This beautiful film is about self sacrifice and submitting to the awesome forces of nature. What this film is not about is a monstrous whale. The narrative is clearly divided. One follows Tom Nickerson’s journey from innocence to experience. Meanwhile, we discover Chase and Pollard’s hubris downfalls.
Thematic approach is tantamount to Howard’s Apollo 13. We’re presented with a story of people shaking loose their societal safety net and rediscovering their strengths in the volatile nature. Also much similar in theme is how space wasn’t an active agent yet it was always dangerously close to our Apollo astronauts. Similarly, the white whale constantly lurks beneath the dark waters reminding us of death’s indiscriminate hold on everyone and everything.
First we’re introduced to an old Nickerson who is convinced by Melville to relay his tale of the fateful journey of Essex. As he flashes back, a young Nickerson discovers the inherent brutality of nature. Although eager to set sail on the ocean, the ocean quickly greets Nickerson with helpings of sea sickness. Although excited to join his first whale hunt, as harpoons slice into mother whales while their calves flee, he is quickly burdened by the savagery. In addition, the boy’s size unfortunately grants him the ability to crawl inside the whale cavity and scoop out oil. This imagery builds up tension until Nickerson finally reveals his most dreadful secret.
We also watch Chase and Pollard become diminished by forces of nature. When we begin their tale, they are both men trying to live up to their families’ expectations. Although each man has a different history, Pollard points out that he was born into whaling while Chase was born to do the job. However, both men are arrogant to a fault. Pollard fails to conquer a storm, while Chase fails to fill the ship with scarce whale oil. Their onboard resources become depleted while they struggle to find people to trade with. The voyage slowly strips away their status, command, mission, and resources until the godlike whale finally takes everything away.
The 3D presentation is a wonderful treat. Instead of going for the poke your eye out entertainment, the 3D and coloring made long shots pop with beautiful and vivid contrasts. Each shot looked like a 19th century oil painting. Also, instead of zooming close for dialogue shots, they would creatively use the 3D to sculpt the foreground and use the illusion of depth to frame each shot. It’s always a welcome treat when directors don’t use the 3D tech as a gimmick.
All the actors did a very fine job, and bravo to being able to put in those performances while filming on water. Even the small supporting roles shown brightly. In fact, Michelle Fairly 19th century naturalism, Cillian Murphy sober desperation, or Jordi Molla haunting narration stole the spotlight.
Although Ron Howard is a master of style, each film is very well distinguished film. This doesn’t look like a Howard film. It looks and feels like a 19th century epic. He has a wonderful ability to embrace his subject’s story and not let anything or anyone interfere with its identity. He allows the movie to subtlety reveals itself. For example, instead of quoting scripture or subverting the religious subtext of Moby Dick, he quietly places a priest in the background to help nail down the underlying meaning of this epic. Not only is this movie worth watching, but also it worth watching multiple times.