Slide THIS Your Machine: Watchmen – Tales of the Black Freighter

Posted on 27 March 2009 by ShepRamsey

After this, I promise to not write anything else about Watchmen until Zack Snyder’s Director’s Cut DVD hits stores in July(?). We’ve all gone on and on and on about this movie, putting up several news pieces, three reviews of the film (here, here, and here), and I even wrote an insanely long article all about Dr. Manhattan’s junk. So we here at MovieChopShop (and I’m probably the most guilty) have had a bit of the Watchmen fever. And it all ends (periodically) right now.

 This Tuesday Watchmen nerds like myself finally got to see the missing piece of the puzzle: the animated short-film rendering of the comic-within-the-comic, Tales of the Black Freighter, which was released straight-to-DVD. tales_of_the_black_freighter_dvd1The plan is to make some cash off of this release right now and then release three different versions of the full Watchmen film when it hits DVD later this year. There will be the 163-minute theatrical cut that you can (and should) go see RIGHT NOW, a 190-minute director’s cut, and a 205-minute ultra-super-mega-cut that’s the director’s cut with Black Freighter footage incorporated in it to make the novel-to-screen experience as complete as possible.

So does Tales of the Black Freighter, on its own, bode well for that highly anticipated three-and-a-half hour-long version of the film? I’d have to give a mightily enthusiastic “yes!”

For those who saw Watchmen without knowing much about it and have no idea how this dark-as-hell animated pirate movie connects to that gigantic superhero picture, let me enlighten you. In the original graphic novel of Watchmen, there are several scenes involving a newspaper vendor giving his worldly commentary to anyone who will listen while a teenager sits by the stand reading a comic book called…are you ready for this?…Tales of the Black Freighter. We read the comic along with the kid and get wrapped up in the despaired narration and horrifying macabre of a man’s grim ocean survival tale. This film, which clocks in at 28 minutes, is an animated adaptation of that comic.

Black Freighter tells the story of a mariner (voiced by 300‘s Gerard Butler) who washes up onshore of an island after he and his crew have been viciously attacked by the crew of the Black Freighter, an ominous ship withtales-of-the-black-freighter1 a “skull on its mast” (as the song of key influence, ”Pirate Jenny,” goes). His own ship is in shambles and the corpses of his friends adorn the shoreline. Our mariner is the only survivor of the attack and he’s sure that the Freighter is headed for his home. He constructs a make-shift raft out of the dead bodies of his colleagues and heads home to warn the villagers that the ship is headed for them.

From there it all just gets darker and darker, but it’s a consistenly stirring story established to flesh out the themes of the main story inWatchmen. But I won’t tell you about all that (especially if you haven’t seen Watchmen yet) because then I’d just be giving away everything. But–for fans–as far as the adaptation goes, it’s pretty much all there down to every last panel. If you liked the story in the book, you’ll find little to dislike here. It’s really that simple. It’s very well-made and grisly and the animation is excellent. I thoroughlly enjoyed it and have had a strong hankering to watch it again.

But that’s far from all there is on the DVD. We also have Under the Hood, which if you’re unfamiliar with the Watchmen graphic novel is something else that won’t make much sense to you (although it bears much closer ties to main story than Black Freighter does). Here’s the concept for it: see, between the first several chapters of Watchmen, we are treated to excerpts from a book titled “Under the Hood,” the superhero exposé written by Hollis Mason (the man who was the first incarnation of Nite Owl when the Minutemen were the crime-busters roaming the city streets).

On this DVD, the 39-minute Under the Hood documentary is essentially an episode of a fake 60 Minutes-type underthehoodprogram called The Culpeper Minute (which is a name that I just love). It is hosted by Larry Culpeper (played by Ted Friend) and is a 1985 retrospective episode of a 1975 episode in which he interviews Mason (Stephen McHattie, who also appears in the Watchmen film) about his book and about the dawn (and coming downfall) of the superhero. He also interviews other characters from Watchmen including Sally Jupiter/Silk Spectre I (Carla Gugino), her ex-husband (Frank Cassini), Moloch (Matt Frewer), Wally Weaver (Rob LaBelle), Big Figure (Danny Woodburn), and there’s even a second or two with The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). It’s all pretty amusing and informative nerd-a-riffic stuff. 

Under the Hood is really clever and well-done and the commercial breaks (including one for Nostalgia perfume by Veidt Industries) are fantastically retro. To be honest, though, I expected to like this feature more than Tales of the Black Freighter, but ultimately the grim ugly coolness of Black Freighter left a stronger impression on me. Watching that story being dramatized is a powerful and harrowing experience even if you know what’s going to happen every step of the way. The same can’t quite be said for Under the Hood, which offers nothing that Watchmen fans don’t already know, and while a lot of it is very funny and clever, it tends to overstay its welcome just a tad.

There’s a few other things in this package including a 20ish-minute documentary about the significance that Hood and Freighter have to the overall story of Watchmen. It’s basically comprised of people who worked on the blackfreghtertrailerWatchmen film talking about the two stories which kinda varies from interesting to boring to annoying. They tend to kinda spell out all of the themes of Black Freighter and its connections to the character of Adrian Veidt instead of letting people think about it for themselves. As frustrating as this is, if it gets just one person to start looking at Watchmen and other books and movies in a more thoughtful light, then I’m satisfied.

We’re also treated to a very brief look at DC Animated Universe’s upcoming Green Lantern film, which was something that I had wished they would’ve included on the Watchmen Motion Comic DVD in lieu of the poorly-timed Wonder Woman preview. We don’t really see any footage from the movie.  It’s just interviews with the producers, writers, director, and voice cast. I’d say it looks good, but it’s impossible to tell from this. The final feature on the disc is the first episode of the Motion Comic (which I’ve already reviewed).

All in all, it’s a good buy for any Watchmen fan. Hell, even people who haven’t read the book should find it pretty entertaining, particularly Under the Hood, as it expands on things that the movie doesn’t spend too much time on. Everything on the disc has its strengths, but the real star of the show is Tales of the Black Freighter. It’s a really great watch. I can’t wait to see how it works inside the amazingly-long cut of the film later in the year. But I guess I’ll have to. Damn.

Buy Watchmen: Tales of the Black Freighter on DVD HERE.                           

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