The Feature: 3.5/5
At the 2007 San Diego Comic-Con director Zack Snyder vowed to include "Tales of the Black Freighter" in his motion picture adaptation of "Watchmen". The enigmatic pirate meta-story was always the first thing to go in previous adaptations of the acclaimed graphic novel, so cheers of approval echoed through the exhibition hall. Fast forward two years later and Snyder has yet to follow through, though next week's video release of the story in animated form and reports of a "fetishistic and kind of crazy release" that will incorporate it into the live action film give us a couple reasons to think he'll stay true to his word. The only question now is whether one should buy this standalone release or wait for its inclusion in an extended cut of the movie. As with the motion comic that came out a couple weeks ago, I suspect it will be only the most rabid "Watchmen" fans picking this up. Everyone else will either give it a pass or rent it out of curiosity, the contents playing more like part of a larger set of extras than an independent feature.
Out there on its own - disconnected from "Watchmen's" story proper - "Tales of the Black Freighter" both improves and suffers. On one hand it's easier to track the narrative of a sea captain's tragic descent into madness. On the other you lose the intuitive associations and contrapuntal rhythm of the interweaving stories. Though "Black Freighter" is still compelling on its own, it's clearly a case of synergy when combined with the "Watchmen" narrative.
As far as adapting what existed as a comic book in "Watchmen" into an animated short, it makes a certain amount of sense. The animation itself is nothing extraordinary, though the excellent voice acting by (Snyder movie alum) Gerard Butler makes up for any underwhelming visuals. And of course it remains to be seen how well it is all incorporated into the live action film.
Included as a sort of complementary feature is "Under the Hood", another meta-item based around the memoir written by the character Hollis Mason, the original Nite Owl. In the graphic novel a couple of pages from the book were included as part of "Watchmen's" cultural bric-a-brac. This video piece takes things a few steps further, surmising that with any high profile book release comes an indepth news story on the subject. In this case it's done by Larry Culpeper (Ted Friend), host of the Culpeper Minute, a TV news magazine. Set in 1985, Culpeper looks back to his 1975 interview with Mason (Stephen McHattie) and Sally Jupiter (Carla Gugino), who reflect back on the early days of the costumed superhero. Though sporting some pretty poorly done Photoshop images, "Under the Hood" serves as an effective back story to the live action film and gives a couple of characters some additional, appreciated screen time. Usually pseudo-documentaries like this play a bit too self-aware, but McHattie and Gugino play their parts with just the right amount of "I'm being interviewed" self-consciousness. A few retro commercials selling Veidt's Nostalgia perfume and household cleaning products complete the period presentation.
Tales of the Black Freighter: 5/5
The film is accurately framed at 2.40:1 and presented in 1080p with the VC-1 codec. Blacks are stable, deep and, given the source material, appropriately inky. The color palette is very dark, consisting mostly of black, shades of grey and browns. The occurences of red, however, show great depth and saturation. Fine detail can be hard to judge but the imperfections of the hand drawn line art serve as a good indicators. Clean and devoid of blemishes, the image shows no signs banding, edge enhancement or noise reduction.
Under the Hood: 3/5
The film is accurately framed at 1.33:1 and presented in 1080p with the VC-1 codec. What I assume to be a video source (due to the consistent 30 frame-per-second feel) has been aggressively manipulated to impart an aged and vintage quality. The 1985 era TV studio shots show a noticeable drop in resolution reminiscent of 480i material. The 1975 material is made to look to like aged and faded 16mm film, with heavy grain at times and faux physical damage. Though certainly not adhering to any conventional standard, the image looks reasonably sharp and detailed and appropriate for the content.
Tales of the Black Freighter: 4/5
Center channel activity dominates the Dolby TrueHD audio mix with consistently clear and intelligible dialogue. Surrounds and the front mains are mostly used for soundtrack support and some environmental effects like squawking birds, rain showers and howling winds. LFE is measured in its use but sounds deep, clean and full.
Under the Hood: 3/5
Dialogue is the sole component of the Dolby TrueHD mix and sounds consistently clear and intelligible.
Special Features: 2/5
Items range from the perfunctory to the promotional, with none having much replay value or depth.
"Story Within A Story: The Books of Watchmen" (25m01s): Cast and crew remark on the significance of the stories woven into the "Watchmen" universe. Though the piece makes a direct link between "Black Freighter" and one particular character, it's also worth considering other interpretations, especially in light of how it's presented alongside the main story.
"Watchmen Motion Comic" Chapter One (25m31s): A sample of the motion comic video release, which animates the graphic novel's artwork and features the voice talents of actor Thomas Stechshulte. In high definition.
"A First Look at Green Lantern" (10m12s): Creators and voice talent (which include Christopher Meloni as Hal Jordan and Victor Garber as Sinestro) talk about the upcoming direct-to-video, animated Green Lantern movie. In standard definition.
BD-Live: At the time of review, the only feature was a streaming trailer for the release.
Digital Copy: Download a digital copy for playback on computer or portable video device. Compatible with Windows only.
The Feature: 3.5/5
Video Quality: 5/5 and 3/5
Audio Quality: 4/5 and 3/5
Special Features: 2/5
Overall Score (not an average): 3.5/5
Meta-stories from the "Watchmen" graphic novel that will likely appeal to only the most ardent fans, get very good technical presentations overall but a meager set of special features.