I have to admit that I am a bit of a sucker for both this time period in general, as well as nautical adventures as a whole. Taken in this context, this film does everything just about right. There is lots of action - from exploding cannon shot tearing mizzenmasts apart, to frenetic hand to hand combat (almost too frenetic - shades of the battle against the Germanians in "Gladitaor"). Lots of gore (two difficult scenes to watch for someone as girlie as me were where a young officer's arm is amputated, and another where the doctor removes a musket ball from his own stomach). Lots of comraderie (the crux of this manifests itself in the friendship between Capt. Aubrey, and the doctor, Maturin, who also played Russell's imaginary bud in "A Beautiful Mind"). Perhaps most impressive, in this day and age of CGI, are the special effects. This was obviously shot on a real ship. I don't know if the ship was actually bobbing on the waves or not, but it sure looked like it was. Obviously there were some computer effects here, but I couldn't catch them. Usually CGI is exposed by its weightlessness (when Spiderman bounds from building to building, he looks like he weighs nothing - and he doesn't in computerland) - however, here, the HMS Surprise doesn't coast through the waves (as in the A&E "Horatio Hornblower" series, or even in "A Perfect Storm" and "Pirates of the Carribbean"), it plows! For 2 hours and 18 miniutes, I believed that I was on the open sea.
The two faults one might find with this film, were to my mind strengths. For one, a lot of time is spent watching the men working. Hauling on this, keeling on that, tying, pulling, and speaking in a language that might as well be foreign. But I love that stuff. There is very little in the way of a musical soundtrack, and the audio is mainly devoted to the constant sounds a ship makes. The creaking of the boards, the sounds of men sleeping in uncofortable bunks, the lonely tolling of a ship's bell. Wonderfully evocative sounds. This will sound great on DVD, and deserves a DTS treatment (when there is a musical score, it is great - mainly punctuated by the duet of cello and violin).
The other fault is that it is hopelessly earnest. Life on the ocean isn't glamorised, but the service is. Aubrey is a man of honour and bravery, who wholeheartedly believes in the service he has devoted his life to. There is never any question that God has ordained England to be on His side against that dastardly Napoleon. It is a time of the perfect english gentleman - genteel and refined on land, yet savage to one's enemy at sea. There is little cynicism in Capt. Jack. His companion, Dr. Maturin does add some balance. He is not 100% devoted to King and country. There are definite shades here of Star Trek - the intrepid captain, being counseled by his somewhat disenfranchised, but brilliant doctor (Star Trek was based on Horatio Hornblower, although I don't recall if there was a doctor in that or not - I have only read one book). Together they argue, debate, and play classical music together.
I am almost loathe to say it, but Russell Crowe has done it again. The man knows how to pick material. I don't know that this is an Oscar-worthy performance but he has yet again strapped himself boldly to a part where he is allowed to carry the film almost entirely on his own. He did it in The Insider, Gladiator, and A Beautiful Mind (and arguably, Proof of Life, which I quite liked, even though no one else did - particularly Dennis Quaid), and he's done it again here.
The film probably isn't perfect. It's not Star Wars. Or Jaws. Or The Godfather. But it is everything you really need from the movies. Solid, fun entertainment.
Now, back to my original warning. Why be wary? Well, they've obviously establishes the premise and characters that could be long running. There could easily be a sequel (or prequel) to this film. Unlike the Matrix, or Back to The Future, which produced not one, but two unnecessary sequels, one easily believes that there are endless adventures in store for Aubrey and Maturin. Why? Well, because this film is based on one of the books by Patrick O'Brien - specifically "The Far Side of the World", which was actually the 10th in the Capt. Jack Aubrey series (the first was entitled "Master and Commander". The film semi-follows the 10th book only but studio execs were wary of the title, so they also used the first one). And there were 10 that followed that one! From what I have read the books are just excellent. So while Miramax-Universal-20th Century Fox (was the movie really that expensive that they needed THREE studios to finance it?!?) may indeed plan a sequel, I don't think I can wait that long. I plan to delve into the first book. But then, what if I like that? Then the second...then the third. And I'm not done until I have read 9,000 pages about the 19th century British navy!!!! Previously I have only read "Commodore Hornblower" and "Mutiny on the Bounty".
What have I got myself into?