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2004 will go down in history as the year of the hobbit; Peter Jackson and co finally received the recognition they deserved when they wiped the floor at this year’s Oscar ceremony, but life wasn’t all plain sailing (no pun intended!). Peter Wier’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World was awarded two gongs for sound editing and achievement in cinematography. Some movies have Oscar success written all over them, and clever marketing from 20th Century Fox ensured that this naval movie was heavily tipped for Oscar success. The movie was pulled from the summer blockbuster rat race so that it would be treated more seriously, while at the same time giving Russell Crowe a hope of his winning an Oscar of his own. Now the Oscars have come and gone it is now time for the DVD to make a splash. Read on to find out more…

Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World (2 Disc)
The idea behind Master and Commander originates from a couple of naval books by Patrick O’Brian. The novelist was responsible for twenty books in total, but for the purpose of his film, director Peter Weir chose to combine two of them, ‘Master and Commander’ and ‘The Far Side of the World’. The year is 1805 and we are introduced to Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) or ‘Lucky Jack’ as the crew of his ship, the HMS Surprise would have him known. The captain is well respected by all onboard. His reputation is built upon being strict but extremely fair, and these traits should ensure that he goes down in history as one of the best captains ever to set sail. Jack likes to bounce some of his ideas off his close friend, ship doctor Stephen Maturin (Paul Betthany). The pair often dine together and trust each other’s opinions.  

The film starts off in dramatic fashion; the HMS Surprise is on a mission to find a French ship called The Acheron. At the point where we join them, the search has so far yielded little fruit. Things are about to change though as the expedition reaches Brazil and the HMS Surprise suddenly comes under fire from the Acheron. The enemy vessel is far more deadly than predicted, and Aubrey has to draw upon all his expertise in order to avoid a certain defeat. The captain’s pride is battered and he vows to wreak revenge on his French counterparts. The HMS Surprise was badly damaged during the attack, and the Acheron seemed to withstand all of the returning fire. For these reasons many of his crew start to question the captain’s motives and fear that their commander may be leading them all to certain death. One of the doubters is his good friend Dr Maturin who questions whether the captain is following orders from his superiors or is just trying to restore his badly bruised ego. Has Aubrey bitten off more than he can chew, or is he indeed a meticulous captain who knows the true capabilities of his vessel?

Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World (2 Disc)
Before reviewing this disc I did a quick bit of research to see whether the general consensus was positive. Reviews ranged from positive through to mediocre, and there were only a handful of negative opinions. One source even referred to it as ‘like Gladiator, but on a boat!’ I would like to stress at this point that if your expectations resemble the above quote, it is probably worth readdressing them. While Master and Commander is a classic in many ways, it is not action packed and contains lots of meaningful and historical dialogue scenes which may leave some action buffs feeling disappointed. That’s not to say that there are no action set-pieces because the film opens in impressive style and has another couple of battles as well; just don’t expect two hours of non-stop action.

That’s the reality check out of the way, so what makes Master and Commander stand out from other similar movies? Well the first aspect is probably the characters, which are well developed and intriguing to watch. The movie also has a first class cast, led by Russell Crowe. If you have seen any of Russell’s previous movies then you will no doubt know that he has the talent to command the screen in every scene he is in and Master and Commander is no different. As mentioned above, the pace of the movie is sometimes slow, but there is plenty of historical information as well as interesting chats throughout, and the cast put in performances which will ensure that you are engrossed throughout.    

Master and Commander doesn’t bow to the Hollywood blockbuster formula, and for this reason it should be praised. Films such as Pearl Harbor and Titanic all tried to reach audiences by introducing some romantic elements. To some extent, this nullified the historical events surrounding the movies and in my opinion weakened their impact. Master and Commander stays true to the novels (that’s if you don’t mind the ships’ nationality changing!) and doesn’t try to be anything more than a story about the events surrounding the HMS Surprise. I am normally a no-nonsense action fan, give me a couple of big explosions and I am quite content. Saying that I found the Master and Commander to be a refreshing change and for that reason I would definitely recommend it.

Fox have presented this movie with an aspect ratio of 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen, and from the outset I have to say that this transfer is nothing short of outstanding. Fox have released Master and Commander as separate one disc and two disc packages, but essentially the transfers are going to be identical. The image and level of detail is flawless. Every detail is portrayed with striking accuracy, be it the contours on people’s faces or the details of the ships, they are all brought to the screen in impeccable fashion.  The colour palette is a hard one to talk about though as the film uses a restrained range of colours, mostly blues. For this reason don’t expect a vibrant colour palette, but this isn’t really a fault with the transfer. Blacks were solid throughout and the night time scenes were brilliantly portrayed, whilst skin tones also appeared realistic throughout.

Onto the weaknesses; well this transfer doesn’t seem to have any! Compression artefacts were nowhere to be seen, while edge enhancements also kept a low profile. There are also no problems with grain and you will struggle to find a single problem with this transfer. Simply put, this transfer is reference quality. I know this term tends to be overused inappropriately, but I fail to see how you could better this transfer, it really is that good!

Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World (2 Disc)
Not content with resting on their laurels, Fox have also included two outstanding soundtracks with this release. As well as an English Dolby Digital 5.1 (448 Kbps) track, they have also included a nice English DTS (768 Kbps) track as well. I know our foreign readers will be disappointed by the fact that there are no foreign language tracks, but I suppose something had to give. The region one release has an additional French 5.1 track as well as a Spanish 2.0 effort, but I am not inclined to moan too much as the tracks we are treated to are breathtaking. Many people sing the praises of DTS and it is easy to see why. Saving Private Ryan is considered to be the cream of the crop, but we have a new contender on the block. The DTS track included is so realistic that you would swear you were in the middle of the battles. The rears are used consistently and separation is first class. At several points in the film you can hear cannons firing towards you, they come from the front speakers and whiz past you, ending up in the rears.

It is not just the battle scenes where this soundtrack impresses though, as some of the quieter scenes are also well defined and the rears are used for the subtler effects. Dialogue levels are also perfect and never seemed to get muffled in the midst of all the chaotic battle scenes. Although the DTS track is getting all the praise from me, the Dolby Digital track is also impressive and would normally be sufficient. If you are looking for a new demo disc then the wait is over!

Subtitles are only included in English as well, so I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a foreign language release of this movie in the near future.

Fox have taken the wise move of only including a couple of trivial extras on the first disc, and thus producing the quality transfer and soundtracks described above. Apart from the usual trailers that Fox seem to stick on the beginning of their DVDs the only other extras which can be found on disc one are ”I Robot Sizzle Reel” and a link to the Fox website. The I Robot feature is a short teaser for Will Smith’s latest movie which if truth be told actually looks quite interesting. Whether it delivers is another thing, but I am sure that this extra will whet people’s appetite. The one disc release of Master and Commander is identical to disc one of this set.

Now onto the second disc which promises so much, but does it live up to expectations? The first extra you will come across is entitled The Hundred Days, and is the longest extra on the disc. It starts off with Peter Weir (the director) talking about how he came to make the film, and this actually makes for an interesting couple of minutes where he reminisces about the early day of the project and how he did his research for the movie.  The producer and co-producer also have some input into the early stages of this documentary. They talk about the ships used for the filming and how there were actually two (one in the water and the other used for filming on land). There is a lot of behind the scenes footage included with this extra, and the overall set looked surprisingly like the sets that James Cameron created for Titanic a few years ago. It is clear from this documentary that a lot of effort has gone into making the movie as realistic as possible, and this thought is backed up by the director who closes this documentary by saying that if he gets the detail right then hopefully he will make people believe that the movie was shot 200 years previously. Well Peter you have succeeded in my opinion! This documentary lasts for an impressive one hour and seven minutes.

Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World (2 Disc)
There is one other documentary featured on this disc. It is called The Wake Of O’Brian and focuses on how Peter Weir adapted the ideas for this movie. This documentary starts off with the director talking about the processes and procedures he goes through before scripting his movie. Apparently he likes to have props around him to inspire him during his writing. He also plays music from the same period in the hope that he will get some inspiration from the tunes. Once again it is clear from this documentary that the director has really done his homework and has tried to leave no stone unturned. This documentary isn’t as long as the previous one, but at twenty minutes it is still an in-depth extra.

As well as two documentaries, this disc also houses three detailed featurettes. The first of these is called Cinematic Phasmids. This cleverly titled featurette explores the art and craft visual deception.  This featurette focuses on how the ships were created for the movie. Although this has been dealt with previously, there is still lots of new material which makes this featurette worthwhile. It tends to focus more on the costs and the processes involved, including the CG shots that were used. This is a very technical piece and offers a different slant on some of the topics that have already been dealt with. Running at half an hour, this is another first class featurette.

The next featurette is entitled Sound Design, and as the title suggests it focuses on the sound for the movie. This featurette starts in bizarre fashion; the scene is a snow filled field and several people are standing around recording a cannon being fired. Once again, a lot of research has gone into the sound effects for the movie, and I can vouch for the fact that they have done a wonderful job and fully deserve their sound editing Oscar. Accompanying this is an extra which is designed to demonstrate the varying qualities of sound achieved through microphone placement. Essentially this extra allows you to listen to a cannon being fired and you can listen to various microphones which were placed by the weapon.  The final featurette in this section is the HBO First Look which lasts for around twenty five minutes. Surprisingly this is the first time we get to hear from Russell Crowe. This featurette has a quicker tempo than the previous ones and is obviously created for TV. Nevertheless there are a lot of interesting snippets of information in this extra and it is worthy of its place on this disc.

Next up are some Deleted Scenes. There are six in total and they can be viewed individually or as one long clip. The scenes are shot in widescreen but are not anamorphically enhanced, and are also not accompanied by a commentary. Altogether there are twenty three minutes of deleted scenes, some of which would have added to the story if they had been included. This is compounded by the fact that there are no commentaries, and surely they would have been a useful way to explain why they were excluded. If you are a fan of deleted scenes then you won’t be disappointed with the selection on offer here.

Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World (2 Disc)
The next extra is a welcome addition to the disc because it is an area of DVD extras that is not generally used to its full potential. Multi-Camera Shooting is an extra designed to give you a sense of what multi-camera shooting is like. Apparently much of Master And Commander was shot with multiple-cameras and this extra gives you the chance of watching certain scenes from different angles. The other impressive thing about this extra is that the scenes included are from the beginning battle and the final battle, so you get some meaty scenes to watch from various angles. As I mentioned above, the multi angle functionality is not used enough for my liking in DVDs, so I am hoping this will pave the way for many other extras along the same theme. The final set of extras are housed in a section called Still Galleries. There are four galleries included in this section; they are conceptual art by George Jensen, conceptual art by Daren Dochterman, Naval Art and Technical Drawings. Each gallery is well presented and shows a wealth of images which should keep most people happy.

No matter where you look, the word of mouth for Master and Commander is generally positive. It may not be the full-blown action epic that some people were expecting, but nevertheless there is no denying that this one of the best naval movies to come out of Hollywood in a long time. Russell Crowe puts in another established and professional performance and he is backed up by a talented cast who carry the film during some of its quieter moments.

It is only March, but I think we already have a contender for the best DVD of the year, as it really is that good! The transfer could easily be deemed reference quality and the soundtracks (especially the DTS one) rate among the best I have come across. This is a review of the 2 disc edition and Fox have produced an extras disc which should keep even the most cynical of fans happy. The only thing that is missing is an audio commentary, but otherwise this is a set which deserves to be part of everyone’s collection.