Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World review by Mike Long

Now that Oscar season has passed, many of the nominated films will begin appearing on home video. This will allow those who didn't see the nominees in the theater to decide which films should have won, which should have lost, and which shouldn't have been nominated to begin with. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, which was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, is a film which falls somewhere in-between all of those categories and is sure to start debates.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is set in 1805 during Napoleon's attempts to overtake all of Europe. The action takes place aboard the British ship, the H.M.S. Surprise, which is commanded by Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe). Aubrey has received orders to track a privateer ship called Acheron, which is working for the French. The Surprise is able to locate the Acheron, but soon learns that the enemy ship is faster and more powerful. Stung by defeat, Aubrey becomes determined to find the Acheron and defeat her. With the counsel of his ship's surgeon, Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), Aubrey is able to rally his crew and sets sail to once again find the Acheron.

Master and Commander is one of those odd films in which one must take the good and the bad in equal parts. First of all, let's talk about the good. Of the 10 Oscar nominations that the film received, 8 were for technical merits such as art direction, sound, costume design, and visual effects -- the film won for sound editing and cinematography -- and it fully deserved each of these nods, for Master and Commander is a beautiful movie. Director Peter Weir, the Peter who didn't win Best Director, is known for making sumptuous films, and he doesn't disappoint here. Weir takes advantage of the sea-bound setting and creates a believable nautical atmosphere in the movie, and also does a great job shooting the action scenes. The film is full of period detail and one can't help but marvel at the amount of work which went into creating the look of the Surprise. The acting is good, as Crowe actually underacts at times, letting his facial expressions do the work for him. Having worked together on A Beautiful Mind, Bettany and Crowe seem at ease with one another, making the relationship between Aubrey and Maturin (which I understand is the cornerstone of the source novels) very believable.

The problem with Master and Commander is the story, or rather, the lack of one. The film is based on a series of 20 novels by author Patrick O'Brian (which I have not read), but screenwriters Peter Weir & John Collee have taken only bare-bones material from the books. The film deals solely with the chase between the Surprise and the Acheron. The only sub-plot focuses (somewhat) on the relationship between Aubrey and Maturin. Maturin is a man of science who would rather study animals than fight in a war and he has a difficult time understanding the military side of Aubrey. Otherwise, the bulk of this 138-minute film deals with the mechanics of the ship and the strategies involved with catching the Acheron. Hearing people discuss military strategy is nowhere near as interesting as seeing it being carried out. Granted, the battle scenes are incredibly well-done and exciting, but the middle of the film really drags. (It took me three tries to complete the movie.) Aubrey, a military man who also has an artistic and compassionate side, is an interesting character, but the movie never really fleshes him out. Nor do we get to know the large crew, so when a crew-member dies, it's hard to become emotionally involved with the film. The most aggravating aspect of Master and Commander is the ending. Just as the film is begin to get very intriguing, it ends. I can only imagine that the powers-that-be were convinced that they had a hit on their hands and that they could continue the story in another movie. But, as the film failed to make back its $150 million budget during its domestic release, that seems unlikely. Master and Commander is a well-made film which shows off a breathtaking technical side, but be warned that there’s more art than arrggh to this nautical tale.

OK, pay attention, because this part is going to get confusing. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is sailing onto DVD from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment in three forms. There will be two single-disc releases, one widescreen and the other full-frame. There will also be a two-disc set. For the purposes of this review, only the single-disc widescreen version was viewed. The film has been letterboxed at 2.40:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The video transfer is very good, although it almost looks as if various film stocks were used, as some shots are crystal clear, while others show a noticeable grain. In any event, the picture is very sharp and artifacting is kept to a minimum. This allows the sea-bound scenes to display a great amount of depth. The colors look very good and the image shows very rich black-tones. The audio on this DVD is astounding and will make a great demo DVD for you home theater fanatics. The disc carries both a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track and a DTS 5.1 track. The sound will seem good at first, but when that first cannonball is fired at the Surprise, you will definitely sit up and take notice. The battle sequences sound awesome as the whizzing cannonballs and splintering wood fill the speakers, and explosions shake the subwoofer. Also, the dialogue and music sound fine. The Dolby track is excellent, but the DTS track fares somewhat better, as it is slightly crisper. The technical aspects of this DVD make the movie worth a rental just to test out your home system.

The single-disc releases contain no extra features whatsoever. For the record, the two-disc set will include: The Hundred Days (69:34 minutes) In The Wake Of O'Brian (20:56 minutes), Cinematic Phasmids (29:59 minutes), Sound Design Featurette (20:13 minutes), Interactive Sound Recording Demo, 6 Deleted Scenes (22:33 minutes), HBO First Look (25:49 minutes), 4 Multi-Angle Studies, Split Screen Vignette, 4 Art Galleries, Theatrical Teaser, and Trailer International Trailer. This seems to be a new trend, as the recent release of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake (cough*Godawful*cough) had similarly diverse releases where the one-disc was essentially bare-bones and the two-disc was packed with features. This dual-release mode may soon replace the widescreen vs. full-frame debate amongst DVD-philes.

6 out of 10 Jackasses

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