One of the biggest problems with being a science fiction and fantasy fan is that the genre is so complete, there is seldom a need to look outside of it to find other entertainment. You have your historical sci-fi with Asimov, Heinlen, Bester, and of course Tolkien. You have contemporary authors such as Gaiman and Anthony to keep up with the times, and of course every time you bat an eye there's an up and coming author of some sort. The genre is excellent for both social commentary and entertainment, and adapts well enough to the screen (some of the time) to keep a movie lover busy, especially in these golden days of Lord of the Rings.
So it was with lackadaisical interest that my father dragged me to see Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. The film had several strikes going against it right off the bat: it wasn't a sci-fi or fantasy movie, the trailer was only moderately interesting, I've never been a huge Russell Crowe fan, and the title was long enough to make me worry about a franchise. My father tried to explain the title to me: the movies being based on a series of novels by Patrick O'Brian. Of these words all I heard were "series of novels" which added to my fear of a Russell Crowe franchise, but as my dad was a fan of the novels I decided to endure it. Two hours and some change later, I had a much different opinion.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World tells many stories, most of them so effortlessly that you never even realize a story is being told. The introductory text tells us the movie is about the H.M.S. Surprise and the mission given to her captain, "Lucky" Jack Aubrey (Crowe), to capture or destroy the French vessel "Acheron". The film quickly drags us into the Surprise's world and shows us the brutal truth about life at sea: battle, sickness, superstition, and the hard work that accompanies it all. Eventually the picture focuses on "Lucky" Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), a character who plays a dual role as the ship's doctor and Aubrey's friend and advisor. The two friends are about as different as can be. Aubrey is a warrior, calculating yet aggressive, dedicating his life to queen and country. Maturin is a naturalist and the more cerebral of the two, sometimes shocked at the behavioral demands of "the service". The relationship between the men is astounding and whether the characters are simply playing their violin and cello or discussing disciplinary measures both the script and actors hold the audience's attention.
The film does two exceptional things beyond the incredible relationship of its primary characters. Firstly, it never forgets that while Aubrey and Maturin are the main characters, there are 197 other characters on the Surprise, characters that aren't going anywhere due to the nature of life on a boat. While the main focus is on two characters, there are at least a dozen more you get to know throughout the course of the story. This happens not because the movie spends any excessive time on the secondary characters, but because of the way they are always in the background, and how they interact with Aubrey, Maturin, and all the other secondary characters. Secondly, the film completely immerses you in the life at sea. The sounds of life on the Surprise surround you, from the crashing and splintering of wood as cannonballs smash into the deck to the soothing sound of the ocean and wind during normal day to day operations. All of the characters are believable in their roles as seamen, and the movie seldom stops to explain to the audience the nautical terms that are being used. You are not expected to know what a yardarm is, but when the movie presents it you will know if it's important or not. It's a great thing when a movie presents itself in a way that doesn't feel like it's talking down to its audience.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World definitely caught my attention and pried me away from the realm of science fiction for a few hours. The story was so interesting and the characters so captivating that I was almost drawn to pick up an O'Brien novel and read about the continuing adventures of the Surprise. I even went so far as to think that just maybe a Master and Commander franchise wasn't such a bad idea after all, especially if Crowe and Bettany continued to play Aubrey and Maturin. How's that for a complete change in mental stance?
The DVD release of Master and Commander returns to the good old days of separate DVD releases, not for Widescreen and Fullscreen, but for what really counts - real movie buffs and the average movie watcher. The bare bones disk release includes the movie, and that's all. It's a good transfer, especially taking into account that this is a new film and didn't have to be re-mastered. There are a couple of CGI shots that looked impressive on the big screen, but show their computer-generatedness on the smaller screen. But if you have a good surround sound system you'll quickly forget the visuals as you are surrounded with the sounds of a ship at sea. If you are the type whose enjoyment of a movie ends as the final credits role, the standard release will be fine for you.
On the other hand, if you like to see behind the scenes and know a bit more about what went into making a movie, the Collectors Edition release is a must have. The CE version of Master and Commander contains the same thing as the standard release on the first disk, but once you finish with the movie there's a wonderful second disk of extras to wade through. Make sure you have some time available though, as all of the extras are lengthy.
At the heart of the CE release is "The Hundred Days" a 70 minute documentary detailing the making of Master and Commander made specifically for this DVD release. This documentary shows how much respect and appreciation director Peter Weir had for the novels of Patrick O'Brien. You see the same look in Weir's eyes as he talks about O'Brian's works as was evident in director Peter Jackson's eyes discussing the Lord of the Rings movies. In fact, as I watched the extras on Master and Commander I got the exact same feeling I had when I watched the appendices on Jackson's Extended Edition movies. Weir really loved these characters and the steps he took to tell this story really show it.
Other features focus on other aspects of making the movie, from the music (yes Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany really learned to play their respective instruments) to the writing process, to exploring the multiple cameras used in the battle sequence. As mentioned above, all the features are sizable, which is good since they seldom cover the same ground, which means they don't become redundant, which means it's actually interesting to watch all of them. Probably the least interesting of them all is the "HBO First Look" mostly because it's just a long commercial for the movie compared to the other features. With all of the information to be found there really is no reason for a commentary track, so the lack of one is not missed at all.
But wait, there's more! There is a selection of deleted scenes, again lengthy in presentation. They aren't so much deleted scenes, as a collection of sequences grouped together by subject matter. Most of these feel like "B" roll footage and very little of it is pertinent to the movie, but still they are fun to watch. Finally a collection of stills and theatrical trailers fills out the collection. And, if that isn't enough for your needs, the Collectors Edition also includes some non-DVD materials. A replicated map shows "Lucky" Jack Aubrey's travels on the Surprise, both those that were part of the movie and those that weren't. Also included is a 28 page collectible book with pictures and some details on the characters, cast, crew, and production of Master and Commander.
All in all, the CE release of Master and Commander is a great movie to own if you are a fan of the movie or of O'Brian's novels and want to see more beyond just the movie. It provides enough information, and is presented interestingly enough, that it'll be a hard DVD release to beat, at least until Peter Jackson unveils the last Lord of the Rings Extended Edition.