In olden times—and not in a galaxy far, far away but in this one—boys and sometimes girls would thrill to tales of adventure set in the jungle, in the old west, on the surface of a highly imaginary Mars or, perhaps best of all, on the high seas: where men brave enough to set out in fragile wooden vessels would find themselves at the mercy of disgruntled sea beasts and capricious weather patterns. Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea—adapted from Nathaniel Philbrick’s rousing 2000 book of the same name, about the 1820 destruction of the whaleship Essex by one exceedingly pissed-off creature of the deep—is that kind of adventure story.
The picture is sometimes wayward and unwieldy, its dialog creaky and awkward, like an amateur’s attempt at scrimshaw. (“It’s he,” says one whaler. “Yes, it’s him all right,” says another.) But in a movie climate rife with superhero reboots and rehashings of childhood favorites, it’s a small marvel that In the Heart of the Sea exists at all. Who cares anymore about the sea, or sailors, or whales who decide, with an almost Biblical vengeance, that it’s payback time? Howard cares, and his movie, flawed as it is, is so unfashionable that it’s almost gallant. Chris Hemsworth and Benjamin Walker star as Owen Chase and George Pollard Jr., first mate and captain, respectively, of the doomed Essex. Chase, an experienced whaler, had hoped for the captain’s post. Pollard, the son of an esteemed officer, has merely inherited the job, and the two men clash. Pollard has no natural leadership capabilities. Chase has the crew’s respect from day one. He makes it his duty to toughen up the ship’s greenhorn first mate, teenager Thomas Nickerson (Tom Holland), at one point sending the timid, smallish lad down into the cavelike head of the crew’s first kill, the better to extract every drop of precious oil from its stinky, mucusy interior.
That kid will grow up to be a dissolute man who spends his nights drinking and then obsessively erecting miniature ships in the empties—he’s played by Brendan Gleeson, and when we first meet him, in the movie’s opening, the Essex tragedy is 30 years behind him and haunting him still. He’s visited in his Nantucket home by a bewhiskered, thoughtful-looking fellow who, it turns out, is Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw, who has the face of an ardent listener, inquisitive and receptive). Melville, formerly a whaler himself, has an idea for a book and wants to learn more about the Essex disaster from one of its few survivors. (It was Chase’s 1821 account of the event, Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-ship Essex, that inspired Melville to write Moby-Dick.)
Of the 20 crewmembers who escaped the Essex before it sank, only eight survived. They’d endured some 90 days at sea, far off the coast of South America, with insufficient water and food rations. The tale Nickerson spins for Melville, as dramatized by Howard, is sometimes thrilling and elsewhere distressingly bleak: Although Howard is discreet in handling some of the grislier details, you might think twice about taking younger or overly sensitive kids. Mostly, though, Howard and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle capture the workaday routine of life on a ship with great brio—an early scene shows the crew setting sail, mapping out the process in a crisply edited mosaic of whirring, unspooling rope and canvas snapping sharply in the wind. The finest sequence is one in which Chase and members of the crew, packed into a small, tipsy-looking whaleboat, circle and kill their first whale. Heavy on CGI, this scene is a whaling reverie, not a realistic depiction of how it all must have really gone down. Rainbow droplets of water splash against a sky of painted clouds as the men, balanced in their little boat, stab away at their quarry with harpoons. The scene has a storybook glow, like an N.C. Wyeth illustration, and it has integrity. We can’t re-create historical events, so why not make them into something else, our dream of history? If the movies don’t give us that freedom, what does? When that whale is finally vanquished, Howard marks the chilling finality of the act with a despairing visual: The water the poor creature sprays from its blowhole is mingled with blood, splashing the men’s faces like unholy rain.
In the Heart of the Sea is a classic man-vs.-nature story. And what men! Cillian Murphy, as second mate Matthew Joy, is the most comfortable with the movie’s labored dialogue, making it seem as natural as the curl of a wave, and he has just the right look for a 19th-century seaman: his cheeks are ruddy as if perpetually wind-burned, his eyes bleached pale by the sun. Hemsworth, his brawn packed into a stiff coat and breeches, looks more like a Chippendale’s version of a whaler than a real one—but then, what New England whaleship couldn’t use just a touch of glamour? And then there’s the sperm whale that took down the Essex, smashing it with such fury that the vessel quickly took water and then, thanks to its intensely flammable cargo, burst into floating flames worthy of a J.M.W. Turner canvas. In Howard’s vision, this brute is a mottled-white leviathan with a mad, broad forehead and tiny, judgmental eyes—his side-eye is something to be feared. Decisive and elusive, he’s the movie’s uncompromising star. He has no clue that the movie around him is out of fashion, and what does he care if it is? The courage of his conviction makes all the difference.
Stephanie Zacharek is TIME’s new film critic