Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut R1 DVD review

Mark Reed imports the Ultimate Cut edition of Watchmen, and wonders if this really can live up to its name?

Let’s cut to the chase – whether this purchase is worthwhile depends on what you have. If you have ‘The Directors Cut’ and Tales From The Black Freighter and The Motion Picture Comic, then don’t bother unless it’s cheap. All you get extra is a fraction of new footage and two commentaries for your big splashout. If you have no release of Watchmen at all, or held out, then this is the Big Enchilada, and get it now.

Britain, and the DVD format, get a bum deal, of course, with Watchmen probably the worst example yet. There have been three different versions of the film, all staggered out across a five month period, in three separate releases. Just one of them has been released in the UK on DVD, with ‘The Director’s Cut’ only on Blu-ray.

Given that market penetration for the Blu-ray format is slow and steady with just 24% of the UK home video market owning a Blu-ray player by late 2009, it seems self-defeating and abusive to wilfully not release DVDs with the full complement of features (unless, of course, there isn’t enough space on the DVD itself for a ‘making of’ documentary). That the 76% of the UK that do not have a Blu-ray player are being treated as second class citizens in a format fetishism is insulting.

I know! Buy a Blu-ray player and stop moaning…. And I will. But not yet.

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Just because I don’t have one, incidentally, that that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the moving image any less. When I buy a Blu-ray player, I’m going to get a top-end expensive machine that also cooks toast. In short, in a recession where even Ron Burgundy might consider cutting down slightly on the Sex Panther, a Blu-ray player is a bit of a luxury.

And don’t even get me started on ‘rebuying’ my catalogue. I haven’t got a few grand to spare.

So, UK fans of Watchmen, get stuffed. If you have a DVD player, stick with your ‘Theatrical Cut’ and be grateful the electricity is still on. If you have a Blu-ray player, go for ‘The Directors Cut’, which is still a slender 186 minutes long.

Simply put, Britain isn’t important enough to get the luxurious five-DVD set of Watchmen : The Ultimate Cut. So in the end, I had to wait until the transatlantic postmen crawled through the snow to deliver this epic, but short-changing set.

First things first, though, it’s not a definitive edition. In it you get the 215 minute Ultimate Cut plus two commentaries. You also get a slightly rearranged version of the Special Features that populate the special editions. There’s also the Theatrical Cut available as a digital download that only works on iTunes. And finally, discs four and five are The Motion Comic. Avid fans who bought everything as it was released will benefit only from the commentaries and the extra few seconds integrated back in. If you’ve bought everything else, the only ‘new’ content is on the first disc.

The Ultimate Cut

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And what a Cut it is. The Ultimate Cut is exactly that, an enormous, ambitious film that is, by any standard, a classic. It’s not perfect in the slightest, but what it lacks in narrative it makes up in big brass balls. The pacing is often erratic, but then again, so was the original novel, and the small cinematic conceits of pacing and re-ordering of the narrative are for the benefit of the film.

What’s different? Most of Black Freighter is integrated back in, alongside some touching dialogue between the two Bernards that turns their previous cinematic incarnation – as two extras – into a symbolically important, wider universe.

The Black Freighter exists in two or three minute increments spread out through the film as a whole. However, the jarring change in visual style – from the rough animation to a pristine CGI-fest – can pull the viewer out of the cinematic trance despite the richness of the parable running in parallel with the main narrative. Overall, as per The Directors Cut, many scenes are expanded with extra dialogue and nuance. And everything feels just a little bit more real.

But the film is not perfect. It’s still 85% Genius, 15% ZackSnyder, with visual shorthand and unnecessary changes in film speed that draw attention to the artifice of film and not to the tale being told. There’s blaring, wildly inappropriate music, shoehorned song choices, constant and alienating jumpcut slo-mo/hyperspeed action sequences devoid of context and style, and an overall feeling of someone grasping to reach a level far beyond their artistic ability. Still, with source material this good you can’t mortally wound it, and the film is, overall, a very good adaptation of a brilliant book.

The 85% that is perfect? Everything else. The casting feels right, and to the novice, the cast is sufficiently loaded with talent so that the disconnect between the screen and the action does not happen. Put it this way: in some films, you know you are watching Al Pacino pretending to be someone else. In this, you aren’t watching Billy Crudup, but you are watching Dr Manhattan.

Still, this gritty remake of The Incredibles is something to behold. In effect, it is a grand who-dunnit, revolving on a conceit that, thankfully, eschews the usual narrative closure and happy ending in favour of a darkly naughty theme tailored towards a Black Ops conspiracy theory. That said, the ending is a rather different experience. I prefer the comic book ending, but the filmed version works effectively in the context of the movie and is an acceptable and effective alternative.

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It’s still four minutes too long. There are two useless, if not utterly boring sex scenes that could be truncated to a fraction of their current length and are gratuitous and tedious. I’ve always found sex scenes boring, mind you, unless they actually communicate something to advance the plot. Hallelujah.

Like 300, Watchmen is a faithful but also faithless adaptation. Like the book, it’s insane and far beyond the rational, but also, it only goes halfway balls out to bugnuts. It is a great experience and one that has so much going on within it it’s probably impossible to fully grasp until you are on your third viewing. But still, there’s an awful there to admire at even one glance. A very good adaptation of a brilliant book.

Feature DVD 1:

On the DVD Edition, this disc is crammed with a 215 minute version of the main feature and two commentaries. Technically, it’s a slight disappointment. There were definite examples of slight blocking and pixilation, albeit only on occasional shots and lasting fractions of seconds. The print is clean and the sound clear as you would expect.

The commentaries are well worth a listen, albeit with a combined running time of over seven hours, you would expect – and ye shall receive – moments of dead air. Zack Snyder’s commentary is more technical than informative, and explains the occasional deviations from Alan Moore’s Sacred Canon of work. It’s not pinned-to-the-seat stuff, but certainly only about 1% as boring as Irvin Kershner’s Vlad The Explainer commentary on The Empire Strikes Back, Arnie’s on Conan (LOOK! I’M KILLING HIM!!), or the risible one that accompanied Omen III : The Final Conflict where you could almost hear the director snoring.

Dave Gibbons provides the second commentary, and, as the visual artist, it is fascinating to hear one of the creator’s thoughts on the work. His track is geared towards the visual, but it’s still chock full of fascinating nuggets.

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Extras DVD 2:

The Special Features disc contains everything on the previous TC and DC second-discs, minus a three minute TV News Special. The disc has been re-authored, so the brilliant Under The Hood Documentary is also included.

The special features themselves? Four half-hour documentaries that micro-manage elements of the production, as well as 11 three minute webisodes (Webisodes? The worst word in the human lexicon since Cassingle). For the avid, you will notice that many of the (spit) webisodes are absent with only The Greatest Hits Of The Webisodes available.

And one of the documentaries is a dull half-hour exposition of those self-important, pompous tossbags that roam the New York subways in red berets thinking they are goddamn heroes. Which bores quickly.

Where the disc does fall down is in that every sense, a film this important, epic and loved deserves a truly loving documentary that chronicles the life of the film, including the numerous failed attempts by Terry Gilliam to make it. There is no equivalent of the enormous, covers-all-bases documentaries that accompany Blade Runner, The Alien Quadrilogy, or even 1941. A film like this deserves better than a handful of featurettes. Even if they do total three hours, they lack the over-arching narrative sense of the importance of this film to those invested in it.

Finally, Under The Hood is included, which makes the purchase worthwhile on its own. If you don’t already have it.

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Theatrical Cut Download DVD 3:

Here’s a DVD disc you cannot watch on your DVD player, but only download to your computer, only watch on iTunes, and can only download for the first 12 months since it was first released (that is, before 3rd November 2010). I’m staggered to try and think as to why anyone bothers with ‘downloadable digital copies’, as it’s a waste of a disc. Worse than useless, to be honest.

Complete Motion Comic DVDs 4+5:

Let’s get the usual clichés out of the way: Unfilmable. Epic. Too long. This proves them all. It is a vaguely animated attempt at telling every frame and panel of the original comic, with scant animation that resembles primitive South Park, and follows the structure of the original graphic novel exactly.

An exact transference of one medium to another simply does not work in the majority. It is a brave flawed experiment that is certainly not the way you should experience Watchmen. Not only that, but the single male narrator provides the female characters a considerably more gruff demeanour, and it is often difficult to discriminate between say, Ozymandius, Roarsarch, and Dr Manhattan, when they are all voiced by the same person.

For heaven’s sake, if you haven’t got it, read the original book. (This isn’t quite as bad as Watchmen Babies: V For Vacation, of course.)

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Released in the US as a Region 1 only uber mega box set Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut is… exactly that. At three hours, 35 minutes, it’s not so much a film as the most expensive, and grand, miniseries ever conceived. At its bum-numbing length, it’s practically impossible to sit down and digest in one sitting.

This megaset is all the Watchmen you will ever need – and plenty you don’t – but is clearly the definitive release of the film and makes redundant the other releases.

If you have bought the other versions (aside from the standard Theatrical Cut single discer), think long and hard before investing in this. It is by no means perfect, but near enough to comprehensive as to satisfy even the most obsessed Watchman… for now….


4 out of 5