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Spar trek
Master and Commander rules the waves
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
Directed by Peter Weir. Written by Peter Weir and John Collee based on the novels by Patrick O’Brian. With Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, James D’Arcy, Edward Woodall, Max Pirkis, Lee Ingleby, George Innes, Bryan Dick, David Threlfall, and Robert Pugh. A Universal, Twentieth Century Fox, and Miramax Films release (138 minutes). At the Boston Common, the Fenway, the Harvard Square, and the Chestnut Hill and in the suburbs.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is the best Star Trek movie ever made, only with the series switched from the 24th century to the 19th, and from Star Fleet Command to the British Navy. The H.M.S. Surprise, a 28-gun frigate, takes the place of the Starship Enterprise. In lieu of Captain Kirk (and with a touch of Scotty), Captain "Lucky" Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) mans the helm; jolly, ingenuous, shrewd, lusty, pun-loving, and brave, he’s the heart and soul of the vessel. His close friend Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany) combines the detached calculation and the scientific curiosity of Mr. Spock with the compassion and the common sense of McCoy; he’s the reflective intellect and conscience.

Their mission may be less humanistic than that of their futuristic colleagues — they’ve been sent to hunt down a French ship that’s attacking British whalers on the high seas. But there should be plenty of time between engagements for Dr. Maturin to seek out new species of iguanas while boldly strolling new worlds of unexplored archipelagos. Master musters all of Trek’s camaraderie and exhilaration; more important, it taps into the wit, irony, and exquisite literary grace of the late Patrick O’Brian, whom David Mamet, not without some justification, once called the greatest writer of the past 30 years. Peter Weir and co-screenwriter John Collee have grafted the first and 10th novels (Master and Commander and The Far Side of the World) of O’Brian’s 20-volume saga into a 138-minute tale that’s a lot more elegant than its compound title.

Retaining the episodic form and the sly exposition that provide much of the novels’ charm, the filmmakers nonetheless shape a compelling narrative, employing the strategy of The Far Side of the World, in which the nemesis is a Spanish vessel called the Cacafuego, and the tactics of Master and Commander, in which the foe is the American (!) man-of-war Norfolk. True to the anti-Gallic spirit of our times and the Napoleonic Wars of the period, these two ships combine in the film to become the infernal 48-gun French Acheron. The Surprise keeps getting, well, surprised by her more powerful opponent; each time she escapes through one of Jack’s gleefully ingenious ploys ("Now tell me that wasn’t fun!" he chortles after a particularly inventive deception). But despite his jovial disposition, he has a touch of the Ahab about him, and he’s driven to chase the Acheron beyond the authorization of his orders. He pushes his men to their limits; he strains his friendship with Stephen, almost ending it when he reneges on a promise to allow the doctor to tour the Galápagos (perhaps delaying the discovery of the theory of evolution by four decades in the process).

Weir breathes life into this loose-knit yarn with some of the most astounding and detailed renderings of 19th-century seafaring and warfare ever brought to the screen. The ship itself and its fittings and routines reek of authenticity, and the crew, though mostly backdrop to the principals, know their way around a chantey. Weir also brings something extra to O’Brian: a touch of the visionary. The Last Wave (1977) and The Truman Show (1998) were no strangers to aqueous imagery; here the startling shots include the distant, silent flash of a broadside illuminating a fogbank at night and the macabre ritual of a trepanning performed at sea under a tropical sun. Such moments evoke the uncanny beauty of both "the other side of the world" — i.e., the sea and the rest of untamed nature — and the orderly, fragile absurdity of the microcosm that bobs in it.

You could think of Master is the antithesis and the complement of Truman. In the former, the sea is real and the hero embraces it. In the latter, the sea is a figment and the hero fears it. But both protagonists yearn to go where they have never gone before, Truman to Fiji, Aubrey to wherever his quarry takes him. And the issue dramatized in both films is individual freedom versus the constraints of social responsibility. That and the gray area where ideals turn into the delusions of vanity, pride, and weakness — "the corruption of power," as Maturin puts it. All of which provides just enough ballast to keep this lighthearted craft on an even keel.

Issue Date: November 14 - 20, 2003
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