By Rob Scherf
After the staggering success of last summer’s Pirates of the Caribbean, it seemed almost inevitable that we would see a glut of seafaring copycat blockbusters on the cinematic horizon. Sure enough, a scant four months after the release of Pirates of the Caribbean, Miramax has unleashed Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, an obtusely titled Napoleonic War epic that, thanks to a script completely devoid of anything but excruciatingly long naval battles, manages to make its two-hour running time feel twice as long.
British war hero sea captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) is tasked with the sinking of a French frigate that’s inexplicably been joyriding off the coast of Brazil for several months. When Aubrey and crew show up for what would seem to be an easy score, they find the ship they’ve been stalking is actually the strongest and fastest ever built, and are thrust into the thick of a cat-and-mouse chase all over the South Atlantic.
Along for the ride are the ship’s bleeding heart doctor (Paul Bettany), sympathetic Haley Joel Osment lookalike (Max Pirkis) and a whole ship’s worth of nameless seamen, most of whom seem to exist solely to be killed by cannon fire after telling heart-wrenching stories about the poor families they have waiting for them back home.
Aside from a torturous subplot about the healing power of nature on man’s soul, writer/director Peter Weir keeps all his action confined to Aubrey’s ship, the HMS Surprise. What could have been a delicious cinematographic study of claustrophobic living (see Das Boot) has instead been photographed almost completely from the outside. Weir fetishizes the spirit of open sea with panorama after panorama, and ship flyby after ship flyby.
Sure, a beast of a boat like the fictional HMS Surprise deserves a few awe inspiring wide-angle views, and Master and Commander’s production team certainly needed a way to justify their $135 million budget, but endless, masturbatory clips of sailing ships are best confined to the History Channel.
Even when the action begins, Weir is dead set on dedicating whole scenes to boats slowly sailing around each other, rather than letting us watch them get utterly destroyed. A naval war film without the gratuitous destruction of ships, or the grievous loss of hundreds of lives at sea? What is this?
So, in a war movie without any action, message or even decent photography, what’s left to enjoy? Not much. But Weir gives it the old college try.
He’s drawn Captain Aubrey as a hard drinker, a brilliant naval strategist and a devoted husband. Oh, and he also plays the violin. Not one to shy away from ornate soliloquies or inspiring speeches delivered in the wake of lost battles, Aubrey would be a somewhat exciting character if he weren’t so damn cliched.
The supporting cast, what little of them are actual characters, is suitably unoriginal. Young and idealistic Lieutenant, check. Unfairly hated officer who goes crazy, check. Doctor who wants all the killing to end, check.
Weir’s dogged, insipid writing seems to serve no other purpose than to make Master and Commander’s battle scenes look zestful by comparison.
It’s a nice try, but discerning ticket buyers should keep The Far Side of the World a long, long way away.