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Non-Review Review: Watchmen (The Ultimate Cut)

It arrived two weeks ago, but I only found the time to sit down and watch it over two nights last week. So, what do I make of Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut?

Cue immature jokes about how they earned the name...

Note: My review of the theatrical edition can be read here.


It’s all about context.

One of the things I noted about the original theatrical cutof Watchmen was that among its problems was the fact that it offered very little in terms of context of the world in which the action takes place. The comic book featured the editorial staff of right-wing journal The New Frontiersmen, the lives intersecting at a news stand, a retired hero running an autoparts store. The problem is – with so much plot in the novel to begin with – in order to condense it down to a more manageable size (under three hours), the creative team had to sacrifice these elements. These three-dimensional characters only venture into the film where the plot demands it: they don’t exist in their own right.

He's a nice owl fella...

The one thing that this cut adds is a good portion of these segments back. Most are hardly noticeable of themselves, but they add up. We spend some times with the two Bernards at the news stand, we get a few more interesting character insights into this film’s version of Nixon (“I decide when it’s doomsday!” he declares of the scientists moving the doomsday clock closer to midnight). We also get to experience the true pathos of the death of a decent man whose glory days are long behind him (and really, Hollis Mason’s death is probably the greatest single omission from the theatrical cut).

There are also some additions which help with the flow of the plot. Again, very little noticeable, but they all add up. By way of an example, the original theatrical cut made the reveal of Rorschach a non-event, because the man underneath the mask had barely appeared in the film up until that point. In this cut, you see him several times before the reveal. The umasking is by no means a big event now – unless you are paying particular attention, you won’t figure it out before the reveal – but at least it seems somewhat fairer on the audience. Fairness also comes into play with the way the extended cut deals with a personal revelation about Laurie – which in turn becomes an essential element of Jon’s character arc. By repositioning a flashback (which had in the earlier cut been positioned just before the revelation), it not only much more effectively foreshadows what to come, but also gives a chance for the audience to spot and engage with the idea. There’s a similar moment earlier in the movie where Rorschach states that he never compromises, “even in the face of armageddon”, giving the line more weight when it is repeated later on.

A bit of a Dick...

Speaking of foreshadowing, I’m going to be a bit controversial in my opinion of the addition of Tales of the Black Freighter. The story-within-a-story of a pirate trying to return home to save his family from marauding pirates pretty much splits fans down the middle. It actually seems to be a source of division among fans of the original novel. It’s either a fantastic allegory for the journey of the central characters (and the central character in particular who doesn’t get much development in either the book or the movie), or a piece of pretentious padding that signposts the core themes of the work in clumsy and heavy-handed ways. It appears that opinion on these additions to the story seems to split evenly across the novel and the film: those who dislike it in the novel dislike it in the film, those that embrace it in the novel like it in the film. Here I upset the applecart a bit. I didn’t really care for it in the comic book, but I really dug it on the screen.

There are several reasons why I appreciate it more on screen. Perhaps because – having seen the theatrical cut – I associate it with the addition of the two Bernards, a welcome human touch. Maybe it’s because most of a certain character’s journey (which is related through the metaphor of the lost sea captain) is described in the supplemental material of the book whcih would be impossible to reproduce on-screen, so it doesn’t feel as redundant here. Maybe it’s because Gerard Butler’s voice over the relatively still images manages to bring the dialogue to life in a way that simply reading those words on the page didn’t. Whatever the reason for it, I embraced the story of the weary seaman.

I wouldn't count on a Christmas present from your crew this year, Captain...

The animation itself may not be amazing – I’m reminded of a sketch on Robot Chicken about how anime saves by simply not having objects move while a voice is heard – but the sound design is impressive (as as the near-monologue from Gerard Butler). In fact, his presence affects the movie so much that I appreciate his appearance in the title credits. That said, I am dubious of how the movie might exist on its own, I don’t think there’s enough material present to make Tales of the Black Freighter stand on its own two feet.

There are other more superficial elements in this new cut which also help the movie as whole. Even lingering a few extra seconds with Moloch at the Comedian’s grave or seeing Rorschach figure out how Veidt’s would-be assassin connects back to Edward Jacobi is a treat. It’s undeniable that the movie becomes a much more emersive experience for a few added seconds here or there or another line or even just a lingering glance.

The great and powerful Oz...

There is – of course – a cost for these bonuses. And that cost is length. A hell of a lot of length. Put simply, I had to watch this over two nights last week rather than watching in a single late-night butt-numbing session which would have left me non-functional the following day at work. Perhaps it illustrates that the novel would have been better adapted as a miniseries. I commented in my original review that the film feels like it can be broken down into chapters – just like the book. Here, with the additional material, it feels much more like that – it feels as though you could watch the chapters one-at-a-time or break the film into digestable chunks and it might work better for it. I know in my heart it’s a non-runner – the budget itself would be beyond television’s ability to execute in any reasonable style – but it’s something I note and part of my own opinion about how the movie could conceivably have been approved.

The fact is that a simple cut won’t fix all the film’s problems. There are too many. It is too faithful. Some of the dialogue which worked on the page falls flat on screen (“the city screams like an abattoir full of retard children”, for example). On top of that, the added scenes can only dilute the director’s excess – the infamous sex scenes, the ridiculously stylish violence – so much. In the end, they are still there. This edition adds a whole lot more to the movie, but it can’t subtract too many of the negatives.

Dr. Manhattan takes apart a criminal organisation...

Unfortunately, the length of the cut actually causes the viewer to question if some material which made it into the theatrical edition should have been excised instead of what was actually taken out. Put simply, the added and extended scenes with Rorschach and Dr. Manhatten work. On the other hand, the existing scenes between Dan and Laurie feel forced. Logic tells us that a pragmatic adaptation must decide at some point to cut its losses. There may have been a way to keep the benefits that this cut offers and allow it to be comfortably viewed in a single sitting.

Yes, those two characters are incredibly thematically relevent, but the movie can’t handle them well enough to justify it – in particular, Laurie seems a much flatter and weaker character than in the book – so perhaps the movie should have reduced the role for these two characters. In fact, it’s even harder to understand why we spend so much time with these two characters when the movie completely undermines the point which Alan Moore was attempting to make with them. Veidt still warns Dan that his “schoolboy heroics” are “redundant”, but the movie refuses to accept the observation (with Laurie and Dan joking about going back out in Archie after the end of the movie, far from the novel’s idea that they grow up and accept “normal”lives). For a novel which featured the overall uselessness of superheroes as its core theme, the movie seems to have a lot of affection for the two masked crusaders.

Crime Scene Investigation...

Being honest, there’s a lot more to like here than there was in the theatrical release, but I don’t expect it to win too many converts. A wise reviewer remarked that the film is easier to admire than to enjoy, and I think he’s right. Still, with a far more human touch than the cold and sterile theatrical cut, the ultimate cut perhaps justifies the verdict of a “flawed masterpiece” applied to the film.

I think there’s a cause to be made that Watchmen – particularly in this format – represents the biggest arthouse movie ever made. Full of philosophical quandries and cutting observations (amid a whole heap of gore, awkward sex scenes, full-frontal blue nudity and a hugely dissonant soundtrack), the film is a unique accomplishment. That the studio system was able to produce something at once this esoteric and at the same time grandoise is a remarkable accomplishment and – despite his occasional excess – director Zack Snyder deserves more appreciation and recognition than he has received for this film.

An animated little adventure...

The theatrical cut offered us a glimpse it a strange, yet familiar, world. This ultimate cut fully emerses us in it. It’s over-long, indulgent, excessive and self-important, but it is equally impressive, intelligent and more sophisticated than it may seem. It won’t redefine cinema (or even comic book cinema) in the same way that its source defined the graphic novel, but it does deserve appreciation and recognition. If you read the graphic novel and want the closest you will ever get to a big-screen version, or if you simply saw the movie and somehow wanted more, this is the film for you.

In case you are wondering where in the movie I stopped between nights, I chose the scene of Rorschach’s unmasking just before he ends up in prison. It works quite well and almost perfectly bisects the movie – though it does mean your second night pretty much opens with an animated segment. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.


Watchmen is an adaptation of Alan Moore’s (Swamp Thing, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, V for Vendetta) landmark graphic novel, directed by Zach Snyder (300, Dawn of the Dead) and starring Billy Crudup (The Good Sheppard, Public Enemies), Patrick Wilson (Angels in America, Lakeview Terrace), Stephen McHattie (300, A History of Violence), Carla Gugino (Sin City, Spy Kids), Gerard Butler (300, P.S. I Love You) and Jackie Earle Haley (Little Children, Nightmare on Elm Street). It was release worldwide on the 6th March 2009, which looks much cooler in American format: 03.06.09.

I have also reviewed the theatrical cut and hope to review the director’s cut.

4 Responses

  1. Despite its flaws Watchmen is a stunning film that contains far more substance and intrigue than most comic book screen adaptations.

    • I liked it more than most, but I think the movie undersells itself. We don’t need slow motion or an introductory fight sequence. Still, that bit on Mars was beautiful.

  2. Outstanding review. Have my copy of the Ultimate Cut on order. Looking forward to seeing it and your review has me psyched for it. I’ve seen the Directors Cut so don’t expect any major revelations, but Watchmen is such a monumental event, I just have to see it all. I think it gets more impressive as the years go by, as it has weight to it lacking in so many superhero films we’ve seen since.

    • Thanks!

      I’m not sure I’d go so far as to praise it as the best of superhero films, but it had an ambition that has largely been absent from any of the films not directed by Christopher Nolan. I admire it for that.

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