Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (Special Edition)
20th March 2004
With Britain and France at war and Napoleon's armies threatening the shores of England it was down to the Royal Navy to defend the country and her fledgling empire. But when Napoleon threatens to extend the war by sending a French privateer to the South Pacific to harry the British ships and interests in the region, HMS Surprise is dispatched to intercept and sink, burn or capture the French ship. Captained by Captain Jack Aubrey, or known as Lucky Jack to his crew, he is well respected by his men and they trust him implicitly. And with plenty of naval victories under his belt, this French vessel should prove no real threat and a profitable bounty will be enjoyed by all.
But British intelligence is a little patchy and the crew of the Surprise discover to their cost that the hunter has become the hunted. For the French ship has being tracking them and when it attacks from within a fog bank the Acheron inflicts heavy damage and causalities on the Surprise. Virtually disabled with some well aimed shots to the rudder and masts, Jack soon realises that HMS Surprise is out manned, out gunned and out paced. Rejecting calls from this officers and crew to return to Portsmouth, Jack is determined to carry out his orders and instructs his crew to repair the ship and prepare for battle. After all, they don't call him Lucky Jack for nothing and he's not going to let the French Captain beat him so easily.
So begins a cat and mouse game of avoiding the French ship whilst getting into a position where they can attack. There's even time for a venture to the Galapagos Islands to resupply and allow the ships surgeon, Doctor. Stephen Maturin, the chance to make some remarkable discoveries about the islands animals and the process of natural selection. But whilst exploring the island the scientific team come across the French vessel sailing around the other side of the island. Man the cannons, it looks like we've got a fight on our hands!
The picture appears to be deliberately sedate, but never the less still offers a picture which is bright and colourful with a high level of detail throughout. In fact the picture is so precise that it is very difficult to detect many of the CGI effects. The bit rate remains continuously high and there are no problems with artifacting, outlining or grain. The only time the picture appears to struggle is when the scene contains the encoders ultimate nightmare of smoke and fog. Although these scenes are far and few between, the unpredictable movement of the smoke causes a slight problem with grain and pixelisation. With a big budget and a theatrical release in 2003 it would be natural to expect a pristine print and transfer. And you won't be disappointed as the transfer is virtually perfect with no signs or dust scratches or other picture imperfections.
Twentieth Century Fox seem to be treating their newer releases with a bit more effort these days. They first boasted superb animated menus and extras and then things kind of went quiet and returned to normal. However, as with their release of the The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the film is accompanied by dual Dolby Digital 448Kbps and DTS 789Kbps soundtracks. And rather than providing the DTS soundtrack simply for the sake of it, Master and Commander truly revels in the chance to show off the two formats. And what better scenario than a swashbuckling adventure at sea with a creaking ship and pounding cannons.
However, past experiences with action and adventure films have proven on far too many occasions that action doesn't necessarily mean that the sound will excite. Fortunately, Master and Commander provides that all important thrill without distracting you from the on screen action. It's a film that all Hollywood producers should sit down and watch together and get an idea on how to provide a dynamic soundtrack that gives all of the channels a serious workout. Although both soundtracks are excellent and offer some clear, precise and well directed dialogue, it is the superior separation and dynamics of the DTS track which ensures it continues to have the edge over its Dolby rival.
Channel wise, it is the often neglected low end LFE channel which wins the day with its impressive room shaking presence during the many battle scenes. The surround channels aren't used for the sake of it, but they do a wonderful job of reproducing the ambient ship effects from the creaking hull to the movement of the crew. It's a true compliment to a soundtrack when you don't really notice it's presence. But whenever a battle occurs every channel bursts into life with a huge range of effects which will have you ducking for cover as cannonballs and wood splitters ricochet around the room. The front channels are equally impressive throughout with some good stereo separation and clear and precise dialogue in the centre channel. And whilst it is certainly a "loud" soundtrack, once a comfortable listening level is achieved there is never a need to keep adjusting it.
Whilst the Dolby Digital soundtrack is certainly no slouch, it lacks that slight killer edge which the DTS version has no problem in reproducing. Never the less, both formats offer a soundtrack which won't disappoint and they will most definitely give your surround system a good workout. I can see this disc being used in many a Hi-Fi shop for demonstrations.
The menu is a pleasantly animated and scored affair with each subsequent menu containing some form of animation before a static menu appears with the options displayed at the bottom of the screen. It may not be the finest menu system out there in DVD land (or sea), but it's more than functional with every thing easily to hand.
As with Twentieth Century Fox's release of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen you have the choice of whether to go for a single disc edition of the film or a fully loaded two disc affair with more extras than you can shake a mackerel at. Whilst LXG badly needed the extras, if you're a film fan and not too fussed about the extras then the single disc edition of Master and Commander is probably just the ticket for you. However, the supplemental disc is worth every extra penny over the standard edition, and you'll miss out on a bucket load of interesting extras too.
The first disc can't really be classed as containing any film related extras. After you've skipped the increasingly annoying large number of trailers (why can't these be situated on their own menu?), the only real extra is a teaser for the fourth coming theatrical release of I Robot. I don't know about anyone else, but to me this film bares an uncanny resemblance to the The Second Renaissance episode in the Animatrix series of animated shorts. I'm not sure who is based on what, but somebody is copying the ideas of somebody else here.
Anyway, it's the second disc where all of the Master and Commander extras are to be found. And boy, there are certainly plenty of them to cruise through and I couldn't find a single stinker between them. Additional rations of rum are also earned by the fact that every documentary has subtitles available for the hard of hearing. The total running time of the various featurettes and deleted scenes must be pushing nearly two hours and there's no way all of this would have fitted onto a single disc without loosing either one of the soundtracks or suffering a reduction in picture quality, of which neither was a particularly attractive proposition.
The main feature of the extras disc is the 68 minute Making of Featurette - The Hundred Days. Some of my previous reviews may have mentioned about how interesting certain making of featurettes were, but this one takes the biscuit. No in fact, it takes the whole packet. From the initial script work, the design of the sets, the special effects and the minute historical touches, director Peter Weir explains everything in fascinating detail. There was no certainly doubting his enthusiasm for the project. In fact, I was so captivated by the featurette that I was surprised when it finished so soon. I was so unsure that I'd just sat through nearly 70 minutes worth of documentary without leaving my seat I had to go back and check that it actually did have the running time it claimed.
The highlight of the featurette has to be the special effects section. Whilst watching the film I was commenting to myself about the obvious CGI effects only to learn that in fact half of the footage was of a real ship and a 1/8 scaled model to which CGI was added when required. And rather than relying on a computer to generate the storm effects the production team had actual footage of storms from the replica Endeavour as it voyaged around Cape Horn. This storm footage was then rendered and added into the film to make the waves as realistic as possible. It was very, very effective. This is how you go about using CGI. Not just for the sake of it, but blended with scaled models and the real world resulting in near seamless effects.
The only downside to the featurette was the minimum input from Russell Crowe. And when he did say something, it wasn't that interesting and in the entire featurette he couldn't have been on camera for more than two minutes. Whilst most of the principle cast members had plenty to say about their roles, it was left to the director, stunt coordinators and musicians to provide more information about Crowe than by Crowe himself. Pretentious Hollywood big head? I'd say so.
Next up is the more personal featurette Peter Weir on Directing - In the Wake of O'Brian. Here Peter Weir discusses his various inspirations for the script varying from buying all of Patrick O'Brian's novels, spending the majority of his fee buying British naval memorabilia of the period, visiting naval museums and grilling naval experts on sea battles to the life and strife of a humble sailor. It's here that you'll uncover his immense enthusiasm for the project and his interest in every facet of detail from the type of nail in the timbers to the material used to create the ropes and sails, it's all there on screen to see. It even manages to turn into a rather interesting history lesson. The 25 minute HBO First Look documentary is essentially a cut down version and rehash of the main making of featurette. However, it does contain some addition interviews with the cast and crew and even the ever elusive Russell Crowe manages to say a few extras things.
If you hadn't already learnt enough about the special effects in the main featurette there's even more information to be gleamed from the 30 minute Special Effects Documentary - Cinematic Phasmids. This documentary descends even further into the special effects and reveals additional information on the ships, the use of CGI and the extremely interesting model and the lengths and detail they went to in order to get to look as realistic as possible. Also related to the special effects featurette is the Sound Design Documentary. This 18 minute feature follows the crew as they go about capturing the sounds of cannon fire and it's affect on wood and cloth.
And there's no better way than capturing these sounds than by firing the real thing. They head to an army base's firing range and let rip with an interesting range of cannons and place microphones at various positions around the target to capture the sound of the ball leaving the cannon to the sound of the ball arriving and hitting the target. Again, it's another very interesting featurette which leads onto the Canon Sound - Interactive Sound Recording extra where you can listen to the individual positions recorded during these sound tests. You can select any of the locations and then, thanks to the wonders of surround sound, layer them all together and hear the cannon firing in the front channel and the ammunition approaching and hitting the target behind you. Simple, but effective.
Next up are the deleted scenes. There are 6 scenes in total and they run to a total of 23 minutes. They don't really add anything extra to the story with a number of incidental moments which were most likely cut for pacing purposes in what is already a long film. Still, it's nice to see them on the disc and they even have subtitles too. The Multi-angle Shooting sections allows to view a number of battle scenes from various positions. There are four camera angles, a b-roll and a composite of all five which can also be swapped with the angle button. Rounding things off there's a Stills Gallery containing conceptual art, naval art and technical drawings of the various set piece. Oddly enough though, for a film which has been heavily promoted with bolt on trailers on other Fox discs for months, the trailer is not on the disc. Oh well, you can't have everything.
It's great to finally see an American film where the heroes aren't American, the baddies aren't the British (especially when it comes to period pieces such as this - although the film isn't strictly following the books the film is based on) and those nasty French types get their arses kicked! The only inkling of trouble on the horizon is that in between the various battles the film does tend to wander off to spend time on the Galapagos Islands and follow the various coming and goings of the crew. As a result this could have some of those action junkies fiddling in their seats. But for everyone else the time will just fly by.
The historical detail of the ships and their crew is perfect down to the very last button and by watching the various featurettes on the second disc you'll soon be amazed about the level of detail and effort the production team went to. And when you consider that it took the deep pockets of both Twentieth Century Fox and Universal to bring the film to the screen, it is apparent that Master and Commander is a unique historical nautical epic which is most likely never to be repeated. It's a great piece of cinema and you could quite justly argue that it was ambushed at the Oscars by The Lord of the Rings : The Return of the King. Highly recommended.