"Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" Blu-ray Review
June 03, 2008 by Zach Demeter
Already five years old, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World wowed audiences and critics in 2003 with its stunning visuals, historical accuracies and strong cast. While the film was nominated for ten Oscars, it ultimately only won two, losing out to Return of the King in all of the other categories. Even though it only walked away with two Oscarís, the film garnered many more and quickly became one of the ďmust-seeĒ movies of 2003.
During the Napoleonic Wars the open seas were a war zone, with French and English ships constantly engaging one another in an effort to gain dominance on the seas. One captain, Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe), commands the HMS Surprise, one of the English fleets top ships and one Aubrey grew up on as a child. Unfortunately for Aubrey, the faster French ships were out pacing and out gunning the Surprise, but by using his knowledge of not only the ship itself and of sea warfare in general, Aubrey is able to get the drop on the faster Acheron.
Despite being a ďmust-seeĒ film, I actually never saw the film during its theatrical run or its DVD release, despite hearing nothing but good things about it. At the time I wasnít a huge Russell Crowe fan and the idea of watching a two and a half hour movie about a boat on water seemed unappealing to me (especially after watching a certain 1997 film also about a boat on water that ran for three hours), but when the Blu-ray release was announced I opted to give the film a shot. Ultimately Iím glad I did, as I was truly surprised and blown away by just how great this film was.
One bad decision I made was starting this film before I went to bed. I had an hour to kill and decided to start the film before turning in for the night and the ensuing hour that I watched turned out to be the most action packed and loudest hour of film that Iíve watched before bed. The sheer thunder of the battles and the creaking of the ship filled the room with so many sounds that by the time the film finally calmed down around the fifty-minute mark, I found myself way too wired from the film to actually sleep. It was without a doubt one of the more action packed films Iíve seen in terms of what happened in the first hour.
I continued the film the next morning and the next hour of the film was actually a bit of a letdown after the huge buildup from the first hour. The film took on a more subdued nature and found our crew exploring the Galapagos Islands for awhile while they repaired the ship and allowed their own doctor to recover from a bullet wound. While I was disappointed there wasnít another solid hour of ships battling each other, it did give us time to get to know the crew better, particularly Dr. Stephen Maturin, Surgeon (Paul Bettany) who we only saw doctor wounds and banter with the Captain a bit earlier in the films bombastic first half.
The action eventually returned, of course, in the final moments of the film when the bloody and triumphant battle between a disguised Surprise and Acheron took place. The resulting chaos of cannons firing along with gun blasts and sword fighting is all beautifully choreographed and as impressive as one would expect it to be. The only drawback of the films climax is that it set itself up perfectly for a sequel; considering it fared so well both in the States as well as overseas, itís kind of surprising that there hasnít been more to the series. I found it interesting that it was adapted from a series of novels, as it really felt like a pure historical piece to me. Thatís the benefit of writing about history, I guessóitíll end up feeling authentic no matter the medium.
Two of the films Oscar nominations were for Sound Editing and Sound Mixing (it won for Editing) and itís immediately obvious why. If you have a decent home theater set up your room will be transformed into a creaking ship, with noises coming from every corner and during the battle sequences the placement of firing projectiles is simply astonishing. I realize a lot of this can be attributed to the DVD authors as well, but the film has to begin with a decent mix in the first place and the use of effects and the sorrowful score are some of the most powerful aspects of the entire film.
Another element of the film to discuss was the superb action sequences. While it may seem claustrophobic for the majority of the film to be on only one ship the entire time, the ship itself becomes a character alongside the rest of the crew as we get to see every nook and cranny either occupied by the crew or blown apart by the Acheronís volley of cannon shots. The use of stormy seas and foggy weather also aided the films battles and really played a big part of setting the mood for the battles; a retreat into the fog and a chase through the story seas were some of the most exciting battles of the film and they both happened very early on.
Iím rather disappointed with myself for not seeing the film sooner as it really ranks up there as one of the better historical action/drama movies out there. While it could be considered Pirates of the Caribbean but with actual history fueling it, the film really offers much more than the POTC series to the viewer and overall the film is really just a lot of fun to watch. Overall Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is a superb film that comes Highly Recommended. I only hope that a sequel is made someday.
For being the ďUltimateĒ format, there sure are a lot of Blu-ray releases that are nowhere near the optimal choice for DVD. When originally released on DVD, Fox released three versions of the acclaimed film: single disc wide and fullscreen releases and a two-disc collectorís edition that was not only loaded with extras but also packaged with a few goodies as well. Unfortunately for this Blu-ray release we see only a few of the extras return along with a few new Blu-ray exclusives that, while interesting, donít make up for the loss of three hours of extras. Even if they had been in the same 480i/p transfers as the original release had, at least it would have been something. As is, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World sports a standard Blu-ray casing release with an insert inside telling you to keep your Blu-ray device up-to-date with the latest firmware.
Now for the technical portion of the disc and the whole reason for the Blu-ray format. While there were several moments of the film that looked great in 1080p, a lot of the film never really benefitted and in some instances I think the clarity of the transfer ended up hurting the film. Take the fog sequences for instance, instead of a nice heavy grain it seemed to be some smoothed over blob that lacked detail and really only hindered the sequence. The stormy sequences looked great and the transfer had deep, rich blacks that kept a lot of the ships lower decks and cabins shrouded and the photography of the Galapagos Islandís looked magnificent, but quite honestly it didnít surprise me the way I was hoping an open-sea movie would. Certainly better than DVD, but the film seems to suffer more than benefit from the formats clarity.
What the film lacks in visual clarity it makes up for in aural clarity. The thudding bass and surround usage was flat-out epic and is quite honestly the nicest track Iíve heard from the Blu-ray format. Every creak was heard and every gunshot and cannon was felt and during the battle sequences of the first hour the whole room shook when the battles were on. Itís a superb track that really benefited from the DTS-HD MA format. Earmuff the kiddies, warn the neighbors and put the dogs outside before playing this track, as itís sure to annoy all those not watching the film. French and Spanish Dolby 5.1 tracks are available as well subtitles in English, Spanish, Cantonese, and KoreanÖbut not French for some reason.
Moving onto the extras for the set we have a series of deleted and extended scenes (24:20) that are in full 1080p HD. While the film looked HD in nature, these deleted and extended sequences appear to be upscale DVD transfers, as they often lack clarity and depth. Nice to have in 1080p, but if youíre not going to do it right, then it seems rather silly to waste a ton of disc space on extras that donít need itÖespecially when so many of the older extras are left off.
The Blu-ray extras are up next (unless you want to watch a trailer for the film you just watched) and included are a few neat extras that are really rather superfluous in nature. The first new feature is an option to jump to specific points in the film where historical elements are indexed. A searchable database is included which allows you to find the chapter and exact location of an event and view it. Sure, itís a neat addition but Iíd bet you itís something few people will ever use aside from a first time trial-run to see how it works.
Finally we have what amount to glorified subtitle tracks. The first occasionally pops a map up on screen that shows the locations of the two warring ships at a certain point in the film (I admit, this is kind of cool), while the final extra is a trivia track that obliterates a good portion of the screen every time it decides to inform you of some neat tidbit. Again, neat additions but I canít see anyone actually sitting through the entire movie with either of these turned on for an extended period of time. The movies already near two and a half hours long and I doubt even the most diehard fan is going to want to sit through it again to watch some trivia fly up in his/her face. Just go to Wikipedia or IMDb if you want to read some of the triviaóitís pretty much all the same anyway.
Overall while the film was awesome, the extras were not. Iím really quite disappointed that so much disc space was wasted on these unnecessary extras and while theyíre a neat example of what you can do on Blu-ray that you couldnít on DVD, if youíre going to leave out the extras that made the DVD format so great then it seems like an unfair trade off. If you already own the two-disc edition, this is really not worth trading up for as you lose a lot and gain a little (the little being the house rocking DTS-HD MA track).
Recommended for new owners.
A Rental for owners of the single disc.
Skip It if you own the two-disc.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is now available on Blu-ray.