Wednesday 30 December 2015


(Ron Howard, 2015)

Ron Howard's Meh-factor cannot be denied. Doesn't matter what the raw material is. The story which allegedly inspired Moby Dick? About a whaling vessel sunk 2000 miles out in the Pacific by a vengeful white whale , so that its crew had to drift for months in small boats, enduring starvation and eventual cannibalism in order to survive? That kind of yarn should make a cracking movie. Howard turns in an ok one.
A cast of exciting British and Irish thespians, from old hands like Brendan Gleeson and Cillian Murphy to youngsters like Tom Holland? Should be creating a savage, human drama. Here their characters seem like the plainest of archetypes, and the actors work overtime to make more of them than that. A genuine movie star with charisma and acting ability, in Chris Hemsworth?  He never really seems less than that, dominating the film with his athleticism and presence, even if his character too is defined by a single trait - a terrible temper. That temper leads him to make a decision in the heat of his first confrontation with the great whale; one which he might regret.
He plays Owen Chase (a hero must have a heroic name), first mate on the Essex, a whaling ship out of Nantucket in the 1820s. He has only been denied the captaincy because of politics, and his relationship with the captain, Pollard (Benjamin Walker), never recovers, and indeed poisons the atmosphere during their first year at sea. An eventual desperate gamble in order to ensure a good harvest of whale oil is what leads them into the path of the white whale and the ensuing tragedy.
Anthony Dod Mantle's work as cinematographer here is absolutely stunning; he depicts the oceans as a terrible living thing, the skies reeling above in a phantasmagoria of hues and colours, from the sunlight battering the men in their boats to the fires illuminating the wreck of the Essex by night.
The story takes a great deal of time establishing its world and (limited) characters, and reaches a peak around halfway, with the whale attack sequence.
It is certainly too long, and feels as if its unbalanced structure is partly to blame for that. The second half patiently traces the mens voyage home and the most awful moments of their ordeal.
So what is it that makes Howard such a pedestrian filmmaker? I think he is so resolutely Hollywood that his films coast by, content with being entertaining, never taking risks or surprising us.
He is a solid storyteller, but there is not one moment of transcendent visual style here. Not that a film should have such a moment, but this film seems made for it, especially with a DP like Mantle on-board. Contrast that with Peter Weir's nautical masterpiece, Master & Commander: the Far Side of the World. That film has tons of narrative yet still contains a few tangential moments of purest visual poetry. Howard seems to lack such poetry. The way he portrays Nantucket is also entirely Hollywood; it seems too cluttered, too busy, too respectful of the production designers and costumers, and never feels like a real place. Even his work with actors is just good enough: this role should have drawn on previously unplumbed depths in Hemsworth. But instead he grows a beard and loses some weight, but always remains a beautiful, charismatic movie star. Then there is that awkward, entirely cliched and unnecessary framing device, wherein Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) interviews an aged survivor of the Essex (Brendan Gleeson). Two great actors reduced to a bunch of pointless scenes that add nothing at all, really, to the film or any of its themes.
While it may be entertaining - as are most of Howard's films - it seems a strange way to short sell such strong material. It also has the unique misfortune to be a historical survival adventure movie released in the same month as Inarittu's The Revenant, to which it compares extremely badly.

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