Thar she blows! Based on the true story that supposedly inspired Moby-Dick, Ron Howard’s sea-faring adventure is a pleasingly old-fashioned tale of whaling and survival, anchored by solid performances and impressive special effects.
However, while there’s plenty of spectacle in the action sequences, the story itself is curiously dull and lacks the required emotional impact.
Based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s 2000 non-fiction book about the incident, the film opens in 1850, with author Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) tracking down former cabin boy Richard Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) and paying him a large sum of money in order to recount the harrowing story of the sinking of whaling ship the Essex.
We then flash back some 30 years to the events themselves, when Nickerson was a fresh-faced 14 year-old (played by Spider-Man-to-be Tom Holland) making his first voyage aboard the Essex, under the command of privileged, inexperienced Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) and his hardened seaman first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth). With the pressure on Pollard to return with a cargo full of whale oil, he sets out in pursuit of a pod of whales off the coast of Ecuador, but events take an unexpected turn when the Essex is sunk by a giant, seemingly malevolent white whale, leaving the crew stranded at sea.
This is essentially a film of two halves: the first is all storm-lashed, special effects-heavy sea-faring action, as Chase and co desperately try to stop the ship from sinking as the whale repeatedly attacks the boat. The second is a more straightforward tale of survival, as the starving sailors spend weeks adrift at sea, and have to decide whether to eat their dead crew members in order to stay alive. (There is also a period where the crew are marooned, Robinson Crusoe-style on a desert island, and it’s telling that they make the decision to take their chances on the ocean, since that’s the life they know).
Howard handles the action sequences extremely well, aided by state-of-the-art special effects and some of the best wind and rain machines in the business – with the 3D glasses on, you can practically feel the salt spray on your face. Similarly, the combination of digital effects, make-up and the actors’ real-life weight loss all combine effectively to make the sailors’ ordeal feel convincing.
Hemsworth is engagingly rugged as Chase, though the expected Mutiny-on-the-Bounty-like clash of egos between him and Pollard never really materialises, leaving their relationship feeling frustratingly under-written. Walker, in turn, is fine as Pollard and there’s strong support from both Holland (who, in the film’s best scene, has to climb inside a whale to scoop out the priceless oily blubber) and an impressively bearded Cillian Murphy as struggling-with-alcohol-issues second mate Matthew Joy.
However, in splitting the story into two distinct halves, the film loses some of the depth it might have had if it had chosen to explore either of the stories in more detail (it’s no surprise, you end up thinking, that Melville chose to focus on the whale instead of the survival stuff). The result is curiously flat, with the script oddly choosing to rush moments – such as the cannibalism decision – that should carry much more emotional weight.
In short, the performances and effects ensure that this is never less than watchable, but the script fails to give the characters any emotional depth.