Fox // 2003 // 138 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge David Johnson // May 3rd, 2004
The second big-profile seafaring adventure released last year (Pirates of the Caribbean was the first), Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World set sail to critical lauding and a boatload of Oscar nominations. Certainly a more realistic, far grittier offering than its goofier, skeleton-infested, Depp-helmed predecessor, Russell Crowe's foray into the surf left this question: But will it be as entertaining? The answer?
The movie drops us right into the middle of the ship. After just a nugget of on-screen exposition, which sets the time and place as well as a tidbit of Napoleonic-history (i.e., "cream those French!"), the audience is thrust into the bowels of the H.M.S. Surprise, a well-seasoned warship crewed by men of all ages and social class. We discover that the Surprise has been ordered to pursue and defeat a superior French ship, the Acheron, headed to the war effort from South America.
No sooner is the audience acclimated to the creaky, drippy Surprise, than hell breaks loose and runs around like a crazy person. The Acheron appears out of the fog and lets loose with its mighty guns. Captain "Lucky" Jack Aubrey (Crowe) scrambles to the deck as the ships pass and trade cannon fire. The Surprise is hammered, and the battered vessel barely makes it into the fog, where it slips away.
Now driven by a mixture of duty and prideful ferocity, Aubrey embarks on a frantic chase toward his prey. The movie is framed with this pursuit as the overriding narrative. The mission is the thread holding everything else together.
Once the gun smoke from the first battle clears, the various characters are introduced, and personalities emerge, including Blakeney, the young, astoundingly brave midshipman; Killick, the cynical steward; Billy Boyd, the feisty coxswain; and Hollom, the tragically nerdy midshipman, alienated from the crew he so yearns to secure respect from.
But, aside from the Surprise itself -- and maybe the Acheron -- the focal characters are Aubrey and Dr. Maturin. Paul Bettany plays Dr. Stephen Maturin, the ship's surgeon, naturalist, and all-around intellectual, a perfect foil to Aubrey. Maturin is one of the few men on board who can get away with challenging the will of Aubrey, even chastising him from time to time. In fact, Aubrey's will, tempered with Maturin as the opposing voice, carries the ship and its crew through its perils.
And there's no shortage of those. Before Aubrey has the chance to capture his quarry, the ship and its souls must survive a monstrous typhoon, another sneak attack from the Acheron, days without wind, a manic-depressive midshipman, and a freak gunshot wound to the ship's doctor.
Yet just when "Lucky" Jack thinks his luck's run out and the Acheron is leagues away, destiny brings the two ships together, face to face, for a final confrontation with a lot more cannons, shooting, shouting, and sword-fighting.
Can I hear an Amen?
I've heard a couple people brand this film as boring and tedious, a film that, despite trailers that paint it as a giant action epic, just doesn't deliver the adrenaline.
These people need to be shackled and thrown into the brig.
Easily my second favorite movie of 2004 (next to another epic with Billy Boyd in the cast), Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is a gripping, well-paced, and unflagging seagoing-adventure yarn. The only thing tedious about the movie is its novella-length title.
Director Peter Weir has unleashed a film that is great on many levels. The battle scenes are awesome, and any CGI that was used to help facilitate them blends masterfully. When the two ships pass and unload their firepower on each other, it really is a sight to behold.
The scenery is lavish, too. Sure it's on water, with only a portion of the movie happening on land, but rarely has the ocean looked so magnificent, particularly when the old boat gets storm-tossed. The raging seas, the calm, glass-like ocean, the spray of water as the Surprise slices through -- mmm, mmm, good.
As for the ship itself, I'm no naval historian, but I can' t imagine a reproduction getting more authentic than the Surprise. The carvings and riggings and interior of the boat are so well defined and detailed that even if the filmmakers bullcrapped the whole design, I would have still bought it.
And, finally, the relationships of the men. This surely ranks as one of the top "guy movies" ever made, but reluctant to be branded a chauvinist, I would of course agree that the women-folk would certainly enjoy this as well; my fiancée has seen it twice already.
Sure, the only women in the movie are a native girl twirling her parasol and the wood carving on the bow of the Surprise, but the dynamics between the men, so rich and detailed, and the characters, so filled with quirks, compel.
The richest of these is the relationship between Aubrey and Maturin, the...ahem -- "anchor" of the film. Maturin's counter to Aubrey eventually reveals as a complement.
He has the luxury of waxing philosophical on all things, from authority to science to the morale of the men to civilization in general. Aubrey accepts (sometime endures) Maturin's company, and, as is evident from their first scene together, these two are close friends and they both thrive on their differentiated opinions. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is an excellent case-study in male friendship -- and how those bonds are tested when survival is at risk.
What struck me particularly in the movie was the extreme commitment the sailors have to each other, their captain, and their ship. Because of where they are, they must work successfully together. There is no individual failure; if the ship is sunk or burned or captured, everyone is screwed.
You know what else is excellent? The sound. This disc just ponies up. The Dolby and DTS 5.1 mixes are relentless. Even in the quiet moments, the viewer is surrounded by the creaks of the ship and splash of the waves and the sounds of the crew busying themselves with chores. When the storm kicks in, the LFE will just propel your sub to new lows. And as the battles rage, the bullets and cannon balls whiz by your ears. This is a mix that pushes the surrounds aggressively.
The video is sharp as well, particularly in the bright, daytime scenes, where so much is visible and so many details on the ship are revealed. I was also impressed with the clarity of the typhoon scene. A few spots here and there left a bit to be desired as far as the graininess, but overall it is a crisp transfer.
This is the non-special-edition disc. As such, the bonus features reflect it. Let's be clear: the lack of extras on this disc represents a kick to the crotch of the viewer. There is nothing about the film's production. No commentaries, no disposable documentaries, no stills, zip! At least other double-dip discs offer some semblance of bonus materials. The only thing present here is some Fox sneak peeks on other movies and the theatrical trailer. Basically, if you're interested in anything besides the film itself, the studio is forcing you to cough up the extra dough. Flog me, why don't you?
The movie: ship-shape. The audio: buoyant. The video: sea-worthy. The extras: waterlogged.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is the second-best movie adventure of the year and a wicked-good time. The disc sports a good-looking and great-sounding presentation that will command your living room. The studio's contempt for those shelling out the small bucks, however, is "naughty"-cal.
Review content copyright © 2004 David Johnson; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Golden Gavel 2004 Nominee
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* DTS 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 138 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Fox Sneak Peeks
* Official Site