'Tales of the Black Freighter' DVD Review


Watchmen, in its long hard road to the big screen, had to undergo many changes and cuts in order to bring it to the cinematic sweet spot of 2 hours and 40 minutes.  Perhaps the most glaring omission, but also the most obvious element that made Watchmen “unfilmable,” was Tales of the Black Freighter, the comic-within-a-comic whose events ran parallel to, and sometimes reflected upon, events happening in the main story. 

It was pure Alan Moore: a concept so utterly nonlinear that it could only work in a graphic novel. Sensing dissent amongst the Watchmen fanboys, a group bested only by starving mother wolves in ferocious protectiveness, Zack Snyder and Warner Premiere went ahead and adapted Tales of the Black Freighter as an animated feature that runs completely independent of the Watchmen motion picture. 

Clocking in at a brisk 26 minutes, it tells the story of a sea captain, voiced by Gerard Butler, whose ship and crew are decimated by the marauding Black Freighter, a ghost ship manned by a violent undead crew.  Being the lone survivor, the captain becomes desperate to make it to his home port of Davidstown before the Freighter, so he lashes together a crude raft from the gas-bloated corpses of his crew.

What follows is both poetic and pointless: Moore’s original use of the story served as both commentaries on and adaptation of events in the world, using the simple backdrop of EC Comics-flavored horror.  Taken out of the context of Watchmen, and the dialogue of the newsstand’s patrons, it becomes irrelevant.  It’s no longer an allegory for Cold War paranoia. 
Instead it’s reduced to an excessive, slightly drawn-out piece of pulp, albeit one whose florid language belies the simplicity of the story. 

What proves to be the real gem on the disc is Under the Hood, a journalistic tell-all interview with Hollis Mason (Stephen McHattie) as he reflects upon his life as a crime fighter.  Alternating between interviews, photos, and newsreel footage, it builds upon the Watchmen film’s sorely missing back story of the Minutemen with a heavy dose of reflective nostalgia.  The entire thing is almost 40 minutes of pure fan service, with the interview being punctuated by commercial breaks for products both real and imagined, all filmed in a distinctly mid-eighties style.  McHattie’s portrayal of Mason is warm and likable, and the other interviewees flesh out the microcosm of Under the Hood seamlessly.

However, it also comes down to value: how do you feel about paying 20 dollars for what will inevitably be a pack-in for a special edition Watchmen DVD release?  While Under the Hood is genuinely fantastic, and the gruesome Tales of the Black Freighter reflects on Warner Premiere’s usual high quality standards for animation, the whole things still smacks of a cash-in.  And that’s a tough ship to get on board, even for the most hardcore of Watchmen fans.