Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World Review

by Jon Popick (jpopick AT sick-boy DOT com)
November 14th, 2003

Planet Sick-Boy: http://www.sick-boy.com
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Copyright 2003 Planet Sick-Boy. All Rights Reserved.

The best advice I can offer if you insist on seeing Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is this: Pee first. Aside from giving birth, or possibly enduring the pain and humility of an early-morning Coyote Ugly moment, there's nothing worse than having a full bladder while sitting in a cold theatre watching a movie about ships battling on the high seas for over two hours.

The best advice I can give you if you're not sure you want to bother shelling out cash for World is this: Skip it. It's not worth it, unless you're a fan of the Patrick O'Brian book series that spawned this likely Hollywood franchise. Of course, diehard devotees to the O'Brian oeuvre might be miffed by the decision to change World's story from the tale of a British Navy vessel throttling a US ship to one where they annihilate the French instead. Because we all know what happens to entertainment projects that rile up the GOP (see The Reagans - oh, wait...you can't!).

World's marquee-busting title is lifted from the first and tenth of O'Brian's books, but the plot comes from the latter, effectively sticking viewers smack-dab in the middle of the story without much explanation. The result: Confusion and apathy, which are hardly the emotions you'd want to elicit during a film that cost so much money ($135 million, reportedly) that it had to be bankrolled by three studios.

Here's the deal: "Lucky Jack" Aubrey (Russell Crowe, A Beautiful Mind) captains a ship called the HMS Surprise and has spilt enough blood on its deck to consider it a relative (insert rim shot). It's April 1805, and Aubrey and his crew have been sent to the coast of Brazil in hopes of intercepting and incapacitating a French warship before it can round Cape Horn and bring Napoleon's wrath to the Pacific. But the Acheron finds the Surprise first, blasting at it before rubbing its hands together, cackling and sailing away.

Thus begins what is, frankly, a bizarrely paced adventure that involves hot pursuit, utter resignation, the Galapagos Islands (!), deadly defeat and jovial celebration. And it does each of these things more than once, which might not have been a bad thing if writer-director Peter Weir (The Truman Show) had given his audience some idea how much time had passed between incidents. After the initial Acheron attack, the men aboard the Surprise have a big celebration, even though the strike killed nine and left about three-dozen seriously wounded. Sounds festive, doesn't it?

It doesn't help that World's battle scenes generate little excitement (though I'm not sure how you'd enliven what amounts to a cannon battle), and that it's nearly impossible to tell its non-stars apart from one another. I could have sworn Billy Boyd's character died twice, but there he was at the end, as alive as he could be. I think part of the problem was in the adaptation of O'Brian's source material. This is the first time the usually capable Weir (who has Oscar noms for Truman, Witness, Dead Poets Society and Green Card) has based a film on a book without the help of that book's author (O'Brian died in 2000). Or perhaps O'Brian's books just don't translate well to the big screen.

On the plus side, Weir doesn't dumb down the very complicated sailor speak, so parts of World resemble the curious bedlam of an emergency procedure on ER. And speaking of ER, World contains scenes depicting a young boy having an injured arm amputated, as well as the repair of a fractured skull with the use of a quarter. Each is, though not as explicitly graphic, far more troubling and realistic than anything you'll see in Kill Bill, despite a PG-13 rating.

2:04 - PG-13 for intense battle sequences, related images, and brief language

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