MASTER AND COMMANDER, which is subtitled THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD, is a rousing sea adventure starring Russell Crowe in another fine action role. Directed by Peter Weir (THE TRUMAN SHOW and WITNESS), it’s one of the more excellent features in 2003 that’s appropriate for teenagers. It’s certainly better than SCARY MOVIE 3 and TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, which have been attracting confused teenagers by the millions.
The movie opens in 1805 with the Captain of the HMS Surprise, Jack Aubrey, almost seeing his ship sunk by a French Napoleon ship, the Acheron. The Surprise has orders to stop the Acheron from making its way to the Pacific Ocean where it can find supplies and pirated booty for her French emperor, Napoleon, who controls most of Europe. The Acheron comes out of a fog to almost blast the Surprise out of the water.
After barely escaping by hiding in the fog itself, the Surprise hobbles to a nearby shoal, where Captain Aubrey intends to put his ship back into action. Aubrey pursues the Acheron around “the Horn” of South America. His best friend, however, Stephen Maturin, the ship’s surgeon played by Paul Bettany, begins to question whether Jack has not become obsessed with defeating the superior ship and her sneaky, resourceful captain.
Director Peter Weir is a master craftsman at creating atmosphere, whether it be an Amish village, a crazy reality TV show, or the strange religious beliefs of Australian aborigines. He does a superb job here of re-creating the period detail of the sea battles and human struggles during the Napoleonic Wars between England and France.
Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany, who worked together on A BEAUTIFUL MIND, have established an acting rapport that brings to life the characters from two of late author Patrick O’Brian’s 20 “Aubrey/Maturin” novels. The New York Times has called these novels “the best historical novels ever written.” On screen, Crowe plays the gregarious Captain Aubrey with his usual insightful panache, and Bettany plays Dr. Maturin with an earnest, sarcastic pensive quality. They establish the kind of respectful, friendly, but tense, relationship that made the original STAR TREK series so beloved, where the spaceship Enterprise and her leaders were often compared to seagoing vessels, captains, and officers just like the HMS Surprise. Apparently, the late Patrick O’Brian has established a similar passionate following with his own stories.
What makes this movie really take off, however, is a superb little performance by young Max Pirkis, who plays a very young midshipman named Blakeney. Blakeney suffers a personal tragedy early in the movie, and the story follows him as he recovers from that tragedy and becomes friends with Dr. Maturin, with whom he shares an interest in biology. Dr. Maturin becomes a mentor to the young midshipman, who also greatly admires Captain Aubrey, though their relationship is a little more distant. This subplot brings color and depth to all the action. Max Pirkis deserves great credit for handling such an important minor role so well, and Weir deserves credit for not letting the subplot overwhelm the story between his two stars, Crowe and Bettany.
MASTER AND COMMANDER contains wonderful storm sequences and great sea battles, with lots of action and some violence. Regrettably, there is one “f” word and one GD, and some light obscenities and light profanities. Although the violence is not excessive, there are scenes of implied medical surgery. Director Weir cuts away from such scenes, or views them from long distance, before they get too gruesome, however.
On the positive side, the movie has a very strong moral worldview, which is supplemented by some very strong Christian elements, including important positive references to Jesus Christ, God, and the Lord’s Prayer. These Christian elements come a little late in the movie to make it a Christian worldview, but they will help the movie reach out to the massive Christian audience and other moviegoers who admire Jesus Christ and some of his teachings. The movie is not preachy about these things, however. The emphasis is on action and personal relationships.
Some minor negative elements take the edge off the movie’s positive qualities. For instance, in one subplot, a crewman begins to think he has been cursed by the other crewmembers, who blame him for the ship’s troubles. He’s a “Jonah” they say, someone who has somehow offended God and brings doom upon other people aboard a ship. Also, one of the main desires of Dr. Maturin is to visit the Galapagos Islands and study the unique creatures and fauna there. Captain Aubrey’s pursuit of the French ship keeps interfering with the surgeon and budding naturalist’s desires. This plot is an oblique reference to the work of Charles Darwin, who developed his false theory of evolution by visiting the Galapagos. The movie does not mention evolution, however, and Dr. Maturin acknowledges God by mentioning Him at least once and by joining in during one important Christian ritual.
The language, violence, and minor negative elements require caution for children. MASTER AND COMMANDER is probably appropriate, however, for most teenagers. As usual, parents need to take an active role and decide which of their children can see this movie.
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SUMMARY: MASTER AND COMMANDER, which is subtitled THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD, is a rousing sea adventure set in 1805, starring Russell Crowe in another fine action role as the captain of a British fighting ship crossing cannons with a French ship serving Napoleon. Except for some foul language, violence, and minor negative elements, the movie contains great period detail, excellent direction, fine performances, wonderful effects, and strong, positive Christian references.
(BBB, CCC, Pa, PPP, AP, H, LL, VV, N, AA, D, M) Very strong moral worldview plus some very strong Christian elements such as positive references to Jesus Christ, bodily resurrection, the Last Judgment, the Bible, forgiveness, the entire Lord’s Prayer, man twice says God bless you, and man says God speed to another man, and superstitious pagan content where men think one man is cursed, and they drive him to suicide, and movie strongly supports patriotism, but hero’s friend questions his personal motives and says patriotism often leads to tyranny, and one character seems to have the beginnings of a humanist scientific ideology when ship visits islands where Darwin forged his humanist theories on evolution, but character accepts the existence of God; about 12 obscenities, including one “f” word, one GD, five or six light exclamatory profanities, and sailors get seasick and vomit during one storm; strong action violence and implied medical violence includes sea battles such as shells hitting ships and hurting men, man suffers head wound, gunshot wound, implied amputation, some blood on men injured during war, man removes bullet from his own stomach, suicide, sword fights, hand-to-hand combat, sailors fire guns and rifles at one another during battle scene, and images of blood on floor while doctor operates on wounded soldiers; no sex, but captain says, “To wives and sweethearts, may they never meet” and officer commands sailor off screen to let go of woman from bay that ship briefly visits; upper male nudity; alcohol use and drunkenness; smoking; and, nothing else really objectionable.
GENRE: Historical Drama