Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)

*. Here we go again with high production values, slick effects, and empty spectacle. Budget: $150 million! All for wonderful photography, great locations, top-of-the-line effects, and a script that is a shambles.
*. Even the title is a shambles. Who allowed that bifurcated monstrosity?
*. You might have thought the script would be better. It’s based not just on a popular novel, but a whole series of popular novels: the Patrick O’Brien books featuring Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin. But that’s also the problem. Instead of just filming one of the books the movie has put together a highlight reel of the best parts from several. The result is a mess.
*. It’s often referred to as a failed franchise, but given the expense of its production it would have had to have done astronomical box office to have made a sequel likely. And what would a sequel have given us that we don’t already have here? We’ve already seen the men rounding the Cape, the crew nearly in mutiny, a visit to an exotic location, a flogging, a chase, a surgery, a couple of battles . . . that pretty much covers the entire age-of-sail repertoire.
*. I wonder if it was anticipation of a sequel that led to the bizarre, confusing, and anticlimactic ending. What difference does it make that the French captain wasn’t dead? Was he going to re-take the Acheron? How?
*. Yes, it looks wonderful. Technically, it’s top-of-the-line. Oscar noms for art direction, costume design, sound mixing, visual effects, and statues for sound editing and cinematography. But I’m tired of movies that just look good. I’ve seen this movie a couple of times and I think I can say with confidence that I’ll never watch it again.
*. Of course, if you’re an eight-year-old boy then this is the movie for you. I like how the only women we (briefly) see are the ones who get a longing, lingering look from Captain Jack as they pass by on a small boat. It’s only a shot, but you know why it’s in there, don’t you? It’s there to let you know that Captain Jack isn’t gay! He may be at sea for years on end commanding a ship full of men (and cute boys), but he is not tempted. He yearns for female companionship.
*. Somewhere along the line Russell Crowe turned into an actor I just have trouble watching. When? Robin Hood? He’s competent as Ahab here, but it’s not a role that asks him to do much.
*. Peter Weir. What an odd career. Who would have thought he would have ended up here? From The Last Wave and Picnic at Hanging Rock to this. I wonder where his heart is. It’s often said of the film biz that first you make your money, then you make your art. Perhaps Weir was never all that interested in art. Honestly, seeing this, a film that took him years to bring to screen, makes me look back at his early films in a different light.
*. That lockerroom pep talk Captain Jack gives the troops is awful! This is a movie without any sense of irony. But I guess that’s what people are looking for in these troubled times.
*. It’s hard to get into the conflict between Aubrey and the Acheron because the French ship might as well be the Flying Dutchman, or a white whale. There’s no real villain to the piece.
*. I feel so old and out of touch with the cultural zeitgeist. Roger Ebert gave this movie four out of four stars. A. O. Scott named it the best movie of 2003. The Ebert hurts; Scott is someone I’m just never on the same page as. But really.
*. I guess I’d settle for calling this movie a professional, and very expensive, piece of entertainment and leave it at that.

2 thoughts on “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)

  1. Tom Moody

    Because it is Peter Weir I took this as an exercise in genre subversion. The battle scenes are confusing, insanely bloody, and short so we can get to the Galapagos for long slow shots of weird nature. Picnic at Hanging Plank. The Last Last Wave. Etc.
    I am re-reading the novels and Aubrey *is* Russell Crowe, in my mind’s eye. Maturin is not Paul Bettany, however. The movie also highlights — more than the novels — how bizarre it was to have teen and preteen midshipmen giving orders to old salts, and leaping courageously into fights where decks are raked by grapeshot fired from cannons. Max Pirkis as young Blakeney, losing an arm and still craving action, perfectly expresses these contradictions.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      Thanks Tom! It’s interesting thinking about this movie again nearly four years after posting these notes. The only thing I can remember about it is that trip to the Galapagos. The rest of it has pretty much disappeared. I’ll have to take your word for it that there was more here than I got out of it.


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