Dave GibbonsMatt FrewerJay BrazeauGerard Butler
Watchmen: Tales of the Black Freighter and Under the Hood
Medium: DVD
Year: 2009
Director: Daniel DelPurgatorio, Mike Smith, Eric Matthies
Writer: Zack Snyder, Alex Tse, Hans Rodionoff, Dave Gibbons, Alan Moore
Keywords: Watchmen, superhero, animation, pirates
Country: USA
Actor: Gerard Butler, Cam Clarke, Siobhan Flynn, Jared Harris, Salli Saffioti, Lori Tritel, Jay Brazeau, Frank Cassini, Glenn Ennis, Matt Frewer, Ted Friend, Carla Gugino, Erik Johnson, Rob LaBelle, Niall Matter, Stephen McHattie, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Dan Payne, Darryl Scheelar, William S. Taylor
Format: 25 minutes (Tales of the Black Freighter), 36 minutes (Under the Hood)
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1295071/
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1372710/
Website category: Superhero
Review date: 1 May 2010
I'm talking about these together because they came on the same DVD. They're odd little corners of Watchmen that only an insane purist would dream of adapting, but that's the kind of adaptation Zac Snyder made in 2009 and so they got made too. The Moore-Gibbons original's Black Freighter is the psycho evil pirate comic, while Under the Hood is that collection of text pieces based around the autobiography of Hollis, the first Nite Owl. Snyder turned them into an anime and a TV documentary, which seems fair enough.
Tales of the Black Freighter is the interesting one of the two. I'm talking about the adapted DVD version here, by the way. However it's also the one that's got less of a reason to exist. In the original Watchmen, it makes sense to have a comic-within-a-comic and it's a logical next step to say that people wouldn't be so interested in reading about superheroes when you've got the real thing beating people up on your doorstep and being outlawed by the Keene Act. What would be the equivalent for a movie? In this sense the problem with Tales of the Black Freighter is that its headlong descent into hell makes it a perfect EC horror comic, but inconceivable as a substitute for a superhero cartoon show. Imagine broadcasting this on Saturday morning for the kiddies. Decomposing corpses getting torn to pieces, a hero who mutilates the dead and murders innocents... you'd get lynched.
I admire the fact that this adaptation exists and anime might have been the only real option for doing so, but I don't think its existence makes as much thematic sense as with the original. Snyder's doing it because it's there, basically.
That said, it's interesting as a work in its own right. The word "extreme" doesn't cover it. I can't think of anything I've ever seen get this horrific so fast, so brutally and yet with so much psychological and thematic depth. It's deliberately over the top, pushing its material so far in every respect that it practically creates its own medium. Obviously it's all one big metaphor for Adrian Veidt's story in particular and for Watchmen in general, while the fact that its form was of an EC horror comic meant that Alan Moore could pretty much write a parody of normal storytelling and cut out everything but the meat.
Mind you, the Rorschach blot on our hero's sail means that at first glance it looks like a Rorschach analogue, but that reading holds up to a reasonable extent too.
Under the Hood is a bit dull, unfortunately. The thing about superhero deconstruction is that it's actually much easier to do in screen adaptations than what you'd think of as the straight version, since that poses all kinds of problems with successfully carrying over the tone and the goofy stuff. In a sense, deconstruction is the modern default setting. Thus all the choices in this pseudo-documentary feel obvious. There's nothing new here. It's exactly what you think it's going to be and never doing anything that would have taken more than ten minutes to dream up. I didn't hate it, but it's flabby and I don't know how many people will even finish watching it, let alone go back another time for a second look.
There are good things here, though. Firstly, again you've got to respect Snyder and co. for making it in the first place. Secondly, there's some really nice improvised work from the actors. The black prison psychologist's scene was a bit too cute for me, but I like the way they've given time to assorted minor characters too and Matt Frewer in particular is brilliant as Moloch. There are little human moments from quite a few people, but he was my favourite. Loved what they did with his ears, by the way.
Then thirdly everyone's done a bang-up job at recreating a whole range of historical eras, down to using real 1970s adverts with new voice-overs for the advertising breaks. The one for Seiko digital watches made me laugh, even if I think I expect a bit more from fake advertising breaks these days.
Overall, I'm glad I saw this DVD but I wouldn't call it a must-watch. Under the Hood is worthy but dull, while Tales of the Black Freighter is demented and unique but also quite short. It's almost exactly the length of a modern anime episode, in fact. Its total running time is longer (24:30), but that's including nearly four minutes of closing credits. (Don't listen to anyone who says it's not anime because the work was done in South Korea, by the way, because the trend these days is for the Japanese studios themselves to outsource the work to China or Korea.) Watch it if you get the chance, but you don't have to rush to buy the DVD.