Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)Rated PG-13 for intense battle sequences, related images, and brief language.
Starring Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany.
LVJeff's Rating: 8/10
Photo ©20th Century Fox. All rights reserved.
Staying the Course
Halfway through Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, I realized it was trying to be, for better or for worse, an "ultimate" boat movie, similar to Love Actually billing itself as "the ultimate romantic comedy." Russell Crowe plays "Lucky Jack" Aubrey, captain of the H.M.S. Surprise, out on the seas near Brazil in pursuit of a French warship, the Acheron, during the Napoleanic Wars. Life aboard the ship is depicted in great detail; much insight is given about the nature of war at sea; and the crew of the ship face every kind of peril a ship's crew can face, from storms to still waters, from the upkeep of morale to duty-vs.-personal-feelings decision-making.
Yes, it has everything, but is it an exceptional film? When you walk into a movie of this sort -- classy, adult, Oscar-caliber with the potential to be a paragon of its genre -- you have an expectation to be met and then exceeded. Master and Commander meets the expectation -- that it would be handsomely produced, well-directed, well-acted, and give us what we might call an accurate depiction of life and war on the high seas. But a great movie has something memorable for us to take away, something that might come out of left field, something we couldn't see coming. It's like the extra fun you get from going to a theme park. You hit all the rides you plan to hit, but the stories you tell your friends are the ones about how your kid screamed when the park mascot got too close, or how you joined a group of people in a long line for a spontaneous rendition of "Bohemian Rhapsody." OK, maybe that doesn't actually happen, but you get the idea.
Master and Commander should have been a great movie. As is, it's just good enough. The production is indeed excellent -- it gets that "being there" feeling just right. Watching the crew bustle about, you start wondering things like where is all the food kept? And where do they go to the bathroom? What do they do for entertainment, to keep from going crazy? You know the movie's doing something right when you feel immersed in the environment, asking useless questions like that. Personally, I wondered how any warship could float around for months at a time while housing only one doctor (in this case, Dr. Stephen Maturin, played marvelously by Paul Bettany). And I found out that repairs to a ship -- even after it's been shot up by cannon-fire -- are possible on-the-fly, and I thought about how skilled those ship engineers had to be.
But after that halfway point, the movie starts to feel as if it's going through the motions. In a frame of storytelling similar to Moby Dick, the captain and his crew are out for a singular purpose -- to hunt and destroy an adversary at sea. Inevitably, they will meet, but in the meantime, they'll show you what life on a boat is like and what inner and outer struggles the ship's captain and crew face. So after the fifth or sixth crisis, I began figuring out what was going to happen next each step of the way -- because things had to happen that way. There would be no more surprises. We were going to hit the last of the rides, and then go home.
Unfortunately, the movie has only two fully-realized characters: Lucky Jack and the doctor, Stephen. Crowe is quite sympathetic as the captain, mainly because he does essentially the right thing every time a tough decision needs to be made, and we'd like to think we would have made those same tough decisions. The doctor is more fascinating -- he's a scientist, and is more interested in checking out the new, undiscovered animal species on the Galapagos Islands than in chasing a French ship. And he's not some wimpy scientist either, one who is content to hide while the tough guys do their thing -- he has one scene that shows he can be tougher than Captain Jack could ever hope to be. Meanwhile, we don't get to know the other characters well enough to become concerned about who will survive the mission (one young character stands out, but not by much). Scenes of war thus lose their urgency. I felt nervous only for the doctor and frequently had to remind myself which of the other characters were which.
The movie hits a big crossroads point when the crew stops off at the Galapagos Islands. The serenity of the location comes across as awe-inspiring on the screen, and when the doctor wanders off to examine the animals, we are treated to shots of bugs and birds, and lizards going for a swim. We had switched from the History Channel to Animal Planet. I thought about how funny and unexpected it would be if the movie stopped here -- if the H.M.S. Surprise didn't actually finish its pursuit; that, maybe, the movie was going to end in some entirely surprising way. Alas, my more logical side predicted the next course of events, and, sure enough, they were enacted. Master and Commander soundly fulfills its requirements, which is all it needs to earn a passing grade -- but I really wanted to see what it could have achieved in extra-curricular activities.
©Jeffrey Chen, Nov. 5, 2003