Ocean, the Final Frontier...

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Years ago, when Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World came out in theaters, I read a few different reviews that compared the movie to Star Trek. "Like Trek, but on the ocean," they read, and as far as basic comparisons are concerned, that's not entirely a silly way to look at it. For all its trappings of space and sci-fi, Trek is a pretty naval series. Ships floating through space, turning slowly and firing at each other in long, drawn-out combat. That's not really how space combat would work, not when ships are moving at any rate close to light speed, but because it's cinematic, that's how its filmed. Hell, most of the time the ships are filmed as if they existed on a 2D plane, to the point that one of the movies, Wrath of Kahn, made a big deal about how this was silly, calling out its own trope.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Of course, calling Master and Commander a version of Trek on the high seas is a comparison that really sells the naval adventure short. While on the surface they might seem similar, the two productions are concerned with very different stories. M&C (based on three books in a series of 20) relates the story of "Lucky" Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe), captain of the Surprise, an English vessel tasked with sailing the South Pacific (no, not the 1958 musical) in search of the Acheron, a French Privateer vessel and unofficial flagship of Napoleon's Pacific fleet. AN early encounter with the Archeron leaves the Surprise wounded and in need of repair, and a couple of near misses there-after test the skills and wits of Aubrey and his crew. It will take all their cunning and guile to get the best of the Acheron and claim her as a prize for England.

At its heart, M&C is a good naval yarn. Taking on the trappings of an action movie, there are plenty of ship-to-ship combat sequences (including a thrilling one that essentially opens the movie and sets the stakes) marked by damage, injuries, and losses. The early sequence, really, sets up so much of the movie's dynamics in quick fashion, from the command of the captain, to the skill and heart of the ship's Doctor, and captain's best friend, Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), as well as the various crew members and their duties. It's all handled deftly and gets you right into the life of the ship without having to take the time to slowly spell it all out for the audience. Considering the fact that I know next to nothing about naval whatevers (the closest I come to boating is watching people watch boats on TV from the comfort of my couch), I was surprised at how quickly I became invested in the life of the crew.

That's how the movie hooks you -- lure you in with the action, and the settle in to a period drama. By the time you realize it won't all be naval action all the time, you're already so deeply invested in the characters you don't care. Their lives are the meat of the story, and while the action is great, the plot of the film really is in the day-to-day of the crew.

A film like this doesn't work if there aren't good leads to guide it. Russell Crowe may be a dick off screen, but man can the dude play a good naval captain. Crowe is invested in his character, and it shows in ever second Aubrey is on screen. Whether as a tough-as-nails leader of the ship or during the quieter moments, consoling one of the young amidshipmen after a grievous injury, Crowe gets to play a wide range of emotions. The fact that they all feel like the same character regardless of the needs or the setting is what's impressive about the performance.

Of course, Aubrey is also a damn fine seaman and the story (and Crowe along with it) play the character very well. If we're doing a Trek comparison, Aubrey is the Surprise's Kirk, a deft hand at the wheel with a calculating mind that knows all the dirty tricks you can pull to win the day. You get the feeling that there's never been a "no-win scenario" Aubrey has ever had to face. It is in his name -- they don't call him "Lucky" without reason.

If Aubrey is the Kirk of the piece, his best friend is essentially the Spock and Bones all rolled into one. As written, the good Doctor is the captain's conscience, his sounding board, the voice of reason and restraint. He has many duties on the ship (and a few scientific pursuits on the side), but none is more important than keep the captain sane and reasonable. As played by Paul Bettany, the Doctor is likeable enough. While Crowe is a chameleon that can invest into most of the characters he played, 95% of the time it feels like Bettany is just playing a version of Bettany. I don't think this is the actor's fault, as the man is damn good at the character. More I think it's that he's type-cast for a certain agreeable sort of character, and he's just gotten very good at it at this point.

I focus on these two characters not because they're the only ones running the ship but more because there are so many other actors in small roles that it's hard to keep track of who they are, what they do, and their reason for being on the ship (beyond conscription, of course). While a movie overstuffed with characters would normally feel like too much, in this case it makes perfect sense. The ship has to literally be stuffed with crew for it to be realistic, and there just isn't time to get to know every person, their lives, their loves, and end the movie anywhere close to two-and-a-half hours. So we get glimpses of great characters played well by great actors and content ourselves with the little pieces of their lives.

Honestly, the biggest knock against the movie is that it's so obviously straining for a sequel that never came. While it did decently at the box office (around $250 Mil) it had a huge budget (north of $150 Mil). There just wasn't enough of a return on capital to make a sequel viable for the studio. This, despite a great cast, great pacing, and an ending that while good, still left a little wiggle room for further adventures. Clearly this was meant to be the first film in a franchise that just never came.

Still, as a single film of adventure (for king and country) on the high seas, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is glorious. Whether you think it Trek On the Ocean is up to you, but either way it's still a damn good flick.

Notes:
  • It's a period piece, so of course Russell Crowe is in it.
  • The battles are choppy and frenetic, but this is one of those times where it works to a movie's advantage.
  • Without even showing too much, that amputation scene is rough.
  • It's an interesting dynamic explored here, with sailors from younger early teens up through aged adults. The captain had to be a lot of different people for a lot of different sailors.
  • Captain: "If we can pull up straight and get up behind her, she may well be ours." Naval terminology is rather dirty.
  • So we have a hobbit, a future elder vampire, and Jarvis in the cast.
  • Oh, goodbye elder vampire. Tough break.
  • I just realized there are actually two Jarvises in this film. Paul Bettany, the voice of Jarvis in the movies, and James D'Arcy, the actor who played the elder Stark's butler on Agent Carter. If they could have found a way to cast a stark or Peggy Carter, this movie would be filled with MCU actors.