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 whaling ship Essex by one exceedingly pissed-off creature of the deep–is that kind of adventure story.
The picture is sometimes wayward and unwieldy, its dialogue 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, 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, has an idea for a book and wants to learn more about the disaster from one of its few survivors. (Chase’s 1821 account of the event, Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-ship Essex, partly inspired Melville to write Moby-Dick.)
Of the 20 crew members aboard the Essex, only eight came home. They had endured some 90 days at sea, far off the coast of South America, with insufficient water and food rations. The tale is at times thrilling and distressingly bleak. (Howard is discreet in handling some of the grislier details, but you might think twice about taking younger or sensitive kids.) Mostly, though, Howard and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle capture the workaday routine of life at sea with brio. An early scene shows the crew setting sail, mapping out the process in a crisply edited mosaic of whirring, unspooling rope and snapping canvas. And in the finest sequence, Chase and crew pack into a small, tipsy-looking whaling boat to circle and kill their first whale. Heavy on CGI, this scene is a whaling reverie. Rainbow droplets of water dot 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, as well as integrity. We can’t re-create historical events exactly the way they happened, so why not make them into our dream of history? If the movies don’t give us that freedom, what does? When that whale is vanquished, Howard marks its death with a despairing visual: water from the poor creature’s blowhole is mingled with blood, splashing the men’s faces like unholy rain.
And then there’s the sperm whale who took down the Essex, a mottled-white leviathan with a mad, broad forehead and tiny, judgmental eyes–his side eye is something to be feared. He’s the uncompromising star, with 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.
Zacharek is TIME’s new film critic
This appears in the December 14, 2015 issue of TIME.
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