(out of 5)
Established but not quite yet venerated author Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) shows up at the home of an old tar (Brendan Gleeson) and begs to be told the story of a shipwreck he has heard was a near mythical adventure. Reluctant at first, Gleeson eventually spins a terrifying yarn of a whaling ship he crewed on as a young man, upon which the silver spooner captain (Benjamin Walker) and low class first mate (Chris Hemsworth) are at odds before the ship even sets sail. They have to put their differences aside when they experience the magnificence of a one hundred-foot white whale that destroys their boat and forces them to leave behind all dreams of whale oil and focus on surviving the rough seas. At that point, we learn that the men had to resort to some pretty horrific measures to make it through, a tale so awful that Melville would leave it out of the literary masterpiece that this tale would eventually inspire, and is ostensibly the reason why this story is now being told in this film (and the book by Nathaniel Philbrick upon which it is based). Sounds like the makings of a solid action drama, but bland writing and weak visual effects (very few shots involving whales look in the least bit real) are emphasized by Ron Howard’s lackluster direction for a film chock full of elements you got better versions of elsewhere. The trials of life at sea are more richly portrayed in Kon-Tiki, the difficulties of surviving many days on a life raft far more convincing in Unbroken, the minor encounters with whales in Life Of Pi and Cast Away achieved more than all the whale stuff here, and the clash of strong male personalities on a boat isn’t even close to what we got in Master And Commander. The whole film is brimming with missed opportunities: the experience of being inside the body of a whale, the eerie isolation of being alone in a vast ocean, the horrors of survival hardly make an impression; it’s impossible to know what the centre of the story is since Howard never lets anything actually be central, while the parts that are supposed to be the most devastating are squeamishly left off screen. In short, Howard is a filmmaker but he is not an artist, and his workmanlike approach to this story, about human souls who find something deeper than the bottom of the ocean on this ill-fated voyage, does it a great disservice.
Directed by Ron Howard
Cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle
Music by Roque Baños
Production Design by Mark Tildesley
Costume Design by Julian Day