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Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Blu-ray Disc Released: 5/13/2008

All Ratings out of

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 5/12/2008

As much as people love predicting which films will win Oscars, they also enjoy playing "Monday Morning Quarterback" and analyzing the movies which didn't win. Home video allows 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.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World sails onto Blu-ray Disc courtesy of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 2.40:1 and the disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 30 Mbps. Given that somewhat high bitrate, I was surprised by the inconsistency in quality on this release. At times, especially during the bright, sunny scenes, the image is quite sharp and clear, showing little grain. But, anytime that the image is darker, or most notably when there's smoke, the picture becomes noticeably grainy, much more so than I remember seeing on the DVD of this film. These dark scenes are also a bit too dark at times. On the plus side, the colors look good, from the red blood to the blue uniforms. During those clearer scenes, the image shows a nice depth. The disc holds a DTS HD 5.1 Master Lossless Audio track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 4.5 Mbps. To get an idea of the power of this track, simply go to the chapter entitled "Under Attack". The ensuing explosion is one of the most detailed that I've heard. As the cannonball strikes the ship, we hear every last splinter being demolished by the violence. The way in which this moment fills all five main speakers and is accompanied by the roar of the subwoofer will remind you as to why you wanted to go high-def in the first place. Along with that, the dialogue is always clear and we are constantly treated to impressive stereo and surround effects.

The Master and Commander Blu-ray Disc contains a few extras. We start with six DELETED SCENES which run about 24 minutes. There are some character moments here, but clearly most of these moments were cut from the film for the sake of pacing, as they merely show life aboard the ship. One can view the film with a "Historical and Geographic Trivia Track" which shows facts at certain points during the film. There is also a "Pop-up Map" which can be accessed during the movie to show where the characters are at any given moment. "Search Content" is an interesting feature which is like the glossary of a book. One chooses a subject from the alphabetized list and you can then find that in the movie. The final extra is the THEATRICAL TRAILER for the film, which is 16 x 9. The interesting thing to note here is that the two-disc DVD release of the film contained hours of extras, including several featurettes, at least some of which would have most likely easily fit on this 50Gb dual-layer disc.

Review Copyright 2008 by Mike Long