic That Changed Comics (28:48 HD): In this featurette the cast, DC employees, journalists, the lead singer of My Chemical Romance, and Dave Gibbons proclaim their love for the Watchmen graphic novel. They discuss how the novel came into being, the design, the thematic elements, and the 'filming of the unfilmable' with the translation from book to screen. It's a pretty interesting featurette on the whole, at least compared to the fluff found on most releases.

Real Superheroes: Real Vigilantes (26:19 HD): This featurette examines the history of vigilantism in New York, from the crime-ridden seventies and eighties up until the present day. It features interviews with members of the Guardian Angels and talks about what they set out to achieve. It also deals with Bernie Goetz, the New Yorker who shot four young black youths on a subway train in an apparent case of self-defence. It also discusses the differences between British and American laws concerning the application of lethal force in such cases. For the most part this is a pretty interesting featurette, but when costumed vigilantes 'Tothian' and 'Ecliptico' show up and start striking superhero poses I had to choke back the laughter.

 Watchmen
Desolation Row Music Video by My Chemical Romance (03:17 HD): What can I say? This one is pretty self-explanatory and you either like their music or you don't (I don't).

Video Journals (36:12 HD): There are eleven of these 'Webisodes' in total, each concentrating on a different aspect of the Watchmen universe. The Webisodes cover such topics as the original Minutemen (Hooded Justice, Captain Metropolis etc), set design, costume design, the Owl Ship, Dave Gibbons, pyrotechnics, cinematography, creating Doc Manhattan, comparisons between the graphic novel and the movie, the female stars, and Rorschach's mask. They aren't much individually, but together they provide a fascinating window into the production.

 Watchmen
Viral Video: NBS Nightly News (03:07 SD): This is a spoof news report from the seventies celebrating Doctor Manhattan’s tenth 'birthday'. It features a couple of besuited anchormen discussing Manhattan's creation, his role as a government agent, and his importance to the American military. There are also fake interviews with members of the public and even a short clip from a Doc Manhattan cartoon! It's all presented in the sort of quality you'd expect from thirty-year-old videotape, with fluctuating colours and sound. This adds to the 'authenticity' and makes for an enjoyable featurette.

Digital Copy: Disc three includes the digital copy of the film, but quite why anyone bothers with these is beyond me. The included leaflet states that it probably won't work past the 27th of July 2010, so it essentially has built-in obsolescence. The DRM on these things also makes them more trouble than they're worth in my eyes, but hey, it's here if you want it. I just think they could have left it out and reduced the price of the set.

 Watchmen

Overall


Watchmen was supposed to be unfilmable, but Snyder has proved the doubters wrong with a strong translation that easily ranks as one of the best films I've seen this year. The audio-visual quality of this Blu-ray release is beyond question, and even if the extras aren't quite as good as the Warner release there is still plenty to enjoy. The biggest problem I have with recommending this title is the price. Why would you buy the theatrical cut when you can pick up the director's cut with additional extras and the digital copy for around the same price? With that said, this is the version of the film that was shown in cinemas, something that even the US release doesn't offer. I guess you have to ask yourself just how much you need to see the additional footage. I'm sure the die-hard Watchmen fans will be opting for the import (or maybe both for the sake of completeness), but casual viewers should be more than satisfied with what's on offer here.

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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