I’m puzzled. When I first saw “Master and Commander” I thought it mediocre at best. Later, when the film was nominated for ten Academy Awards and wound up on several critics’ year-end Top Ten lists, I thought maybe my initial reaction might have been too harsh. Upon reevaluation, I’ve decided I was right after all, and everybody else has gone mad.
“Master and Commander” is technically brilliant. A major battle scene (between two ships hurling cannon balls not more than ten feet apart from each other) is an amazing sight, and really gives the viewer a sense of how insane and dangerous it was to be a naval crew member during the Napoleonic Wars (when the film is set). Unfortunately, that’s all the film has to offer.
Based on a series of novels by Patrick O’Brien, the filmmakers had plenty of interesting stories to choose from. Instead, they chose a retread of “Moby Dick,” as Captain Jack Aubrey, who (like Captain Ahab) chases a bigger and faster ship (his personal great white whale) for two hours. Nothing else really happens. The film is overlong and dull, and Russell Crowe’s performance is so understated as to be invisible (Paul Bettany, as the ship’s doctor and Aubrey’s friend, however, is excellent). Worse, an out-of-place scene that feels like it was inserted from another film, telegraphs the ending long before it arrives.
Aubrey is simply not as interesting a character as Ahab, and scenes attempting levity feel forced and do little to break up the monotony. It’s beautiful to look at but, story wise, this ship is dead in the water.
Pros: Incredible special effects. Strong performance by Paul Bettany.
Cons: Lifeless plot. Predictable.
Review Rating: 3 out of 5 rolls by Herman Melville in his grave.
“Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” (2003)
138 Minutes; USA
Rated PG-13 for intense battle sequences and brief language.
Russell Crowe (Capt. Jack Aubrey)
Paul Bettany (Dr. Stephen Maturin, Surgeon)
James D’Arcy (1st Lt. Tom Pullings)
Edward Woodall (2nd Lt. William Mowett)
Chris Larkin (Capt. Howard, Royal Marines)
Max Pirkis (Blakeney, Midshipman)
Directed by: Peter Weir
Written by: Peter Weir and John Collee, based on the novels by Patrick O’Brien
Viewing Format: Theatrical Release
(Portions of this review originally appeared in my “Video View” newspaper column of 4/21/’04)