Naval Gazing

Master of His Domain: Russell Crowe as Captain "Lucky" Jack Aubrey.Photo: Stephan Vaughan

Seafaring movies, like westerns, are the beneficiaries of nostalgia: No matter how timeworn or silly they may seem, their basic appeal remains. The familiarity of the tales and settings can be a kind of balm; the epaulets and gold braid and extra rations of rum, the mizzens and broadsides and bosuns are essential elements of that storybook that has been playing out in our minds since childhood. Over the summer, Pirates of the Caribbean, though cluttered and hyper-frenetic, brought back some of the lush and spooky beauty of the genre and served up Johnny Depp’s gloriously fey brigand, who satisfied and confounded our pirate-movie expectations all at once.

Peter Weir’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, adapted from two of the twenty novels in Patrick O’Brian’s marvelous naval saga set during the Napoleonic Wars, is about Captain “Lucky” Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) and his engagements with an enemy French ship off the east coast of South America and around the Galápagos Islands. It’s not as imaginatively freewheeling a swashbuckler as Pirates of the Caribbean, and it never achieves the visual elegance or majesty that a David Lean might have provided. The story line isn’t the freshest. And yet the film is satisfying all the same. Modern action movies, made at a time when astonishing special effects have become commonplace, usually favor computer-generated derring-do over character, but Weir strikes a healthier balance. The sea battles, while exhilarating, are subordinate to the shipmates’ stories.

Master and Commander presents itself as a civilized entertainment about (mostly) civilized people; Aubrey is no Bligh, though I am happy to report that, despite his steadying, benevolent presence aboard the good ship Surprise, he does order a mate flogged for insubordination. (All swashbucklers should contain at least one flogging scene.) Aubrey regards war as a kind of gentleman’s bloodsport; when he first clashes with the Acheron and pronounces himself “solidly beaten” by the French, there’s a trace of admiration for the enemy in his admission. Aubrey’s close friend and ship’s doctor, Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), cautions the captain that his desire to capture the Acheron borders on obsession, but Aubrey is never in danger of going Ahab. That would have made for a very different (and to my mind, richer) movie. In this one, Aubrey and Maturin cool down by playing classical violin and cello duets. Somehow they keep their instruments in tune in the briny air.

Looking chunky, his hair in a ponytail beneath his voluminous hat, Russell Crowe takes easy command of the movie. He’s not an actor of great depth, but he has a gift for revealing the subtle gradations of feeling in staunch, closed-off characters. When Aubrey presents a book about naval legend Lord Nelson to a boy officer (Max Pirkis) who has just had an arm amputated, there’s intelligence, and a tender indulgence, in his gesture. (Nelson had an arm amputated as well.) Other times—as when Aubrey explodes at Maturin for jeopardizing the pursuit of the Acheron by lingering in the Galápagos to collect flora and fauna—we can see quite clearly the captain’s flicker of remorse following the outburst. Aubrey and Maturin are a classic combo: the old-school warrior and the man of the Enlightenment. Except that the captain’s martial temperament is complicated somewhat by his sensitivities, and the doctor swings a mean sword—and scalpel. (At one point, with no other surgeon available, he successfully treats his own bullet wound.) The men’s friendship is the heart of the movie, as it is in O’Brian’s books.

Weir’s steadfast allegiance to the tropes of the seafaring genre is why Master and Commander is so winning. It’s also the reason it rarely soars. On a conceptual level, nothing in this movie surprises, or is meant to. The film is an immersion tank of old-movie memories and attitudes about heroism and fighting the good fight. As soothing as this can be, it’s not enough—at least not for those of us who want more from movies than the reassurance of remembered enjoyments recast with new faces. In times of war, there is something derelict in the spectacle of a filmmaker as gifted as Weir offering up varnished portraits of fighters. The director of Gallipoli and The Year of Living Dangerously has muffled the rage and darkness of his best work in favor of an antiquated pleasingness. Master and Commander is a too-comfy classic.

The Matrix Revolutions begins with Keanu Reeves’s Neo lying comatose as the Machines prepare to obliterate Zion. Soon Neo snaps out of it, but my question is this: How are we supposed to tell the difference? I dutifully set about preparing for this concluding episode in the Matrix trilogy by boning up on all the lore I’ve never quite gotten straight from the last two. And then I decided, why bother? Judging from Revolutions, the Wachowski brothers may have thought the same thing. This final installment jettisons most of the Zen mumbo-jumbo from the first two movies in favor of lots of very loud explosions. Since I didn’t take the mumbo-jumbo seriously to begin with, my letdown was minor, but aficionados may feel like they’ve been played for suckers. To have come all this way only to be fobbed off with interdimensional shoot-’em-ups!

Neo goes toe-to-toe—again—not only with stretch-mouthed Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) and his many doubles but ultimately with the shape-shifting Deus Ex Machina itself, in Machine City. Meanwhile, the humans in Zion are under attack from those pesky mechanical octopi, the Sentinels, who appear to have cornered the universal market in drill bits. Periodically, we flash to old standbys Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith), looking super-sullen and royally pissed off, respectively. Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) is back in basic black. She and Neo remain officially an item, which I never thought a good idea: They were so much hotter when they were striking runway poses and shooting each other blank glances.

How did the Matrix movies devolve into this great big cacophonous action-movie mess? Maybe Hollywood simply can’t sustain a concept—especially a dubious one—for very long without crashing into its very own Machine City of mechanical plotlines and special effects. (But the Lord of the Rings trilogy is doing just fine so far.) The first Matrix was hailed as a revolutionary popular entertainment for the 21st century. Whatever one makes of that assessment, I think it’s safe to say that the enduring legacy of the series will be in the realm of fashion, not metaphysics.

After the powerful Amores Perros, and his harrowing contribution to the omnibus movie September 11, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 21 Grams is a comedown. It’s forceful, to be sure, but in a lurid way that suggests a telenovela that’s been baking in the sun too long. Sean Penn plays a sickly, prickly mathematician who is rejuvenated by a heart transplant. His marriage, however, is still on the rocks. “I thought you’d change after the transplant!” says his wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and it’s just one of many post-operative indignities he must close his ears to. He seeks out the identity of his heart donor, which leads him to Naomi Watts’s Cristina, a reformed drug addict whose own family life has been upended by horrendous tragedy. Entwined in all this is the story of Jack (Benicio Del Toro), an ex-convict who has found Jesus, though his wife (Melissa Leo) liked him better before. A car accident ties the stories together in somewhat the same way as in Amores Perros, which was also written by Guillermo Arriaga. But that film was like an incendiary device; 21 Grams—the title refers to the weight one supposedly loses upon death, the weight of the soul—sputters out in a farrago of flashbacks and flashforwards and flashinbetweens. The one signal achievement is Del Toro’s performance, which is ferocious and hearty. No transplant needed here.

Naval Gazing