Academy Awards Winner:
Best Cinematography & Best Sound Editing
For those overwhelmed by the long title, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is taken from a series of 20 Napoleonic-era historical novels by author Patrick O'Brian. Although the name would suggest a possible franchinse, Master and Commander failed to keep momentum at the box office, and was largely ignored after a strong opening run. Despite very positive reviews, it earned back just $93M domestically since its release in November 2003. While this may seem like a decent return, the budget was actually close to $150M, making it one of the more expensive undertakings in movie history. Fortunately, most of the budget went into the enormously high production values, as you can literally see every dollar on the screen.
Master and Commander is an epic in every visual sense of the word, a high-seas adventure with a surprisingly large dose of character study. Some have described it as 'slow' or 'boring', but I never lost interest in the adventure that was unfolding before me. While it has a few flaws which will be covered shortly, I found Master and Commander to be a successful film that worked on a number of levels.
One of the most successful aspects of this film is the obvious talent of the cast and crew. For starters, it's hard to imagine anyone except Russell Crowe in the lead. He's been up to bat in similar roles (Gladiator is the first that comes to mind), and carries the right amount of fire, authority, and passion to the role of Captain "Lucky" Jack Aubrey. Also of note is Paul Bettany (Dogville), who holds his own as the ship's surgeon and Jack's close friend, Dr. Stephen Maturin. Overall, the strong cast features plenty of new faces, as well as a few familiar ones (including The Lord of the Rings' Billy Boyd).
At the helm is veteran director Peter Weir, whose last project was The Truman Show back in 1998. He's also directed such classics as Dead Poets Society, Witness, and the 1975 masterpiece Picnic at Hanging Rock. While an epic high-seas adventure might seem like a departure from his previous work, Weir does an excellent job during what must have been a difficult undertaking.
As an adventure film, Master and Commander does a great job in the time-travel department. It's really hard not to get caught up in the exquisite attention to detail, from the historically accurate props and set designs to the dialogue itself. Battle sequences are thoroughly engaging, as are many of the scenes involving fierce weather. However, the film's real strength lies in its study of character: since the large majority of the 138-minute running time is aboard a ship, the story could easily become dull and colorless. Not so, as the strength of the performances keeps Master and Commander afloat, even during many dialogue-driven scenes and lulls in the action.
In fact, the sole complaint I have with the movie is the running time itself: for such an epic tale, it almost seems like 138 minutes isn't quite enough. Several of the many supporting characters could have been fleshed out, if only to enhance the film's already-strong sense of community. On a related note, there are a number of deleted scenes contained on this release which will be covered in detail later. Still, Master and Commander serves its purpose well, serving up a nice balance of dramatic action and character development. It was nominated for 10 Oscars this year, and walked away with two (Best Cinematography and Best Sound Editing), which were well-earned. This is a beautifully crafted film, and a true work of art in every sense of the word.
Although author Patrick O'Brian passed away in 2000, I'm sure he would have loved to see such an epic visual presentation of his work. Despite its somewhat poor performance at the box office, I found this film to be highly polished and consistently strong. To keep the ball rolling, 20th Century Fox is setting their sights high with the release of not one, but two versions of Master and Commander on DVD. The first is essentially the film by itself, containing only the first disc in a more traditional style of packaging. However, the version I received for this review is the real deal: a full-blown 2-disc Collector's Edition, containing a wealth of terrific extras that any fan of the movie will love! With that said, let's see what we get:
Quality Control Department
Considering this is such a recent movie and the production values were very high, it's no surprise that the video presentation for Master and Commander is just about as perfect as you'd expect! This 2-disc release is ONLY available in 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen (woo-hoo!), and the transfer is as clean as a whistle. The overall look of the film favors dark, muted colors, and the oppressive atmosphere is well-rendered. Black are solid, and the overall contrast and level of image detail is excellent. In fact, the only minor imperfection is unavoidable: the scenery is heavy with fog on many occasions, which is a long-time enemy of the digital format. This can sometimes lead to pixellation in some transfers, but the fine efforts from Fox have kept it to an absolute minimum. Long story short: if you were impressed in theaters, then you'll love what this DVD has to offer!
I know a lot of fans have high expectations for Master and Commander in the audio department, and I'd like to confirm that it sounds as good as you're hoping! Audio options include both English and French Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks, as well as a Spanish Dolby Surround mix (English and Spanish subtitles are also provided). Of course, the star of the show is a terrific DTS 5.1 track that really puts you in the middle of the adventure! Surrounds are used aggressively (especially during storms and battles), and the overall atmosphere is extremely dynamic. Of course, those without DTS capabilities have nothing to worry about, as the DD 5.1 mix is strong enough in its own right. Overall, this audio experience was top-notch, and will really please fans of the film!
Menu Design & Packaging:
While menu design and presentation are often overlooked, the quality of both for this release is yet another highlight. The menus are fully animated with ocean-like ambience, while selections from the score play in the background. These bear a certain resemblance to the wonderful presentation used for the Pearl Harbor Vista Series 4-disc set, and are very appropriate to the overall mood of the film. Navigation is especially well-done, and the extras on the second disc are arranged nicely as well. While the test discs I received for this review do not contain the actual packaging, I've seen previews for it…and it looks fantastic! The style looks to be a fold-out digipak case with a slipcover, and also includes a 24-page booklet and fold-out map. Needless to say, I can't wait to get my hands on this one! Here's a sneak peak (image opens in a new window).
Aside from the packaging, the extras are the most notable difference between this version and the 1-disc release. Before we start, I must acknowledge the polished presentation of the featurettes and documentaries. Each of these is presented in a 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio, and many are 'hosted' by Peter Weir himself. These are very well-produced, and really add to the detail and authenticity of the film.
These qualities are perhaps most evident in the first documentary, entitled The Hundred Days. Running nearly 70 minutes in length, this gives us a detailed account into the difficult execution of Master and Commander. A number of the cast is on hand to recount a few personal experiences, but the bulk of the participation is from director Peter Weir. Overall, this was a fascinating production, perhaps only bested in recent memory by the massive documentaries for The Lord of the Rings Extended Editions and the 3-disc deluxe version of Black Hawk Down.
Next up is In The Wake Of O'Brian, a 20-minute documentary which focuses more on the props and historical details of Master and Commander. Peter Weir (seen above) is on hand to explain and display many of the actual antiques purchased for the film, and frequently offers details regarding their historical significance. Additionally, Patrick O'Brian is acknowledged for his tremendously researched work, as evidenced by the title.
Three featurettes are also included in a separate section: the first is Under Cinematic Phasmids (30 minutes), which covers the visual effects and 'illusions' that are necessary to create a realistic ocean atmosphere. The second (and perhaps my favorite) is a Sound Design featurette (20 minutes), which includes footage of how the sounds were recording and utilized for the film. Also included as a sub-section for this featurette is an Interactive Cannon Demonstration, which allows the viewer access to a number of different recording locations during a round of cannon fire. The third featurette is the HBO First Look special, which occasionally retreads a bit of information from the other documentaries, but is a nice inclusion nonetheless.
As if that weren't enough, the viewer is also treated to six Deleted Scenes, which clock in at 24 minutes total. The six scenes---entitled 'Weighing Anchor', 'Shipboard Life', 'Superstition', 'Dentistry', 'Articles of War', and 'Galapagos'---are each presented in their original widescreen, although they aren't quite on par with the quality levels of the movie itself. Although it would have been nice to see these completely restored in all regards (or as part of a Director's Cut of the film), it's still good to have them in any form.
Moving on, we also get a nice series of Multi-Angle Studies, including alternate looks at the final battle in the film. Also included under this section is a Split-Screen Vignette, which allows the viewer access to all the cameras at once…it's a bit jarring at first, but it really captures the level of chaos and excitement that must have taken place during the filming.
Winding down, we now come to another of my personal favorites: a series of four Still Galleries, featuring the conceptual art of George Jensen and Daren Dochterman (seen above), as well as a collection of Naval art and technical drawings. As if you didn't need any more proof of the detail present in the movie itself, these drawings are a real testament to this massive production.
Last but not least, we have a nice selection of Trailers, which includes the teaser and both the U.S. and International trailers. On a related note, Disc 1 contains an Inside Look at several upcoming Fox films, including Day After Tomorrow, I Robot, and Man On Fire.
Needless to say, this release really does a great job of covering nearly all of the bases, and does so in a very stylish and appropriate fashion. In fact, long-time fans of DVD have probably only noticed one missing extra: an Audio Commentary on the first disc. For one, I would have loved to hear a group commentary with the cast and director, and it would have topped off a near-perfect release. Still, the technical presentation and great documentaries on the second disc more than make up for this.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World was one of the most commercially underappreciated movies of 2003, hands down. Thankfully, Fox didn't deliver a half-hearted DVD release…in fact, the overall quality of this 2-disc set really took me by surprise. Sporting a fantastic technical presentation, the high production values of Master and Commander really shine through, making this as close to reference quality as I've seen yet. Additionally, this 2-disc set blows the regular version out of the water, with a great set of extras and excellent packaging. Although the MSRP is a little stiff for some wallets, opening-week prices should enable any smart shopper to find a great buy on this. If you're a fan of this movie, I hope I've convinced you of which version to get. Overall, this 2-disc version of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is a very strong effort in every department, and easily one of the best releases of 2004 so far. It's a great film with a fantastic DVD treatment, and easily part of the DVD Talk Collector Series.
Other Links of Interest
Director Peter Weir's filmography at IMDb
The World of Patrick O'Brian (Author)
Randy Miller III is an art instructor based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in an art gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, general debauchery, and writing things in third person.