Billed as “The True Story Behind Moby Dick”, Ron Howard’s latest shines when it sticks to the truth, but suffers from his creative embellishments.
“Moby-Dick” was certainly based on the story of a rogue whale sinking the Essex in 1820. But as Ron Howard tells it, Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) himself sought out one of the last remaining survivors, Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), and persuaded him to reveal what happened to the Essex personally. In reality, the story of a whale sinking the ship, and the horrors the crew experienced afterwards, were already public knowledge, as one of the other survivors had published a book on his ordeal in late 1821. Apparently Howard doesn’t believe the story is strong enough to stand on its own, so employs the caricature of a popular writer hook the audience. Creative license is almost always necessary, but to undercut an already amazing story with unnecessary contrivances only serves to weaken it.
As Nickerson begins to painfully retell the events of that fateful voyage, we are introduced to the Captain of the Essex, George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) and his first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth). Chase had been promised a ship of his own, but instead has been forced to serve under the inexperienced Pollard which leads to predictable tension. Fortunately this crew have sailed with him before, and he is respected by all, and friends with one in particular, Matthew Joy. (Cillian Murphy)
Almost a third of the movie trudges by before things get good. It’s not just the tedious setup and introductions required by most films of this nature, but the way everything is presented. Lacking Ron Howard’s usual charm, the film is clunky in almost every way. Editing, dialog, bad CGI, a silly montage of mast-climbing and seafaring-lingo-flinging. Right when we believe hope is lost, the alabaster demon appears and the tone of the film shifts. While there are still moments of “clunkiness”, it’s finally intriguing and the crew’s plights begin to draw us in. Even the CGI seems to get better for the second half of the film. It’s as if the first act was seen as a necessary evil that no one cared about, and Howard put his heart only into the remaining two acts. This shift can be seen once the nightmarish “whale fat rendering scene” aboard the Essex begins.
Oddly, the film is being promoted as a 3D Imax experience, for one week only, when in reality it was neither filmed with Imax or 3D camera. The heavy handed 3D Post conversion tried cranking the depth up to 11, which results in the most foreground objects obscuring the frame in the history of film.
While most of this review may sound negative, this isn’t a bad movie. It’s just frustrating at times. For every moment that doesn’t work, there is another moment that is breathtaking. The source story is fascinating and true! If Howard hadn’t relied on so many gimmicks, this could have been a new seafaring epic.