HBO

Watchmen (2019)

Watchmen (2019)

Shocking. Thats easily the best descriptor to sum up the opening of the new HBO series Watchmen.

 

If the name sounds familiar, it might be because of the Zack Snyder film a decade ago, which was in turn an adaptation of a seminal 12-issue DC Comics series from the mid ’80s. The comic takes place in an alternate version of our world where the point of divergence is 1938. Masked heroes (some might say vigilantes) have won the Vietnam War for the American side, 

thanks to Dr. Manhattan, a god-like character born from a scientific experiment.

 

At its heart, the comic is a murder mystery. One of the Watchmen is murdered at the beginning and we spend the 12 issues finding out the who and why, all with the backdrop of nuclear tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union.

 

The HBO series is a sequel that primarily takes place in Tulsa 34 years after the events of the comic. The location is significant because of that shocking opening scene: The Tulsa race riot of 1921. Its a disturbing moment in 

American history that is unknown, or at least not well known, by most of the population. I know it wasnt covered in any of my history classes.

 

On May 31, 1921, a mob of white Tulsa residents attacked the city’s black Greenwood district, referred to as Black Wall Street” because of the prosperity and wealth of the residents there. Officially, 36 were killed, although unofficial numbers put that number as high as 300, with thousands left homeless. This sets up the racial backdrop of the Tulsa of Watchmen. In it, police officers wear masks to protect their identity from the population they are trying to protect, and from the white supremacist group the Seventh Kavalry.

 

The main characters of the series are new creations by Damon Lindelof (of Lost and The Leftovers fame). That isnt to say the original characters from the comic are absent; in fact, a few are supporting characters (at least through the third episode of the series). But the story is at its heart seen from the viewpoint of Angela Abar (Regina King), one of the masked police officers who has a murder mystery dumped in her lap in Episode One.

 

The cast of Watchmen is absolutely fantastic, and while its the story of Abar, it really is dependent on its ensemble; Louis Gossett Jr., playing Tulsa riot survivor Will Reeves, feeds the mystery of the story with his cryptic hints to Abar; Jeremy Irons is fantastically peculiar; and Jean Smart (introduced in Episode Three) has an inspiring performance that, I think, should lead to awards talk. The cast as a whole handles the challenging and uncomfortable material deftly.

 

Visually, there are beautiful references to the comic book (for those who are fans), and the breadth of cinematography is very cinematic. But being HBO, resolution is capped at 1080p. Luckily, I didnt experience any of the godawful compression issues found during other HBO shows, even during some dark, nighttime fight sequences.

 

The Dolby Digital surround mix (the highest available through HBO Go or HBO Now) is very good. Action scenes filled my room while keeping my focus forward on the screen where it needed to be. The shining star of the mix, though, is the score composed by the team of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, which expertly captures the mood of the show and helps drive its narrative forward.

 

For those who want a deeper dive, there’s a companion podcast, The Official Watchmen Podcast, hosted by Craig Mazin (writer and director of Chernobyl), joined by Lindelof. A new installment is released every third series episode, and each one adds some interesting insight into the creation process.

 

Watchmen is not for the faint of heart, and those unfamiliar with the source material might be thrown for a loop at times, but hang in there. The storytelling is top-notch to match the excellent acting and score.

John Higgins

John Higgins lives a life surrounded by audio. When he’s not writing for Cineluxe, IGN,
or 
Wirecutter, he’s a professional musician and sound editor for TV/film. During his down
time, he’s watching Star Wars or learning from his toddler son, Neil.

Chernobyl

Chernobyl (HBO)

“What is the cost of lies? It’s not that we will mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that, if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognize the truth at all.”

 

It was just meant to be a safety test, but something went horribly wrong. The failsafe button was pushed, the power output spiked to astronomical levels, and then the building shook. Nuclear reactors don’t explode. Nuclear reactors can’t explode. But the terror on the faces around the control room revealed a different truth—a truth that must be, one that defied the tenets of nuclear science believed by these men.

 

That opening line from HBO’s limited mini-series Chernobyl could be as pertinent in today’s politics-vs-science climate as on April 26, 1986. Over five terrifying episodes, we’ve learned about the multiple issues—including suppression of information about the flaws in the reactor design and inadequately trained workers—that inevitably led to one of the worst nuclear accidents in history.

 

Chernobyl went surprisingly under the radar for the first few weeks of its broadcast, probably because it overlapped with the last couple episodes of the HBO juggernaut Game of Thrones. Average viewership was around 1 million per episode in the US. One can only hope that the number increases via streaming as award buzz grows, because this show strongly deserves it. The script by showrunner Craig “Don’t judge me just by The Hangover” Mazin is excellent, the performances by the whole cast—and especially Jared Harris—are Emmy-worthy, and the practical effects of the radiation exposure victims are perfectly repulsive.

 

But the unsung star for me is the haunting score by Icelandic composer and cellist, Hilder Guðnadóttir, who incorporated recordings she collected with collaborator Sam Slater from a power plant in Lithuania, near the filming location, in her composition. They add a creepy, otherworldly element to the terrifying story presentation.

 

Chernobyl also has its own podcast, hosted by Peter Sagal of Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me!, with episodes devoted to each episode of the series. Sagal speaks with Mazin about the show’s themes, characters, and where the creators chose to take poetic license. (Chernobyl is a narrative show, after all.)

Chernobyl (HBO)

Since the only way to currently see Chernobyl is by streaming it through HBO, presentation is limited to 1080p and Dolby Digital. There are some compression artifacts notable in dark scenes. Two examples that come to mind are during the opening when the reactor explosion is seen from a distance against the night sky, and also when three workers descend into the darkness of the plant days after the explosion to open water valves. The sound design incorporates the 5.1 channels well during both of those scenes.  But this is primarily a dialogue-driven series, so about the only time any amount of information is sent to the surrounds is during the disaster.

 

Hopefully sometime soon— after Chernobyl presumably wins some awards—HBO will release the Blu-ray UHD version the show deserves. Although at the rate they network’s going, we’ll be lucky to get it before the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is deemed safe for the living.

John Higgins

John Higgins lives a life surrounded by audio. When he’s not writing for Cineluxe, IGN,
or 
Wirecutter, he’s a professional musician and sound editor for TV/film. During his down
time, he’s watching Star Wars or learning from his toddler son, Neil.