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When news came to hand that Peter Weir was directing a sea-faring epic starring Russell Crowe, a wave of surprise swept over film lovers everywhere for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it was initially hard to envisage ol’ Rusty donning a captain’s swagger and taking to the high seas during ye olde English times. Secondly, the cost of faithfully replicating the ships, locations, costumes and props from way back then was a risky proposition, especially considering we hadn’t seen a highly successful nautical epic for some time, if at all (bear in mind Pirates Of The Caribbean wasn’t an influence because both films were green-lit around the same time). That said, it was good to see some new material tackled that gave audiences a different genre to digest in the holiday season.

The film is based on a book series by Patrick O’Brian. His first novel was entitled Master & Commander. When Peter Weir came on board he wanted to base most of the screenplay around his tenth instalment, The Far Side Of The World. Hence, the film’s title was born, frustrating the hell out of those who arrange the letters on top of theatres everywhere.

Master & Commander: Special Edition
Set in early 1805 when hordes of men roamed the seas for various reasons, Master & Commander sets sail on board the HMS Surprise, led by the able (if a little plump looking) Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe). Aubrey is pretty much the epitome of any accomplished leader we’ve seen before, on sea or on land. His band of loyal seamen remains true to him for the duration, running the ship like a well-oiled machine, with Aubrey as the lubricant that keeps driving them along.

Early on in the piece the Surprise catches up with its target, French warship the Acheron, en route to the Pacific to wreak the havoc which was so well documented during the Napoleonic War period. In a captivating little battle the Surprise comes off second best, so like any good war hero, Captain Aubrey decides to seek revenge the best way he knows how. Using all his cunning, nous and general knowledge of all things water related, Aubrey makes the ship live up to its name by giving the Acheron exactly what it doesn’t want. The only problem is there’s a hell of a lot of waiting until we get to that point.

The long running advertising campaign portrayed the film as an action-packed epic on the high seas with plenty of gunplay, cannonballs and blood. While there are still enough of those aspects to suffice, it’s definitely not the kind of film that some were expecting. There’s a fair amount of character development to get through along with several sub plots, some of which are resolved over the course of the story and some of which are only touched upon and end up looking redundant overall. We see the consequences of a seamen’s lack of disrespect but the scene just seems like a novelty when the issue isn’t carried on over the course of the film.

While a lot of time is spent on developing the relationships between the crew members and how their mindset is while out at sea, it is surprising that the principal cast member is overlooked in terms of a recognisable character arc through the story. Crowe’s Captain Aubrey immediately begins the film as an upstanding, morally sound leader without any real recognisable flaws save for an over zealous nature when it comes to alcohol. He instils discipline in his men, as evidence by the flogging a boy receives for failing to acknowledge a higher-ranked officer, yet this side of him disappears just as quickly. One feels like the scenes with his offsider, Dr. Maturin were meant to pick up on developing his persona over the course of the film, yet they end up being more about Maturin’s angst at finding new species of wildlife than anything else.

Without doubt, Bettany’s Dr. Maturin is one of the highlights of the film. He’s not painted as a sea-lover who enjoys his time sailing around in search of French ships to destroy, rather a highly educated doctor and naturalist with ambitions to become a great discoverer of unique wildlife. This is one character who develops greatly throughout the movie, and not just because he gets injured in most bizarre of fashions.

Master & Commander: Special Edition
Director Weir had already read the novels before jumping on board the production and expressed reservations about adapting them to the big screen unless he could join the action somewhere in the middle of the series. With that in mind, however, his obvious attempts to cover several different elements from a lot of the novels is a definite surprise. To the detriment of Aubrey’s character in particular, Weir has crammed in possibly too many distractions to the main story, though for the most part most casual film fans will probably fail to notice. One minute Aubrey’s hell bent on catching those dastardly French guys, then one of his buddies gets injured so they take a break in the Galapagos. “Screw it. Let’s just turn on the turbos and catch up with them later.”

But even with all the unnecessary fluff that distracts from the real development of the story, Master & Commander is filled with some really interesting moments. Most of us would have no idea as to how the hierarchies and relationships work on board a ship, so watching the crew members interact is a lesson in itself. While the strain of sailing for months on end isn’t touched on save for the mention of the hot weather, the lack of any real medical knowledge during the time becomes a key component in a couple of early scenes. Just try not to cringe when the little boy hurts his arm.

Don’t go expecting a bunch of stuff to blow up, even if it’s just from a lump of metal coming out of a cannon. There’s very little out-and-out action to digest, with most of the focus surrounding Aubrey and his crew in their struggle with morals, class, morale and the French. But this also isn’t your usual period piece. Weir’s deft hand at re-creating the look and feel of the deep blue sea goes a long way to ensuring we buy Rusty Crowe as a sea captain, so all the rest pretty much falls in place after that. It’s not quite the masterpiece many critics declared it during the run in to the Oscars (just a coincidence or a critical favour? You decide) but there’s still a very good story at the heart of the film that can’t be denied. Check it out.

The folks at 20th Century Fox have pulled out all stops to make sure this two-disc set doesn’t fall down in any department. The 2.40:1 aspect ratio (it was screened in theatres at 2.35:1) comes up a treat, making everything look pretty darn good from the outset. It’s the perfect ratio for a film like this as you get the widest of frames to encapsulate the beauty of the ships and the sea in the one picture.

The colours, obviously dominated by a heap of greys and blues, come out exceptionally well, contrasted with the red on some of the crew’s jackets. Scenes such as the sunset and those shot in the weapons level of the ship are the perfect examples of some great sharpness. Black levels are great on the whole as well, though some of the darker scenes do affect the sharpness of the picture at times during the film. It goes without saying, though that there are no real visual nasties to contend with at all. The print is clean, aliasing is nowhere to be seen and artefacts won’t be noticed unless you’re really looking for them and even then they’re very few and far between. In all this is a great looking disc that will keep your eyes planted firmly on the action at all times.

Master & Commander: Special Edition
You could almost hear sound designers around the world salivating at the prospect of creating the soundtrack for this film. The possibilities are endless when it comes to sea epics and positioning everything around the sound stage, so it comes as no surprise that both a Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 track has been assembled for this release. And it has to be said, none of it is a disappointment.

On the DTS front, the natural swishes and splashes of the water are the most prominent from the start. Water is one of the best sounds to shift around the speakers, please your ears and test out your current setup. Couple that with the creaks and cracks of a 19th Century vessel and you’ve got the basis for one great sounding mix. The rest of the soundtrack is handled quite well, with the dialogue possibly the only thing that suffers due to the intensity of the audio mix as a whole. It’s hard enough trying to initially grasp the old style English/American hybrid accent the cast puts on let alone try to hear it over all the other effects bouncing around the speakers.

Sub-woofer usage is sound, really jumping to its feet during the battle sequences and giving those cannonballs a little extra pepper. The use of the surrounds is quite good, obviously aided by the subject matter but incredibly effective nonetheless. Everything from the effects, dialogue and the brilliant score by a team of composers is shifted around the rears extremely well.

The comparison between the Dolby Digital and DTS mix is a pretty stock standard one. While the Dolby Digital soundtrack sounds great the DTS mix is superior in general clarity of the sound as well as the inevitable added boost from the lower end. A good time to upgrade your equipment, perhaps.

The two-disc release looks extremely promising in the extras department at first glance, though the lack of a commentary track from the very talkative Peter Weir is a slight disappointment. Nevertheless, a fair amount of the material that would have been discussed in a commentary is housed in the various featurettes on disc two.

Getting past the unnecessary weblink on disc one, we begin to go through all the material housed on the dedicated extras disc. The first piece is the most in depth of the six featurettes we get to see. Entitled The Hundred Days, it covers basically everything to do with the production, from the way in which Peter Weir was approached and how he influenced the make-up of the script to Russell Crowe’s dexterity with a violin. It’s a very interesting look at how a difficult setting can change the way filmmakers operate, with the sea/land debate discussed in detail. The piece runs for over an hour and is well worth a look.

Master & Commander: Special Edition
The next featurette is In The Wake Of O’Brian, narrated by Peter Weir detailing the process of reading the twenty or so novels by Patrick O’Brian and adapting them to the big screen. Again, it’s obvious that he really wanted to bring in a lot of elements from a lot of the books which probably wasn’t a good idea as it made the film lose focus as a whole. But this piece is very interesting, especially for those interested in the books and sea-going in general. It runs for around twenty minutes.

Cinematic Phasmids is your stock-standard CGI featurette which looks at the way they created the digital effects used in the film and how they were integrated into the live action material. It’s an average piece made worse by the re-appearance of Richard Taylor, head of WETA who was the visual effects front man on the Lord Of The Rings films. And he’s wearing a J.R.R. Tolkien T-shirt, no less.

The sound design section contains a couple of interesting extras, the first of which is a featurette entitled, not surprisingly, On Sound Design Featurette. It trails the efforts of sound designer Richard King and his team in re-creating the 19th Century sounds on board the Surprise. It is also an historical lesson as well, looking at the weapons they procured from the time so that they could faithfully re-create the sounds to be exactly as they would behave during that time period. The second piece in the section is an interactive sound recording demo where you can use your remote to listen to the various recording of the weapons going off. There are various distances noted which explain the differences in sounds for each weapon. The design of the page could have been a little easier to follow but once your realise how it all works it’s well worth a look, er, listen.

The last featurette is the HBO First Look piece which we’ve seen many times before on other films. It’s the kind of featurette you’ll watch late at night before the film is released but regret you had because 1) it’s really boring and 2) it gives away a whole heap of the plot, if not all of it. It runs for about 25 minutes, which is 25 minutes you’ll never get back. Still, I suppose it’s a worthy addition to the disc and doesn’t do any harm.

The deleted scenes section contains six scenes of various lengths presumably cut for pacing and length reasons. Most of the scenes flesh out supporting players a little more and also contain various helicopter shots of the ship out at sea which were obviously back establishing shots for the film. Overall these scenes are worth a look but are pretty obvious as to why they were chopped from the theatrical version.

The multi-camera shooting section contains various scenes which uses a number of cameras for the same shot. With the angle button on your remote you can switch between the various views or look at the composite view, which is the most interesting. There are three sections, all fun for the first time but won’t hold much replay appeal. Rounding out the extras section is a series of still galleries featuring conceptual artwork, naval art and technical drawings. No shots from on location, unfortunately.

In all this is a pretty decent package overall. The meaty featurettes make up somewhat for the lack of a commentary track, while the deleted scenes and multi-angle feature bulk things up and add value to the supplements overall. Fans of the film will be entertained for a while with this lot.

Master & Commander: Special Edition
While there are a few things that stick out about the story, in particular the lack of focus on the ship’s Captain, Master & Commander is a good story that takes an interesting look at life on board a 19th Century ship. Crowe and Bettany are very good in their key roles in the film, ably supported by the rest of the cast playing the crew, if you get what I mean. The video and audio presentations are top notch and the extras package is very valuable and thorough, so the two-disc package is well worth a purchase and will fit comfortably into anyone’s collection.