After hearing that Russell Crowe had decided to embark on a movie about an early 19th century sea captain whose character was written about in several books by an author I never heard about, there was a part of me that was intrigued. This feeling was elevated by the film receiving 10 Oscar nominations, second only to Return of the King. And perhaps in another year, Master and Commander would have won more awards than it did (just one), and perhaps may go down as one of the more underappreciated films i… recent memory.
Based on the novels by Patrick O’Brian, the film chronicles the travels of Jack Aubrey (Crowe), commander of the British ship H.M.S. Surprise, and his close friend and ship’s doctor Stephen Maturin (Crowe’s A Beautiful Mind co-star Paul Bettany). The ship’s orders are to locate and do battle with the French ship Acheron, in the hopes of preventing further British/French conflicts. The Surprise is the victim of an early attack by the Acheron, and is rendered almost dead at sea. However instead of going to port, Aubrey decides to keep the ship at sea in the hopes of keeping a close watch on the Acheron without losing her, and at the same time repairing his own vessel. The ships navigate rough seas, the waters of the Galapogos, and even wintery conditions in the hopes of capturing the Acheron. Complicating matters is Maturin’s accidental shooting by a member of the crew, and Aubrey is forced to deal with the possible loss of his friend, the only one he feels can speak freely to him and as honestly as possible.
Spearheading the production is director Peter Weir’s (The Truman Show) desire to paint as accurate a portrait as possible about the time period. The ship’s quarters are fairly claustrophobic, a good portion of the crew are not even teenagers, many, perhaps all, are orphans. And it’s because of the close quarters and the desire to make sure you can understand the environment and life aboard a ship of that era, that’s what helped make it work for me. For instance, the first few minutes may make you scratch your head at some of the dialogue, but it’s not so full of jargon that you can’t follow along at least. It really is a marvel to watch, and the fact that most of the film was in fact done with an actual boat, and not soaked in CG, that’s the other reason I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. Overall, it’s a great, underrated film.
The bragging rights for the film are in its audio tracks. Two Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks (in English and French) are included, along with the standard 2.0, and there is still enough room to squeeze in a DTS track. The DTS track sounds fantastic. Early on when the ship is attacked, the cannonballs tear through the ship and bring enough surround effect to it that it feels like your almost on deck when it occurs. Panning of sounds from one rear speaker to another are evident, and in the scenes below the Surprise decks, the surround effects are frequent, as you the creaking and footsteps from the decks above. It is an amazing job, and it really puts you in the middle of the action. The one Oscar the film won for was in Sound Editing, and it’s shown off here, as this is easily the best sounding disc of 2004.
OK, Fox, Miramax and Universal helped with the film’s production, and Fox produces the DVD. Thankfully their reputation is pretty good in my opinion, producing some of the best non-hobbit releases DVD has put out. The film’s 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation is reproduced very well here, with nonexistent problems or artifact issues. Many different color hues are represented well, and the level of detail for the film is excellent.
Some complaining on other message boards about this disc being broken into either 1 or 2 discs came up, and I don’t understand it. For those who bought blind (like me), you had the choice of either set, depending on who you are. You pick it up or not, it’s up to you. So I’m examining the two disc set. The only extras on Disc 1 are trailers for The Day After Tomorrow, I Robot and Man on Fire.
Disc 2 is where the extras are housed, and produced by David Prior (who has a bunch of acclaimed DVDs under his belt, among them the outstanding 3 disc edition of Panic Room), who compiles yet another impressive collection of bonus material. The Hundred Days is a look at the production of the film, from how Weir became involved in the project, to the casting, and to give you an idea of the painstaking detail put into the film, a good portion of this feature shows how far the crew went to recreate everything. Several ships (in various scales) were built, to complement the full size one that was used. Not many members of the cast are interviewed, but it is appropriate, considering that the bulk of the film is based around the outstanding production involved in the project instead. Answering a question I had about whether or not Crowe and Bettany were playing the string instruments in the film, footage is even shown of Crowe practicing the violin. It’s a very good examination of the film. In the Wake of O’Brian is a 20 minute look at adapting the books to the film. Weir speaks directly to the camera, as he shows you what his inspirations were in the film, what he bought and where he bought it, and it’s a great look at the effort Weir put into this film.
Following those two pieces are 3 featurettes broken into 3 areas. The cinematic phasmid section is a 30 minute look at the things the visual effects crews did (I counted credits from Asylum, ILM and WETA) in order to recreate the effects on the ship. From the sea effects to the cannonball damage, it’s all here in a mix of production footage, animatics, storyboards, and anything else one can think of. It even squeezes in some footage of the production at the Galapagos also. The sound design featurette documents the lengths the crew went to recreate the events in the film, notably the cannonball effects, and while everyone else was in Mexico filming, the sound crew went to Michigan to fire vintage cannons and record their sounds. These sounds are captured and translated into an interactive demonstration, where you can listen to the microphones at their individual locations. Or you can play a specific group of mics, or you can play all of them at once. The mic information (brand and model) is even included for those who have the time, money and cannons to recreate this. Great stuff here, the only letdown is the HBO First Look, which, if you’ve seen some of the material before this, tends to be a bit redundant.
Six deleted scenes totaling almost 25 minutes are next, and each justifies why they were left out, as they were both slow, and could have dragged the pace of the story down if they were left in. A multi-camera shooting piece is next, where you can look at either the surprise attack or the final battle from several different angles (along with a composite) and shots, and some different camera setups are used as well. This is probably the most detailed multi-angle piece I’ve seen on disc to date. Following that are 4 still galleries of about 125 pictures, and the trailers section includes the US teaser and trailer, and the international trailer also.
OK, so people complained because separate 1 and 2 disc versions of this came out, and the 2 disc version carries an SRP of $39.98? Breaking this down for a second, the film is humorous, suspenseful, not to mention action packed, the visuals are lush and detailed and the sonic experience is clearly reference quality. The second disc provides an outstanding technical look at the film, and if I were to recommend a version of the film, I’d tell people to swallow the extra 10 bucks and buy this. And that’s what I’m saying, this DVD is perhaps the best overall package of 2004.
Special Features List
- “The Hundred Days”: 70-minute behind-the-scenes documentary
- “In the Wake of O
- Cinematic Phasmids: moviemaking secrets
- Sound design featurette
- Interactive cannon demonstration
- Six deleted scenes
- HBO First Look
- Multi-angle battle-scene studies
- Split-screen vignette
- Still galleries