Quite an odd film. Though the marketing leaned hard on its connections to “Moby Dick”, the film itself only contains superficial connections to the novel, instead being a telling of the sinking of the ship Essex by the whale Mocha Dick. All actual historical events, though naturally the film contains dramatised events, interactions, character, and such. The framing device used is the most overtly “Hollywood” element.
The film was surprisingly true to the history though, which led to a very odd structure, as the actual progression of events in reality don’t conform easily to a satisfying traditional narrative structure one might find in a film. I don’t mean to say that the film is an accurate retelling of events, because it isn’t just that it’s a lot more accurate than I expected. The very end of the film, the last ten minutes or so, leans harder on the dramatised elements seemingly in an effort to bestow fulfilling character arcs upon the film that may not have been as clear in reality, but the vast majority of the third act follows events as they were described, and as such is a rather odd affair. The film essentially climaxes at the end of the first act, and becomes a strange, harrowing survival story after that. I quite liked it, but it’s a strange experience, and certainly unsatisfying if watched for as a typical adventure film, as the first act presents itself. The action sequence ending the first act is truly marvellous, a fantastic work of spectacle, and I think seeing the film for that alone wouldn’t be that strange.
The colour grading is also interesting; some scenes in the film are the yellowest I’ve seen a film go. There’s quite a dreamy vibe to some of these heavily tinted scenes, and while I wasn’t always sure why certain colours were employed, the visuals were usually quite pleasing. Director Ron Howard had a pretty good handle on the cast too, but a lot of the characters really aren’t all that interesting. The spectacle and novel elements of the history depicted here are the real draw; the men themselves are chiefly interesting because of what they went through.
The first act is an enjoyable adventure film, the second and third acts are visually interesting survival stories, but not hugely enjoyable as parts of the film. The framing device creaks (and is so wildly historically inaccurate and fairly useless narratively), and the writing often lets down the visuals of the film.
I wouldn’t call this a flat-out terrible film or anything, but it’s a frustratingly inconsistent one. I give it two bottles of whale oil, and a human heart.