Sometimes when I see a movie it’s a struggle over what not to write about. I have so many ideas, and could on and on for pages, discussing the acting, philosophy, or what have you of a given movie.
This is not one of those times.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is perhaps the easiest movie to explain I’ve ever reviewed. The year is 1805, at the height of the Napoleonic Wars (between France and England, in case you skipped that day in school), which includes the high seas. The British fighter H.M.S. Surprise (captained by Russell Crowe) is trying to take down the French vessel Acheron, or vice versa.
And that’s pretty much the movie.
Well, almost. There’s a strong friendship between Crowe’s Captain Aubrey and the ship’s Dr. Maturin (played by Paul Bettany), but unlike most other reviewers, I didn’t think there was much to that. There’s also a thirteen year old kid who goes through rough times and becomes a man, but again, it’s window dressing.
It’s all about the ship. Director Peter Weir and crew have gone out of their way to give us the feel of a real ship in the 19th Century. The opening battle sequence is fast and furious (but in a good way, not a Vin Diesel sort of way), and will get your blood pumping. It’s a bit confusing, but I’m guessing that’s sort of the point: to give us a “you are there” feel, with all the incumbent noise and confusion.
All the action sequences are spectacular. Whether it’s a cannon fight, sword play, or a summer squall there is always the feel of absolute realism.
The film breaks down in the middle, where nothing happens nautically, and a few subplots are hashed out. I suppose this was done to give the film texture and depth, but it’s a mistake, in my opinion. Master and Commander works best when it’s rollicking and intense.
So will you like it? I think so. If you like the books the movie is based on, or just like ships, I think you’ll be blown away by the realism. Even if you’re just a fan of good action/drama, I think you can appreciate the level of professionalism that is displayed here. You might wish for a bit more character development. The “enemy,” the French ship (or to be more precise, its Captain), is never shown for any sort of perspective. I was disappointed by that, as he seems to be the smartest guy in the film. I wish there had been more there.
More too, I wish there had been some real character arcs and meaning. But, I don’t think that’s what the movie really intends. And you cannot ask a movie to be what it’s not. What Master and Commander does give is mostly taut and exciting action, and with all the other crap out there, that’s not bad.
Suspension of Disbelief Scale: 0 (out of 10). If there are any historical or plausibility flaws in here, that would be a legitimate complaint, as this film strives to “get it right.”
Genre Grade: Historical Fiction: B+. Quite well done, but one might wish for some sweeping grandeur or a few more “What does it all mean?” moments.
Pantheon Percentile: 84. As well done as can be, but not enough of the human element to make it truly breathtaking.