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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (Blu-ray)
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (Blu-ray)
Fox // PG-13 // May 13, 2008 // Region A
List Price: $39.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted May 10, 2008 | E-mail the Author
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It suffered from numerous delays, yes, but Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is at long last making its bow on Blu-ray.

Adapted from several of Patrick O'Brian's novels, Master and Commander opens at the dawn of the 19th century as Napoleon's empire threatened to engulf all of Europe. The H.M.S. Surprise, captained by "Lucky" Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe), has been tasked to hunt down and destroy French privateers skulking around the waters off the South American coast. Aubrey takes great pride in his ship and his crew, but both are outclassed and outgunned by the Acheron, a sleeker, more nimble frigate whose cannons boast a far more destructively long reach. The Surprise barely manages to slink away into the fog after their first encounter, suffering crushing casualties and injuries. Rather than retreat to give both his crew and his ship a chance to be mended as best they can, Aubrey decides instead to doggedly pursue the Acheron. It's a choice that sparks dissent among a crew that once unwaveringly stood behind Lucky Jack, with some -- even Aubrey's close friend and confidante, Doctor Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany) -- uncertain if it's a matter of duty to the Royal Navy or merely stubborn pride.

Just to be perfectly clear, this isn't Pirates of the Caribbean with a slightly more historical twist. As one poster on DVD Talk's forums put it, Peter Weir's work on Master and Commander reminded me more than a little of something David Lean might've helmed. Despite the "Gladiator on the high seas!" bent to its trailers and TV spots, Master and Commander is far more interested in establishing richly drawn characters and exploring its historical backdrop than in cat-and-mouse chases on open water. The film does feature several outstanding action sequences, but it's ultimately not about an undersized, outgunned British ship pursuing a faster, stronger French frigate; that's just the catalyst...the frame around which the rest of the movie is built.

Master and Commander opens and climaxes with dazzling battles at sea, and the remainder of the film is a much slower burn, examining the difficult life aboard a warship in the early 1800s and the gulf in status and privilege between British officers and their crew. This is where the film is likely to lose viewers expecting some sort of rousing adventure on the high seas, but that's not the movie Master and Commander is trying to be. I felt completely immersed in this unfamiliar world, and the attention to detail and historical accuracy is immediately evident. Even the bulk of the visual effects work is wholly seamless; there literally wasn't a single shot in the movie where I felt as if I was looking at a miniature bobbing in the water or a model rendered on a bank of computers in Palo Alto. There are moments where the cast is clearly standing in front of a green screen, but it's rarely distracting and certainly never steps on the intensity or emotion of a scene. Master and Commander is set aboard the Surprise for nearly every last second of its 138 minute runtime, and the climax aside, the sole exception is when the crew stops to regroup on the Galapagos Islands. This is the first feature film to have ever been shot there, and there's a quality inherent to the islands that feels impossibly exotic and further elevates Master and Commander into something truly special.

The sequences with the Acheron are masterfully staged. One of the most effective decisions Weir makes is to keep the French frigate elusive...almost an abstract concept...a primal force of nature...rather than just a massive warship of oak and metal. The Acheron in some ways even reminded me of the shark in Jaws. There are few lingering glimpses of the ship, and in the opening salvo, it's blanketed in fog. There are no scenes inside the Acheron to humanize its captain and crew, short of what we see from Aubrey's perspective. The fact that the Acheron remains such an unknown quantity -- that so little about the ship is known other than its speed, firepower, and near-invulnerability -- makes it exceptionally menacing. Because the Surprise can't rely on speed or strength to crush her enemy, Aubrey and company instead have to be cunning, divising several remarkably clever ways to turn the tables that leave Master and Commander feeling much greater than just another usual David and Goliath tale.

The comparisons to Jaws may just be my own fascination with that film bleeding in, although for what it's worth, both films do offer spirited renditions of "Spanish Ladies". Perhaps a more accurate point of reference might be Mutiny on the Bounty, which is set in the same general time period and is also anchored around an unrelenting trek across the bend of South America that ravages its crew. It's the stress and mutinous tension inspired by such a demanding, soul-crushing quest that in large part defines both films. There's something much more fascinating to me about internal strife -- watching respect and friendships gradually devolve into acrimony -- than struggling against a purely external threat, and I'm glad to see that's where Master and Commander directs most of its attention.

There's a sense of meticulous craftsmanship behind every last facet of Master and Commander, and its cast is among the film's many great strengths. Master and Commander is headed by Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany, who'd worked closely together in A Beautiful Mind just a couple of years earlier. Bettany's Maturin is quiet and reserved, a naturalist far more interested in collecting previously unknown specimens off the Galapagos Islands than nicknaming cannons, gunning down whatever birds happen to soar near the ship, or chugging down rum. Aubrey, on the other hand, is a man of action. He doesn't isolate himself from his unwashed crew the way the other officers on the Surprise tend to do. Aubrey's close but stern relationship with his men -- as well as his inventiveness and creativity in warfare -- defines him as a leader. Aubrey and Maturin are opposites in so many ways, but their friendship, squabbles, and mutual respect drive much of the film. I'm also intrigued by how respectfully Master and Commander treats the young children aboard the ship. They aren't reserved for comic relief, to periodically do or say something precious, or to lazily eke out an emotional response from the audience; they're as well-realized as any character in the film, and never once are they sneered at or condescended to.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is a pensive character piece set against a richly-drawn historical backdrop. Those expecting the visceral adrenaline rush of Pirates of the Caribbean are likely to walk away disappointed, despite the sensational battle sequences that bookend the film. Viewers familiar with the more character-oriented work on which director Peter Weir has built his reputation should be impressed with what he's accomplished here, though. Master and Commander is expertly crafted and never less than engaging, and, at the very least, the movie is an essential rental on Blu-ray. It's a film I would normally have recommended as a purchase without hesitation, but its release on Blu-ray unfortunately leaves a bit to be desired.

Video: Master and Commander is the sort of Blu-ray disc where the image quality can vary dramatically from one shot to the next. The levels of detail and clarity are at their most impressive in tight close-ups and more brightly-lit sequences, rendered as flawlessly as most anything I've watched in high-definition. When the camera eases back or moves below deck, though, much of that fine detail is softened out. There are a handful of individual shots -- the first glimpses of the Galapagos, for instance -- that'd easily be mistaken for upscaled standard definition. The cinematography is a perfect fit for the tone of the film but isn't the sort that leaps off the screen -- much of the movie is shot under the milky gray of an overcast sky or interiors cast in the faint, golden glow of candlelight. Despite being reinforced by robust black levels, there's little in the way of depth or dimensionality. Film grain is rarely intrusive, but in those scenes where it dominates the frame -- such as particularly foggy sequences -- it looks soft and smeared rather than the crisp granules I've come to expect.

Most -- if not all -- of this is clearly owed to the way Master and Commander was originally filmed and really shouldn't be considered a flaw with this Blu-ray release. Still, because the bulk of the film falls somewhere in between DVD and what I'd normally expect from a newly-minted Blu-ray disc, viewers should go in with reasonable expectations. Master and Commander certainly looks good in high definition, but its subdued visual style means it's not nearly as startling the way so many of Fox's Blu-ray discs have been. Also, this is reportedly the same master used for the D-Theater release four years ago, and I am curious if a more recent transfer would've resulted in a more impressive presentation.

Master and Commander is presented on Blu-ray at its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.39:1 and has been encoded using AVC, Fox's preferred next-gen codec.

Audio: Master and Commander handily took home an Academy Award for best sound editing and was nominated for best sound mixing, so it follows that the DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on this Blu-ray disc is reference quality by any conceivable standard. The mix immediately establishes a strong sense of atmosphere; even the creaks and groans of the ship when the camera moves below deck are rendered with so much color -- so many discrete, individual sounds in each channel -- that it's immersive in a way very few other films I've seen are.

The breadth of the dynamic range is particularly impressive. Master and Commander alternates between quiet, somber scenes and several truly outstanding action sequences. The initial assault between the Surprise and the Acheron makes this the first disc I'd reach for to show off my sound system, from the colossal bass of cannon fire to wood splintering from every direction and the violent rush of seawater. It's a harrowing, brutal battle whose effectiveness hinges on its soundtrack; I can't imagine Master and Commander as a film carrying nearly that same visceral impact if I'd been using the built-in speakers on my TV. The encounters that follow between the two proud warships and a struggle against a crushing typhoon are every bit as impressive. Master and Commander uses its score sparingly, but the thunderous snare also sounds tremendous in this lossless soundtrack, and the intertwining cello and violin as Aubrey and Maturin unwind are rendered absolutely beautifully. In a word, this DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is perfect.

Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks are also offered in French and Spanish along with subtitle streams in English, Spanish, Cantonese, and Korean.

Extras: Like most of Fox's catalog titles on Blu-ray, the overwhelming majority of the extras from the DVD release have been tossed aside. The two-disc DVD set included two and a half hours of documentaries and featurettes, none of which Fox bothered to carry over to this high-definition release. The multi-angle comparisons during the battle sequences are also gone, along with a fairly extensive set of still galleries and a couple of additional trailers.

Only two of the extras have been carried over from the DVD set. One is Master and Commander's theatrical trailer, presented here in high definition. The teaser and international trailer from the DVD have been shrugged off on Blu-ray, though. The other is a 24 minute collection of deleted and extended scenes. Although this footage is encoded in AVC at a fairly colossal bitrate, it's obviously been upscaled from standard definition and doesn't approach the quality of the movie proper. Why Fox would do this for such lackluster looking footage -- squandering space that could easily have gone to porting over additional extras -- I have no idea. I can't say I thought all that much of this additional footage anyway, most of which is devoted to giving a sense of life on the Surprise which had already been rather effectively established. The supporting cast does get some additional screentime, including Billy Boyd's character being taught to read, the pomp and circumstance leading up to a flogging, and a couple of scares with sea monsters and Napoleonic-era dentistry.

As far as the Blu-ray disc lags behind the DVD set as far as extras are concerned, it does include a few new features. Think of the way many non-fiction books will close with a list of key names, places, and events along with the corresponding pages where they're mentioned. Along those same lines, the entire movie has been indexed by searchable key phrases, enabling viewers to quickly find the timecode for a particular moment and skip directly to it. The other two features are encoded as subtitle streams, the first of which periodically overlays a map on the screen showing where the Surprise and the Acheron are. The other is a trivia track that's a bit of a waste. Most of the facts are placed on an obnoxiously large piece of parchment that devours 20%-25% of the screen. It's really just unpleasant to watch, and the fact that so much of the trivia is carried over almost verbatim from the IMDb doesn't make this feature seem any more worthwhile.

Conclusion: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is a smart, harrowing, and thoroughly engrossing saga at sea, and it's wonderful to see this long-delayed Blu-ray release finally wash up on these shores. Despite being bolstered by a reference quality soundtrack, this Blu-ray disc is still somewhat difficult to recommend with much enthusiasm. Its sticker price of $39.99 is wholly undeserved, and nearly all of the extras from the lavish DVD release have been tossed aside. Master and Commander's lovely but subdued cinematography doesn't make for high-definition eye candy, and viewers should go in with reasonable expectations. Still Recommended, but purely on the strength of the film and its soundtrack.

The usual image disclaimer: the photos scattered around this review are promotional stills and don't necessarily represent the presentation on this Blu-ray disc.
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