Not a SF film today but rather one with a great big whale in it, which is always a plus.
The Essex is a whaleship from Nantucket in the early nineteenth century and the film tells the story of its destruction by a sperm whale and the survival of its crew. As a broad sketch this is a true story https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Essex_%28whaleship%29 and accounts by survivors of the Essex helped inspire Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.
But we don’t got to see Hollywood films for historical accuracy or documentary attention to details. Suffice to say that the key characters were real people and the Essex was sunk by a whale and the survivors ended up adrift in their boats and resorted to cannibalism and that by itself is an interesting frame for a story.
So what does Ron Howard make of this story? Firstly he adds a framing device in which, many years later, Herman Melville (Ben Winshaw) is seeking accounts of the sinking of the Essex and persuades the last remaining survivor Thomas Nickerson (In the framing story played by Brendan Gleeson and in the main story by Tom Holland) who served as a cabin boy on the the ill-fated voyage.
It is around this point that the movie gets a bit lost.
In the flashback we are introduced to the hero of the tale; First Mate of the Essex, Owen Chase played by Chris Hemsworth in full matinee idol mode. Hemsworth swashes buckles and does the manly-man thing well. His character is ambitious, competent but feels thwarted by the close-knit family ties of the Nantucket whaling community of which he is a relative newcomer.
Expecting a commission as captain Owen Chase is disappointed to find that he will only serve as First Mate to an inexperienced Captain, George Pollard (played by Benjamin Walker) from an established whaling family. Here the film tacks into a different sea-faring cliche – conflict between a less than competent Captain and a senior officer.
Once out to sea we are treated to Chase/Hemsworth vaulting through the rigging (because we need a bit of swashbuckling) and then the ship running into a storm semi-disastrously because of Captain Pollard’s unwillingness to listen Chase’s seasoned advice. The dramatic tension builds!
…and then gets forgotten. The problem is that this story isn’t actually either a swashbuckling one or a mini-Mutiny on the Bounty one and both these approaches aren’t sustainable. Ron Howard seems to have put them in because that is what sailing ship movies are supposed to have.
The film works better in the first half when it focuses on whaling. Here Howard strikes a clever balance between a modern audiences natural horror at the slaughter of the whales and showing the men of the Essex taking pride in their work and doing their best to make a living. There is a suggestion of both Pollard and Chase being motivated by greed but here again Howard finds himself a bit torn by his need to present Chase as a straight-forward hero. This is a shame as it robs Hemsworth of the opportunity to show off his acting range and thematically it makes little sense. This is a film that will later include people stuck on a tiny boat drawing lots to work out who is going to get eaten and you don’t get to sustain a character in a simple heroic mode in such circumstances.
Finding the normal whaling grounds sparse, the Essex heads out deep into the Pacific. There they find a cornucopia of whales – enough for the ship and crew to make their fortune. At this point the other kind of ship story comes into play – the one that has already been referenced quite overtly – Moby Dick!
A strangely colored sperm whale first partly demolishes Owen Chases whaleboat. After Chase gets that boat back to the Essex, the whale then mounts a full on attack on the ship itself. Damaged below the water line the ship begins sinking and there is a desperate attempt by the crew to rescue supplies and outfit the whale boats with sails so that they can survive.
The final section of the film recounts the long voyage of survival of the remaining crew. It is tense and disturbing but the cannibalism is not sensationalized or gory.
Altogether, the film passes the time and none of it is bad per-se. Visually it is effective, although Howard uses lots of shots with food or animal flesh centered in the foreground of the shot as a visual motif that doesn’t quite work.
Not a great film. Decent cast (oddly mainly British or Irish) and some exciting sections and some genuine dramatic tension and horror but somehow not entirely stitched together right.