April 15, 2009

Justify My Netflix: Watchmen: Tales of the Black Freighter

(Like many Netflix customers, I too can get quite lax with the timely watching and returning of my movies, which of course defeats the entire purpose of having a flat-rate rental plan in the first place. To combat that, I am now writing standardized mini-reviews of each and every movie I end up watching through Netflix, both instantly and on DVD. Don't forget, all previous 'Justify My Netflix' reviews can be found on CCLaP's main movie page.)

Watchmen: Tales of the Black Freighter

Today's movie: Watchmen: Tales of the Black Freighter, 2009 (Amazon | IMDB | Netflix)

Why I added it to my queue: Because it's a groundbreaking experiment in cross-media culture, a DVD of supplemental material for the recent film Watchmen released at the same exact time as the main movie; or in other words, an entire hour's worth of background material concerning the main movie's ultra-complicated milieu (including not only the animated comic of the DVD's title, but a fake '70s news-magazine documentary about the main characters as well), which by being released at the same time meant that people could've actually watched it before heading off to the theatre for the main feature. Because I'm one of the pathetic middle-aged comics-reading creative-class losers who caused this movie to be falsely hyped to death in the first place, so of course I'm going to go out of my way to watch every freaking second of footage ever shot of this project. I mean, c'mon.

Watchmen: Tales of the Black Freighter

The reality: So let me confess that I haven't actually seen the main Watchmen movie yet -- who knew it would end up failing so badly at the box office that it would get yanked from theatres a mere four weeks after its release? Ah, but after watching this DVD of supplementary material, I'm starting to realize why exactly this is, a bad omen indeed for the full-length feature that I'll eventually be watching on DVD too; because as this project has so notoriously proven now, a faithful film adaptation of a book is not the same thing as a good film adaptation of a book, although it can be difficult sometimes to pinpoint precisely why this is. Take for starters the pulp adventure Tales of the Black Freighter, which in the book served a whole variety of purposes: as an homage to cheesy '50s EC genre-oriented comics; as an acknowledgment that in the alternate-reality history of Watchmen, superhero comics never caught on because of there being actual superheroes in their world; as a sneaky metaphorical comment on the events taking place in the main storyline, craftily pulled off in the comic-in-a-comic Alan Moore version using a series of similar-looking images bookmarking the edges of facing pages (one from the "Freighter" comic, one from the "real" story); and as a way to introduce one of the most important minor characters of the entire plot, the comic's aging half-forgotten B-artist creator, who just happens to be the same person hired by Adrian Veidt to come up with the whole crazy-killer-alien-squid thing that so spectacularly ends the book version.*

Watchmen: Tales of the Black Freighter

But by doing the DVD version in a slick, modern "Animatrix" style, director Zach Snyder obliviates the entire '50s homage aspect; and by divorcing it from the main movie, so too does its metaphorical ties to the bigger story disappear; and by getting rid of the squid conceit entirely for the movie, there's not even a reason anymore to know anything about the comic's original creator, nor to understand that it was so easy for him to disappear from society because society had kinda forgotten him, just like in real life we've collectively forgotten about all the other unsung comics heroes of the pulpy 1950s, yet another reason Moore introduced this element to the main story to begin with. In effect it's like listening to a child prodigy sit down at a piano and bang out a perfectly rendered Mozart concerto; sure, he may get all the notes right, and it's impressive that he got all the notes right, but by the end it's still an emotionless, passionless thing, the work of a gifted young mimic but not a truly mature artist. (And it's the same exact case with the other feature on the DVD too, the fake documentary Under the Hood which is why I'm not going to bother detailing that one at all.) This is not a good sign for the main movie whatsoever, and now I'm starting to feel not so bad about missing my opportunity to spend ten bucks to see it in the theatre; that said, I will still definitely be seeing the main movie when it too comes out on DVD (supposedly in mid-July), and will be turning in a report here on that too.

Strangest piece of trivia: The main character of the cartoon is voiced by Gerard Butler, star of Snyder's last film 300, after being promised a role in Watchmen and then not receiving one.

Worth your time? Not really; just watch the clips of Under the Hood that are online, and you'll get the gist of the entire DVD.

Newsstand from Watchmen comic

*And of course let's not forget the main purpose for Tales of the Black Freighter to exist within the book to begin with -- as a simple plot gimmick and framing device for the entire 12-part series, an excuse for a child character to hang around a news-vendor character while he's reading the comic for free on a random New York streetcorner, so the two can act as a Greek chorus throughout the book and help explain to us audience members the more complicated story going on around them. The fact that Moore took what could've been a simple little cartoon and infused it as well with so many other elements is why the original Watchmen book is considered such a masterpiece; the fact that Snyder essentially turned it back into a simple little cartoon says a lot, I think, about his abilities as a legitimate storyteller versus merely a visually gifted filmmaker (which without a doubt he is, I'm not debating that at all).

Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:19 PM, April 15, 2009. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |