Review: Is it worth upgrading to the Watchmen Director's Cut?

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

After languishing in development hell for decades, bouncing from one director to another, undergoing a massive production schedule and surviving a potentially devastating lawsuit on the eve of its release, Watchmen mostly lived up to the hype and expectations of its source material—if not necessarily its presumed entertainment value—when Zack Snyder delivered the film into theaters in March of 2009.

Four months later, Warner Home Video's Watchmen Director's Cut Blu-ray attempts to further expand Snyder's adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' universe.

But, while adding footage certainly provides more points of reference for those familiar with the graphic novels, the real virtue of an opportunity for future viewings is to reinforce Snyder's artistic accomplishments as much as Gibbons and Moore's. In which case, The Director's Cut Blu-ray makes Watchmen an experience more faithful to the film's origins, but it also makes it less of a film—or an especially entertaining one, at least—and therefore a slightly-less-than-certain purchase even if it still qualifies as an otherwise pretty terrific set.

With "just" 25 minutes of new material, Snyder's Director's Cut is by no means a comprehensive adaptation of Moore and Gibbons' source material; for example, the Black Freighter and Under the Hood segments of the graphic novels have been removed entirely from the live-action film, and even within the original narrative of the 1980s "modern-day" Watchmen themselves, a number of period details and the original "squid" ending remain excised. At the same time, there are a couple of big new scenes, most importantly one in which Hollis Mason, aka Nite Owl, dies, and a handful of smaller additions that add perspective and specificity to plot points and relationships. As is often the case with extended and expanded-edition releases, however, most of the material reinforces existing information rather than introducing truly new ideas, and, further, it makes the film unnecessarily longer without making it better.

Having seen the theatrical and director's cuts once each in their entirety, I cannot distinguish with 100 percent accuracy the difference between the two, especially since a lot of the footage includes single lines of dialogue that were added or extensions to shots and scenes that may have been assembled from alternate takes. But aside from the Hollis Mason sequence, which is by far the highlight of the new material, there are several scenes in which Laurie Jupiter is monitored, questioned or detained in connection with the whereabouts of Dr. Manhattan after he decides to abandon Earth for Mars. The set of one of the scenes looks like it was designed to reference The Man Who Fell to Earth (which, thematically speaking, makes sense), but other than personal relevance or curiosity these sequences are extraneous and add little to the emotional or even narrative impact of the overall film.

Meanwhile, revisiting the film at one's leisure or with the opportunity to pore over the details of its design reveals the depths of Snyder's personal vision for Watchmen and the way in which he essentially crafted a transgressive, $200 million art film instead of a more conventionally satisfying, spandex-clad comic adaptation. Whether by accident or design, Watchmen is not a great movie—as opposed to, say, a film; one of its biggest action scenes, the showdown between Laurie, Dan and a back alley filled with street toughs, feels like a calculated attempt to include action where none was necessary, and in fact interrupts the rest of the story's glacial but inevitable momentum. Indeed, most of the action looks terrific, but it affects the characters more than the story itself, which is an unusual choice for any movie outwardly designed to be a crowd-pleasing blockbuster.

Additionally, Snyder's directorial and storytelling style seems more purposeful and measured than one might expect, both for a film of this kind and for a filmmaker who has thus far made almost purely thrilling visual odysseys. Like, say, Stanley Kubrick, a director who aimed to subject his audience to an experience rather than manipulate their emotions, Snyder uses all of the devices of a conventional story to tell one that subverts virtually all of its conventions.

For example, during its theatrical run many criticized its use of music and pop-culture references as too on-the-nose, but it's precisely that sort of cultural and emotional specificity that Snyder deliberately exploits: By exaggerating the cues that would otherwise invoke heroism, love or sadness (such as playing Simon and Garfunkel's "Sounds of Silence" over footage of a funeral), Snyder acknowledges the automatic sentiment that comes as a result of assembling images, behavior and sounds, but uses their combined power to make an intellectual point about our expectations rather than the more typical emotional one simply satisfying them.

While these are points that potentially could have been made during the film's theatrical run, the Blu-ray by definition allows viewers to pause, rewind and pore over every element of Watchmen, and they're further emphasized thanks to the set's Maximum Movie Mode. Not unlike other discs that similarly play picture-in-picture interviews, storyboards or trivia alongside the film, Watchmen offers a near-comprehensive collection of background details that show how much time and effort went into bringing the onscreen universe to life. These are accessible multiple ways: through the "select all" Maximum Movie Mode, which interjects clips and other footage while you watch the movie, and via individual featurettes that cover different aspects of the production.

Watching the film with the MMM is slightly different, and in fact better than accessing its information via the menu screen, because not only does it cover everything, but it features ongoing discussions and observations by none other than Snyder himself. After introducing the feature, he pops up every once in a while to point out some small detail or fact that he thinks is of interest; while these points of reference may be of greater interest to those familiar with the original graphic novels than those who aren't (as when he slyly indicates where he put the source material's "squids" back into the film), the technology creates a new and interesting way to watch films that surpasses the dry and boring Disc Two featurettes of DVDs and Blu-rays past. In fact, the only shortcoming of Maximum Movie Mode is its lack of selective interactivity: Specifically, I'd love to just watch the film with moments of its pop-cultural authenticity highlighted, or its accuracy to Gibbons' images, for example, but you're sort of forced to experience all of them or just one, with no options in between.

Speaking of Disc Two featurettes, those on this particular set are actually top-notch, starting with an extensive look back at the impact, legacy and production of Watchmen en route from the page to the screen. Personally, what I would have preferred with this particular featurette was a no-holds-barred documentary about all of the filmmakers who came and went during its 20-year trip through development hell, and a description of all of their approaches (Terry Gilliam and Paul Greengrass, I imagine, had some terrifically interesting points of view about this material); unfortunately, most of what we get is basic how-we-did-it stuff, albeit substantive, in-depth how-we-did-it stuff, thanks to the richness of the original graphic novels and the production's seemingly undying attention to detail.

In addition to a music video and a compilation of the pre-release webisodes, the second disc also features two other featurettes: Real Superheroes, Real Vigilantes and Mechanics: Technologies of a Fantastic World. The former attempts somewhat superficially to examine the mentality of real people who decide to become vigilantes, while the second looks at the scientific plausibility and accuracy of the film's super-heroics. Fascinatingly, the Mechanics featurette is by far superior to its predecessor, because the gloriously, charmingly nerdy physics professor who examines the film explains how and why so much of the film could actually work in a physical reality.

The Real Vigilantes featurette, on the other hand, collects opinions from psychologists and real-life vigilantes, including a few guys who fancy themselves superheroes, but it fails to properly recognize that most of these folks—at least the ones with costumes—are just plain ridiculous. But what is perhaps most lacking from the Watchmen Blu-ray is not some particular point of view or piece of information, but the movie itself— that is, the theatrical cut. A standard-definition version of the theatrical cut is being released by itself concurrently with the Director's Cut packages, but there is no viable high-definition option for those of us who want to compare one to the other, or simply be able to decide which one we want to watch.

Consequently, the Watchmen Director's Cut Blu-ray has almost everything you could want (and plenty more) from a home-video version of Snyder's adaptation, except for the original adaptation itself. Offering no judgment as to what constitutes a more authentic interpretation of the source material, I nevertheless prefer the theatrical cut, because it makes all of the same points and accomplishes all of the same goals that the director's cut does, but more efficiently. As a result, this set is truly spectacular, and yet slightly incomplete; but then again, Snyder's already made history with this film while not necessarily giving everyone what they wanted from it (were such a thing possible). In which case it seems that no matter which version is available, anyone who is remotely interested in any of them will be watching Watchmen at home—and find himself mostly satisfied—for a long time to come.