Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 2 min.
Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 4; Language 1; Sex /Nudity 0.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
Some went down to the sea in ships,
doing business on the great waters…
Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.
Director Ron Howard’s “story behind the story” adventure drama is framed by writer Herman Melville’s (Ben Wishaw) visit to old Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) seeking information about the whaling ship Essex. Three decades earlier the fill-fated whaling ship had been lost in the Pacific Ocean, said to have been destroyed by a giant whale bent on vengeance. The obviously troubled sailor refuses to be interviewed, but then his wife (Michelle Fairley), seeing this as an opportunity for healing his anguished mind, intervenes, and the old man reluctantly relates the story that eventually becomes the novel Moby Dick.
Nantucket whaler Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), eking out a living as a farmer between voyages, assures his worried wife that their lives will be improved when he is given his promised captaincy. However, the owners have given command of the Essex to George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) a prestigious nautical family, rather than to a “landsman.” Promised a command “the next time,” Chase reluctantly sets sail, and soon the two are clashing. The seasoned Chase questions Holland’s decision to sail fully rigged into a gale, but the Captain claims he wants to “test the men.” Only Chase’s skillful handling of rig and crew saves the ship from being destroyed. The two settle into a truce, their hostility contained for a while.
A sperm whale is sighted, and the chase in the small boats commences, ending with the harpooned creature hauled alongside the ship for the bloody work of extracting its oil. During this young Nickerson (Tom Holland plays him as a youth) is forced to climb inside the smelly carcass because he is the smallest of the crew. During the next few months they spot no further whales spotted, so the ship sails around South America to the Pacific. Along the way they encounter a Spanish captain who reports the location of a pack of whales, but that there is a “demon whale.” Paying no heed to what they regard as a myth, they pursue the pack. However, as warned, a huge white whale attacks, overturning the small boats and damaging the mother ship so that its lanterns set the whale oil afire. The men are truly cast into the heart of the sea.
What happens afterward aboard the small boats is a nightmare mixture of courage, seamanship, and desperate measures to stay alive after their food runs out. And horror, not just because this means the men descend to an animal level, but the great white whale has followed them, apparently intending to wreak vengeance.
As he tells his tale, including the horror of cannibalism, the telling has the effect Mrs. Nickerson had hoped, the old man now apparently able to move beyond his deeply embedded guilt. (There is more to his tale, including the crew’s eventual return home and the decision that Capt. Pollard has to make when the honest and straight forward Chase refuses the ship owners’ demand that at the inquest they leave out the part about the vengeful whale lest it harm the industry.) As they part, Nickerson asks what Melville will use in his book. The writer’s response is that he will “add some, and leave out others.” Those who read Melville’s novel will see that the writer kept his promise, some critics suggesting that the inclusion of the crew’s cannibalism would have been too much for 19th century readers.
The film is a powerful sea-going adventure, with a bit of an anti-business theme that will warm the hearts of those bewailing Wall Street excesses. (See The Big Short, reviewed later in this issue.) I loved the portion showing the sailors’ getting the ship ready to sail out of the harbor. Accompanied by stirring music, it reminded me of both the one in Plymouth Adventure, set a century earlier, and of one hundreds of years in the future, the readying of the S.S. Enterprise in the first Star Trek MOVIE. There is also the intriguing moment of grace\when Owen Chase, harpoon poised to strike stares literally eye to eye at the great whale. This ought to give viewers plenty to think about and discuss concerning our relationship to nature and its creatures.
This review with discussion questions is in the Jan. 2016 Visual Parables.