Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
Back in the 1980s, I contributed my part toward annual bonuses for the employees of Time-Life Books. I was particularly taken by The Seafarers, a series about ships and the men who go down to the sea in them, from the Phoenicians to the modern era.
I was not, however, familiar with Patrick O'Brien's popular novels about the early-19th-century adventures of the fictitious Jack Aubrey, captain of the British Man O' War HMS Surprise. In adapting and consolidating for the screen two of these books—Master and Commander and The Far Side of the World—Australian director Peter Weir has created a rousing adventure that puts us right in the midst of that era, bringing to vivid life its thrills, hardships, and horrors.
It's 1805, and Aubrey and his crew are in hot pursuit of the French privateer Acheron off the Atlantic coast of South America. They're attempting to prevent its passage into the Pacific Ocean, where it could expand the Napoleonic wars into new waters. The action is intense, though it ultimately evolves into a series of cat-and-mouse games, with first the English ship, and then the French, in pursuit. The breaks in the action provide plenty of room for character development, with the friendship between Aubrey and the ship's surgeon, Dr. Stephen Maturin, taking center stage. They share an interest in music and spend evenings playing duos on violin and cello, while during the day playing their own cat-and-mouse game about the ship's mission. The doctor is an avid amateur naturalist, and his excitement about a promised stop in the Galápagos Islands, and his frustration when changes in the situation threaten that visit, drive key elements of the story.
The film is outstanding, though I was a little put off by a few details. A key argument between Aubrey and Maturin came off like a plot device; surely, an experienced Royal Navy surgeon would not be so petulant and vocal about a change in the mission that interfered with his personal desires. A number of crewmen die in the course of the story, but we never get to know any of them enough to care very much. And the film didn't really end so much as seem about "to be continued"—sort of like The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, but without the promise of two more installments. Still, I wouldn't bet against seeing more Captain Jack Aubrey adventures in future sequels.
Master and Commander is a rather darkly photographed film, with a subdued color palette, and that's what you'll see on the DVD. Some of the below-deck scenes that open the film, in particular, will challenge a projector with less than pristine blacks. I first saw the film in a DLP theatrical presentation, and those scenes were a problem there as well. But overall, this is an excellent video transfer, with sharp, crisp images, almost no visible edge enhancement, and no obvious artifacts.
The sound is stunning, from the creaks and groans of the ship in the quieter moments to battle scenes that will have you lunging for the volume control. The music is also superbly recorded, both in the string duos of those quieter moments and the savage drums that punctuate much of the action. (The soundtrack CD is also superb; I recommend it highly—though some of you will be surprised to hear that the strings sound sweeter and more natural on the DVD.) The DTS and Dolby Digital tracks were both excellent, and much more similar than different. The DTS is a little punchier, with stronger bass, the Dolby Digital airier on top with a slightly tighter bottom end—but the DTS is also a little louder, which made direct comparisons a bit dicey. But both are on the disc, so the choice is yours. Either way, you won't be disappointed.
The extras are nearly as much fun as the film itself, in particular the extended "making of" features, which dive deeply into the details of the filming in a way considerably different from the similar but far more clichéd, by-the-numbers features found on most of today's DVDs. It took me nearly three hours to get through it all. This isn't exactly a record length for DVD extras, but there's no fluff here—it's all worth watching. The only real disappointment was the lack of a commentary track.
My only quibble is that, at $39.98, this two-disc set is pricey compared to similar releases from other studios. I hope Fox isn't trying to set a precedent here. But if that's too steep, there's a single-disc widescreen release of just the film and trailers for $29.98. That price, too, is a little out of step with most current DVDs. Nevertheless, this is an excellent DVD of a superb film, and a must-own in either form.—TJN