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Peter Weir
Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, James D'Arcy, Edward Woodall, Chris Larkin, Max Pirkis, Jack Randall, Max Benitz, Lee Ingleby, Richard Pates
Writing Credits:
Patrick O'Brian (novels), Peter Weir, John Collee

A ship's commander in the Royal British navy finds his vessel and crew in ruins after a surprise attack from an unseen foe. Now, he and the ship's doctor must work together to insure that their duty is protected as they pursue the mystery ship half way around the world.

Box Office:
$150 million.
Opening Weekend
$25.105 million on 3101 screens.
Domestic Gross
$93.143 million.

Rated PG-13

Widescreen 2.40:1/16x9
English Dolby Digital 5.1
English DTS 5.1
French Dolby Digital 5.1
Spanish Dolby 2.0

Runtime: 138 min.
Price: $39.98
Release Date: 4/20/2004

-Disc One-
• "Inside Look”
-Disc Two-
• “The Hundred Days” Documentary
• “In the Wake of O’Brian” Documentary
• “Cinematic Phasmids” Featurette
• “Sound Design” Featurette
• “HBO First Look” Featurette
• Deleted Scenes
• Multi-Camera Shooting
• Still Galleries
• Trailers


Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.


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Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (Collector's Edition) (2003)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 9, 2004)

In 2001, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring demonstrated that folks would embrace a well-made fantasy flick set in the world of elves, dwarves, and other such mystical folk. In 2003, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl proved that audiences would flock to an exciting and fun buccaneer adventure.

Set on the high seas of the early 19th century, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World attempted to spark interest in another kind of film that usually failed to provoke much attention. While World failed to capture the enormous box office receipts of the others I mentioned, it made a decent $92 million and earned a smattering of Oscar nominations, including one as Best Picture. It established an audience for this sort of period piece and may well spawn additional entries in the series, though that remains to be seen.

World depicts the adventures of British naval commander Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe). He helms the HMS Surprise and gets the assignment to find and stop the French privateer Acheron. At the start of the film, we see a battle between the two. The Acheron sneaks up on the Surprise and gets the better of the British boat. After they do some repairs, they set out to track down the Acheron and do his duty. However, Aubrey’s obsession seems to enter Ahab territory, which leads his friend and ship’s physician, Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany) to question whether Aubrey really works for the British Empire or for his own pride.

Essentially, that’s your plot. This synopsis simplifies things and obviously omits many characters, but the movie boils down to the quest to find and halt the Acheron, with an emphasis on Maturin’s concerns about Aubrey’s obsession. Despite the simplicity of the plot, World brings out a lot of nuance in its depiction of the environment. While the movie depicts enough battles to keep our interest, it focuses more heavily on the day-to-day life on board the ship during their quest.

In some ways, the pursuit of the Acheron feels like a MacGuffin. Sure, the story loosely revolves around that chase, but it mostly exists as a framework for an examination of the Surprise’s crew. This occasionally makes for some slow moments, but World mostly holds our interest as we examine the on-ship dynamic.

A lot of the momentum comes from Crowe’s fine performance as Aubrey. Crowe seems to have earned himself more than a few foes due to his personal choices. Based on what I’ve read, I rather like the guy. He doesn’t sugarcoat things and play many of the usual Hollywood games, and that impresses me.

Whatever one thinks of the man, one can’t quibble with his work, and he does well as Aubrey. As always, he throws himself fully into the role, and Aubrey presents a larger than life personality that seems well-suited for the forceful Crowe. However, he doesn’t just pound his way through the part. Crowe appears warm and gently paternal when he works with the ship’s younger crewmembers, though he avoids sappiness and sentimentality. He presents a solid performance that adds depth to the role of the obsessive captain.

The moderate focus on the young seamen also adds interest to World. We see a lot of Midshipman Blakeney (Max Pirkis), and that gives us a nice entry point into the lives of these teens and younger who got cast into a man’s world. Other films touch on these issues, but World explores them with greater intensity.

These moments avoid gooey and cutesy trappings, as director Peter Weir keeps the movie on a natural and stately track. Given the sporadic nature of the action, World easily could turn dull, but Weir manages to maintain our interest. The underlying tension of the pursuit helps, and Weir depicts that in a fine way that keeps us intrigued. He never lets us see the Acheron from the French point of view. Instead, it always remains at a distance and viewed through British eyes. We don’t know any more than the Surprise crew, and that intensified the mystery.

Successful sea-based movies don’t come around often, but Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World presents a winning adventure. It features enough action to keep our attention and also offers a nicely detailed examination on life aboard a 19th century warship. Replete with fine performances and excellent production values, the film comes as a pleasant surprise.

The DVD Grades: Picture B/ Audio A (DTS) A- (DD)/ Bonus A-

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.40:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although the picture fell short of reference levels, it still looked good as a whole.

Sharpness mostly appeared positive. Occasionally I noticed a little lack of definition in wider shots, but those didn’t occur frequently or seem severe. Instead, the movie generally appeared distinctive and crisp. I noticed no issues with jagged edges or shimmering, but edge enhancement created a few distractions. I saw more than a few examples of light haloes throughout the movie. Print flaws remained absent, as the film suffered from no signs of grit, specks, or other concerns.

I didn’t expect a somber sea journey like World to present a varied palette, and I got what I anticipated. The colors represented the filmmakers’ intentions and seemed more than adequate in that regard. The movie tended toward a low-key somewhat golden tone much of the time, likely inspired by the candlelight that infused so many of the shots on the ship. Segments above deck weren’t much brighter, and even the bits on the Galapagos Islands were fairly subdued. Black levels seemed pretty solid, though some shots were slightly inky. Low-light created some challenges, especially via the many nighttime shots. These came across as a bit dense, but most shadows were reasonably visible. The movie seemed a bit darker than I recall from my theatrical screening. Nonetheless, World mostly looked fine visually.

While the picture of Master and Commander looked pretty good, I thought the audio seemed simply amazing. The DVD packed both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 soundtracks. Both seemed pretty similar, but I gave the edge to the DTS mix. I’ll discuss it first and then relate what differences I noted between the two.

For your reading pleasure, here’s a text recreation of the World soundtrack: creak...swish... creak... splash... BLAMMITY-BLAM-BLAM-SMASH!!! The soundtrack mixed many scenes of quiet solemnity and reflection with some of the most intense battle sequences I’ve heard.

Those pieces were what earned World its “A” for audio, though the rest of the track worked fine as well. The mixes nicely replicated the feeling of being on the sea, with all the ambience that fits the setting. Waves lapped, gulls squawked and planks creaked.

But I’d never give a DVD an “A” for accurate creaking. No, it was those vicious fight scenes that easily merited the high grade. Boy, did they pack a wallop! Elements flew all around the spectrum in a highly effective and logical manner, and these really placed us smack dab in the middle of the action. All five speakers presented an immense amount of information in these superbly crafted sequences. The opening battle between the Surprise and the Acheron offered real demo material, and the subsequent assaults lived up to that level. Some of the sailing shots also became quite immersive, and storms worked well too. Nonetheless, it was the battles that mostly impressed.

Audio quality also came across as terrific. Speech seemed natural and distinctive, with no issues connected to edginess or intelligibility. Music was vibrant and dynamic. Scores with a heavy percussive element always seem to fare best, and this was no exception. The music presented a lively and well-recorded affair that always sounded solid.

Of course, the effects played the most prominent role, and they seemed tremendously strong. The low-key ambient elements were natural and smooth, and louder bits appeared detailed and impressive. Every blast of a cannon and every crack of a blow came across strongly. These boosted the caliber of the mix, as did the fantastic bass response. Low-end was consistently loud and bold but also tight and firm. I noticed no boominess or distortion, as the bass kicked down the walls.

It also meant the difference between the “A” I gave to the DTS mix and the “A-“ I awarded the Dolby Digital one. Both seemed a lot alike in their scope and the integration of their soundfields, but the quality of the DTS version was a bit stronger. The reproduction of low-end material made the biggest difference. No matter how loud the DTS mix became, the bass remained extremely controlled and concise. On the other hand, the Dolby version seemed looser. This wasn’t a terrible concern, but its bass lacked the same impressive precision and clarity. Both tracks remained excellent; I simply preferred the massive attack of the DTS one.

Fans can find Master and Commander in two flavors. Fox produced both a “Collector’s Gift Set” that retails for $39.98 and this standard version that goes for $29.98. The only difference comes from the supplements, as the Gift Set includes a second DVD with many supplements.

The first DVD of that package is the same as the sole platter in the standard single-disc release. DVD One only includes a single extra: Inside Look, an “exclusive insider’s look at upcoming projects from Fox”. This presents trailers for The Day After Tomorrow and Man On Fire. We also get a look at the production of I, Robot with actor/executive producer Will Smith, director Alex Proyas, actor Bridget Moynahan, and co-producer Steven McGlothen. All together, these bits add up to six minutes, 43 seconds of material. It’s all promotional and nothing special.

As we head to DVD Two, we get more substantial materials. We start with a documentary called The Hundred Days. In this 68-minute and 38-second program, director Peter Weir, producer Duncan Henderson, co-producer/unit production manager Todd Arnow, historical consultant Leon A. Poindexter, master rigger Jim Barry, executive producer/1st assistant director Alan B. Curtiss, additional casting Judith Bouley, director of photography Russell Boyd, lead historical consultant Gordon Laco, key makeup department head Edouard Henriques III, costume supervisor James W. Tyson, stunt coordinator Doug Coleman, stunts Jan Bryant, sword master Daniel Speaker, composer/violinist Richard Tognetti, violin instructor Robert E. Greene, composer/orchestrator/conductor Christopher Gordon, composer/synthesizer and sample programmer Iva Davies, and actors Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, George Innes, Bryan Dick, James D’Arcy, and Max Pirkis.

“Days” covers a mix of topics. We learn about Weir’s decision to work on the film, the construction and design of the boat, the atmosphere on the set, casting and character notes, actors’ training, sets and principal photography, makeup and costumes, filming at sea and its challenges, shooting the Galapagos sequences, enacting the flick’s big action scene, and score and other musical issues. It gets into the subjects well, as it combines concise comments with a surfeit of behind the scenes footage. The shots from the set and elsewhere add a lot to this package, as they help give us a feeling of how things progressed. “Days” offers a tight and informative program.

Up next we find another documentary entitled In the Wake of O’Brian. This one lasts 19 minutes and 23 seconds and uses the same format as the prior program. It includes comments from Weir, as he discusses his research and preparation, his survey of the novels, visual and cinematic inspirations, and issues related to the adaptation. Weir gets into the factors that influenced his writing in a lively and informative way that makes this a deep examination of his work.

Inside the “Featurettes” area, three pieces appear. Cinematic Phasmids fills 30 minutes, two seconds and looks at visual elements of the film. We use the standard format and hear from Weir, visual effects supervisor Marc Varisco, 2nd unit visual effects supervisor Mitchell Drain, miniature effects supervisor Richard Taylor, visual effects supervisor Stefen Fangmeier, sailing master Captain Andrew Reay-Ellers, miniature unit director Brian Van’T Hul, compositing supervisor/lead artist Phil Brennan, visual effects supervisor Nathan McGuinness, and visual effects art director Robert Stromberg. They go over recreating the boats with models and CG, enacting the battle destruction, developing the storm sequence, and restoring purity to the Galapagos. We get a lot of good demonstration footage that helps illustrate the various visual effects, and these help make “Phasmids” a useful and involving program.

Sound Design splits into two subjects. “On Sound Design” gives us a 17-minute and 47-second featurette. We get notes from Weir, sound designer Richard King, executive producer/1st AD Alan B. Curtiss, and actor James D’Arcy. The program mostly covers the recording of cannon fire and other explosives, but it also gets into dealing with the noise on the set and fixing those problems as well as bringing the atmosphere on the ship to life. As with the prior program, demonstration material works the best, but King’s explanations of the various techniques also help make this an informative and interesting piece.

”Sound Design” also presents an “Interactive Cannon Demonstration”. It gives us the option to hear what each of seven microphones recorded at varying distances from the cannon. We can also listen to composites. It’s a cool way to demonstrate the different elements that made up the final mix.

For the final featurette, we get an HBO First Look special. It takes 25 minutes and two seconds for a pretty standard promotional show. We find remarks from Weir, producer Henderson, Alan B. Curtiss, Andrew Reay-Ellers, co-producer Arnow, gimbal operator Joe Lynch, historical consultant Leon Poindexter, lead historical consultant Gordon Laco, Nathan McGuinness, Stefen Fangmeier, Richard Taylor, Roslyn Cameron of the Charles Darwin Research Station, location manager Michael John Meehan, Richard Tognetti, compositing sequence supervisor Jay Cooper, and actors Crowe, D’Arcy, Bettany, Dick, Max Benitz, Pirkis, Billy Boyd, Lee Ingleby and Joseph Morgan. They discuss the story and characters, building and shooting boats, training the actors, the battle sequence, the Galapagos, and musical training. Though more informative than the average promotional program, it remains oriented toward making us want to see the film. Some decent notes emerge, but we hear most of them elsewhere, which makes the show pretty superfluous.

The DVD includes six deleted scenes. Not just tiny snippets, these run a total of 24 minutes and 20 seconds, so they average more than four minutes a scene. Unfortunately, length doesn’t equal quality, so don’t expect anything very interesting here. The longest follows life on the ship and grows pretty tedious; we get more than enough of that material in the final flick. A couple of others also present fairly low-key material and add little. We find an addition to the flogging sequence that broadens character slightly, as do a couple of other bits; they give us more information about secondary characters. Nonetheless, there’s nothing here that belonged in the finished product, and none of the scenes seems terribly compelling.

Get ready to exercise the “angle” button on your remote with the Multi-Camera Shooting section. This includes three subdomains: “Surprising the Surprise”, “The Final Battle”, and “Split-Screen Vignette”. For the first two, we get a total of four scenes with at least two angles per segment plus “B-roll” footage as well as a composite screen that displays all available cameras. The four-minute and 31-second “Vignette” chooses different angles and options for you and adds some text and additional information to give us a look at some elements. All of these help give us a nice sense for the shoot and the different options.

When we head to the Still Galleries, we get four subjects. These include “Conceptual Art by George Jensen” (26 frames), “Conceptual Art by Daren Dochterman” (35), “Naval Art” (13), and “Technical Drawings” (47). All four add good information, but the “Naval Art” seems the most useful since it shows material used as inspiration for the flick’s visual design.

Lastly, DVD Two presents a collection of trailers. We get the flick’s teaser, its US theatrical trailer, and its international ad.

Also as part of the "Collector's Gift Set", we get some physical materials. The release includes a 28-page booklet that provides a mix of photos as well as notes that discuss the cast and crew as well as some general production elements. We also find a fold-out map that shows the path of the Surprise and adds "Captain's Log" entries for what happens along the way. Neither of these pieces seems terrific, but they help flesh out the package.

Although we don’t get many movies in the genre, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World shows that these flicks can earn attention if warranted. As a rich and lively piece of work, World demonstrates the stronger points of the subject matter and comes across as successful and enjoyable. Picture quality was unexceptional but mostly positive, while audio seemed terrific across the board. As for supplements, this version presents a very nice set of programs that solidly elaborate on the production.

A bare-bones release also exists, and it retails for $10 less. I like this one better because I enjoy supplements and find a lot of good information in this set. Whichever one works for you, I do recommend World, as it seems like a fine piece of work and a standout within its genre.

To rate this film, visit the original review of MASTER & COMMANDER