Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World Blu-ray Review

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Like the sea, itself, Master And Commander is a thing of rare and unpredictable beauty

by Chris McEneany May 20, 2008 at 12:00 AM

  • Movies review

    Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World Blu-ray Review
    SRP: £24.15

    Master and Commander Blu-ray Review

    The year is 1805 and HMS Surprise is engaged in a devilish battle of wits with a superior-built, better armed French vessel called the Acheron. Russell Crowe's personable, but determined Captain “Lucky” Jack Aubrey has been outwitted and outgunned and out-navigated across the ocean by his nemesis for too long. Now, he must find the tactics and the guile to live up to his ship's name and take the battle back to the French. His men will follow him anywhere, his instincts are second-to-none and the scene is set for a savage showdown on the high seas that will push them all to their limits, and severely test his friendship with long-suffering ship's surgeon Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany). But with their little floating chunk of England and his own reputation on the firing line, Aubrey will give no quarter and stop at nothing to secure victory and the prize for himself and his valiant crew. Along the way, they will all encounter superstition, grievous loss, the haunting tranquillity of the virtually unexplored Galapagos Islands and learn that fortune favours the bold, the devious and the canny. Acclaimed director Peter Weir's mission is to cleave this story from the late Patrick O'Brian's award-winning and hugely popular series of novels and create a wholly convincing seafaring adventure like no other.

    That he succeeds in every single department of the production is nothing short of miraculous. Like sea-shanties themselves, the genre appeals to a niche market and one that, unfortunately for Weir, seems to prefer undead pirates, novelty-act swashbuckling and big concept, low-brow entertainment. But, to his credit, Weir and his armada of crew, actors and writers, ignore the temptation to either dumb-down, dress-up or condescend to the masses. And, given the might of Hollywood's hunger for the easy dollar, this is a brave tactic indeed.

    Master and Commander Blu-ray Picture

    Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World Master and Commander Blu-ray Picture
    Having gained something of reputation for being a disappointment in the hi-def visual stakes, it comes as a very pleasant surprise to discover that Master And Commander actually looks very nice indeed ... though with some reservations. What does disappoint, however, and sets the wrong tone, is the opening scene, set in the fog and shrouded by a picture that seems overly gauzed and stippled with too much grey murk than looks decent. It is a difficult scene to judge. In all fairness, the picture should look murky and grey, yet why is it that similar scenes in Pirates Of The Caribbean 1-3 look so much better? The image here seems flat and soft, yet detail is still very much apparent. Grain swirls too noisily, however, and quickly becomes distracting. This same effect occurs whenever we encounter mist and one sequence in particular, that looks astonishingly bad, is when the Surprise is towed by rowing boats into the enveloping cover of the stuff to avoid the pursuing Acheron - the grain visible in the fog positively glittering.

    Another element of concern is some slight aberrations of colour-timing. This is most noticeable during the shot when Stephen Maturin, talking of the enemy captain, informs Aubrey that, “He fights like you, Jack”. Look at Bettany's eyes and face - something has gone slightly askew there. Then there is the noise that is evident against certain backgrounds, or costumes which, when added to the previous misdemeanours, of course, makes a new Blu-ray release sound like it is cursed. But, this is not the full picture.

    Master And Commander actually looks very nice indeed ... though with some reservations

    There are, indeed, many pluses to the 1080p transfer of this 2.40:1 image. First and foremost is the enhanced level of detail throughout. Granted, it is not a huge step-up from the SD version, but there is definitely more finite attention bestowed upon the interiors of the ships, the grain in the wood, the texture on clothing, rope, sails, faces etc and even if the sea during a lot of shots actually looks quite bland, there are still many instances of spray, waves, drops and reflections on water that clearly look much clearer than previously. The distance shots of ships may not fare with much more distinction than last time around, but the views across the Galapagos do look reveal more detail across the lava flow and the flora and fauna, the rocks bearing clearer striations than before. The showers of wooden splinters flashing across the screen when canon-balls tear through the vessels are sharper - visually-speaking - and the probing of Stephen's bullet-wound and Joe Plaice's open skull have an ounce or two more in the way of clarity. Uniforms possess more grit and material, buttons look a tad shinier - all pointing to an image that does go beyond the original release.

    Colours were never the most pronounced to begin with, with Weir's intention to keep things muted and not flashy. But flames do appear brighter and fuller, the little pockets of light from lanterns and percussion-flashes have more warmth and better delineation against the blacks and shadows and blood is a touch more vivid. The black levels are actually very good, with weight and presence that adds three-dimensionality to the many scenes below decks and night times that are accurately inky. Midnight blues are acceptable, but they can begin to merge with the darker elements a little too easily. Contrast is deliberately blown during some shots - an exchange between Aubrey and Maturin on Galapagos, for example - but, on the whole, is fairly consistent. There is a very nice shot revealed when Aubrey and Maturin sit below decks and ponder the fate of men and the foolhardiness of the quest for the Acheron as lightning turns the image an incandescent, but detailed silver.

    Edge enhancement is much less apparent than it was previously - not that it was particularly bad even then, proving that the BD edition is tighter and crisper in terms of delineation. Apart from the examples mentioned, excess noise and grain are not problems for most of the film either, and there is no evidence of blocking, artifacting or pixilation. Fast action is smooth and there is no print damage. Fox have definitely tinkered with this transfer though since last time - but, all things considered, this MPEG-4 encode is still a worthwhile improvement as far as I am concerned.

    Master and Commander Blu-ray Sound

    Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World Master and Commander Blu-ray Sound
    I've long been a fan of the original DTS 5.1 mix that adorned the SD edition of Master And Commander - its sheer breadth and acute attention to detail so evocative and believable - that it has been hard to imagine that it could actually get any better. Yet, here we are, in the realm of lossless audio and, yes it is true, the DTS-MA 5.1 track that adorns this new version of Master And Commander goes beyond the call of duty and delivers one mighty soundscape that, if you can imagine such a thing, is even more detailed, even more spacious and even more aggressive.

    With absolute reference quality, the audio here employs incredible steerage around the set-up
    With absolute reference quality, the audio here employs incredible steerage around the set-up, really tracking the path of shrapnel, canon-ball, musket-fire, movement - both individual and en mass - and fills the environment with ultra-convincing clarity, naturalism and transparency. The opening and closing battles are text-book examples of how to employ sound and chaos with absolute precision. Voices, impacts, screams, blasts and the sheer wrenching force of sheared wood and toppling sails engulfs the soundscape. The sub supplies enough devastating force to hurl you back and density of such power is an aural-adrenaline-junkie's dream. The whip-around effects whistle past your eyes, skitter away behind you and tumble beneath your feet. The clang of steel reverberates and the air-displacing whump of canon-balls is simply awesome. The technical expertise of this sound design is truly something to marvel at and Fox should be proud of themselves for capturing every element of Richard King's aural splendour.

    Of course, Master And Commander offers much more than whiz-bang bass-pounding. The evocative and intelligent dialogue is wonderfully conveyed and even if, at some points in the film, it has to be yelled above the cacophony of wreckage, screaming and whistling debris, it is always clear and discernable. The fantastic intricacies of the many moving, rolling, sliding, clicking or clacking accoutrements onboard the ship are presented with impeccable placement, clarity and realism. The creaking and groaning of the hull and the lapping of the sea, so beloved even on the former track, are now even more exquisite at bringing the visuals to ear-deceiving life. The movement of feet around the decks offer some quite splendid little tricks too. Just after the first battle, when Jack has been caught napping, the trampling of the crew, as heard from below, is really cleverly tracked from seemingly dizzying circles above your head. The sea, the wind and the elements all swirl with textured conviction around the speakers, sweeping in and engulfing you on occasion, falling back and receding at other times. The ship's bell and the lifting of the lid on Aubrey's dinner trays, the sound of a pencil sketching in a notebook and the knocking of nails - all little things that positively shine here with clear-as-a-whistle authenticity. And the phenomenal score - every note, every melody and the surging strings of the two pivotal moments seared by “Fantasia On A Theme By Thomas Tallis” ignited on the track with sincerity, warmth and a crystalline presence.

    Need I say more?

    One of the best and most intelligently designed soundtracks just got the boost that we hadn't really thought it needed in the first place ... but are now really glad that it did.

    Master and Commander Blu-ray Extras

    Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World Master and Commander Blu-ray Extras
    Fox scupper what could have been the prize in their considerable canon of releases with a severely lacklustre package so light on extras that it wouldn't just float, it would probably take off.

    Besides a new pop-up trivia track that is surprisingly few and far between with its nautical titbits and the BD-Java pop-up map that once kept this release in dry-dock, and rapidly loses its novelty value after a few glimpses, the only thing of any real value here are the 24-minutes of Deleted Scenes. Now this collection, it must be stated, are not often full scenes that seem to go anywhere. The majority of what we are presented with is set-montages taken on a themed basis. This is still eminently interesting stuff, though - provided you are up for more of this windswept, swaying atmosphere and weren't bored rigid by the main feature.

    The selection has a Play All option and is titled thus - Weighing Anchor, Shipboard Life, Superstition - which is actually a great spooky little set-piece when unearthly noises are heard at night and the crew become mightily unsettled - Dentistry - which offers some broad comedy - Articles Of War and Galapagos. Mainly chronicling the antics of the crew and how differing ranks go about their day and their free-time - tattoos and grog for the seamen, gunplay for the marines etc - this selection reveals how in-depth Peter Weir really went into putting O'Brian's prose onto the screen. One great segment lifted directly from the books has Crowe's Aubrey clambering around the ship and swimming beneath her to assess what repairs need to be done.
    All we get after this is the film's theatrical trailer (in hi-def) and some Fox On Blu-ray nods for The Day After Tomorrow, Eragon and Kingdom Of Heaven.

    Of course, real fans of the film will already have the original 2-disc Special Edition that came out a few years ago - and they, like me, will have to hang onto it until Fox eventually re-release the BD with all the booty that that had to offer.

    Is Master and Commander Blu-ray worth buying

    Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World Is Master and Commander Blu-ray worth buying
    There are plenty of people out there who aren't enamoured by Weir's adaptation and no amount of praise from the likes of me is going to convince them that his film is a masterpiece. That's fine, of course. But I will say that a production so elegantly mounted, so wonderfully acted, intelligently directed and so damn evocative that you can taste the salt in the air, feel the winds blowing across the stern and the swell of the sea beneath you can never, never be classed as a bore. Some claim that it is merely a history lesson in disguise. It is a history lesson - but there is certainly no disguise. This history lesson transports you back to an era that is notoriously difficult to evoke on screen with anything approaching credibility, and this conviction and dedication to detail - detail to a degree unparalleled by anything else - conveys something that most movies can never hope to emulate - total viewer immersion.

    It is a history lesson - but there is certainly no disguise

    Fox's long-delayed BD release - at least as far as the US and UK markets were concerned - loses out to the big guns with regards to special features, but slams a broadside into all comers when it comes to superlative audio transfers. Already mightily hailed as technical wonder of acoustic design on SD disc, Master And Commander now rules the seven seas of sound with its utterly majestic DTS-MA 5.1 track. Pure reference quality and a very high water-mark for others to follow. The image, on the other hand, is not the most scintillating available on the format, but - and this is the crucial thing - it is still very good indeed and leaves its SD cousin not quite dead, but barely conscious in the water.

    Like the sea, itself, Master And Commander is a thing of rare and unpredictable beauty, ferocity and bewitching tranquillity. It is not an easy voyage, but it is one that definitely worth taking. Despite setting adrift its raft of extras from the previous 2-discer, this release comes very highly recommended. Masterful filmmaking and a commanding achievement. For fans, this is absolutely essential.

    Suggested retail price when reviewed: £24.15

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