21 November 2019 | davidmvining
A solid adventure that should have dropped the Moby Dick connection
They should not have included the connection to Moby Dick. I thought it was just a marketing gimmick, but Herman Melville is a character and the impetus for the overall framing device. I imagine that it's true that Melville used the story of the "Essex" as partial inspiration for his grand opus (perhaps the greatest novel written in the English language, in my humble opinion), but is that necessary information to tell the story that enticed him in the first place? The story of the "Essex" is interesting on its own. It doesn't need Herman Melville to help tell it, but maybe that was the point. "No one will care about a story of a whaling ship in 1820, but if you add Moby Dick to the marketing, you'll get in seats. All the kids love Moby Dick!"
That's really my only explanation for why Melville was included. They needed to help sell the narrative and the film overall to skeptical audiences who might not be interested in a story of a whaler from 200 years ago, but no one cares about Moby Dick other than me and other nerds. I can't imagine the addition added much in terms of box office since it was such a dud there anyway.
Moving on, though. The Melville sections that largely bookend the story (and pop up from time to time in the middle) are fine on their own. Well acted and photographed, so at least there's that. Inside the actual story, though, we do have a compelling narrative that's about more than just a whale. And that's where I think the Melville sections undermine the whole movie. The story of the "Essex" is about more than just a giant, angry, and vengeful sperm whale. It's the story of a crew sent on a dangerous mission where most died and the few that did survive only did so through the most extreme of circumstances and methods. The men involved are interesting, especially the central conflict between the untested Captain that comes from a naval family and the experienced first mate who comes from a family of landsmen. It's a clash of personalities and hubris that carries the movie quite well.
The movie also looks good. It doesn't go for strict realism, instead we have a more painterly vision of the aesthetics of life at sea. The waves almost look like they have brushstrokes guiding them. The lighting is always used to maximum effect with the sun popping up in just the right place for a pretty view, even in the face of total destruction. I really like how the movie almost had an oil painting look from beginning to end, although the Melville segments are far more darkly and realistically shot.
Overall, I finally got into the movie after the whale attack, which was about halfway through the movie. From then on, I was completely on board, enjoying the tale of desperation and survival that was the "Essex" looking for rescue. Perhaps the movie could have been great, but I do think that it ended up distracted at times, but ultimately good.