Ron Howard is a talented director, but every person has their limits. There is a reason that Moby Dick hasn’t been adapted for the big screen very often: beside the monumental whale attack and the single-minded drive of its protagonist, the work is a bloated piece more fascinated with whale blubber than storytelling that does not lend itself well to filming. Howard attempted to side-step this issue by making an adaptation of the historical events that inspired Moby Dick, using a portrayal of Melville as a curious interviewer of a survivor of said events to act as a framing device for the historical narration. However, there is just so much that Howard tries to work into his film that it collapses under its own blubberous mass, whether it be due to cuts to the film’s length or simply too many tonal and focal shifts.
The film is at its best during the Melville portions, where Melville (Ben Winshaw) interviews Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), the aged last survivor of the whale attack that destroyed the Essex in 1820. These scenes are well-acted and carry what is closest to what the film has to a character arc as Nickerson talks his way through his trauma, but ultimately the framing device feels a bit bizarre, seeing as Nickerson’s younger self isn’t present for some key scenes that he somehow still manages to narrate.
But that is the most minimal of complaints compared to how the film rather half-heartedly goes about establishing its protagonists: first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), the son of a landsman who has worked his way up through the ranks by sheer determination, and Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), the heir to a whaling dynasty that gains him the advantage of easy promotion with no practical experience. The film sets this up early as the potential starting point for the butting of heads and the eventual putting of Pollard in his place, and though the narrative makes an effort to resolve that arc in the end, there is no character development shown to happen on screen. The actors do very well with their survivalist monologues, but never do we see Pollard and Chase’s conflict come to a satisfying head or more than a token conclusion.
As for the whale itself, the whale attack shots are beautifully realized, but if you were expecting to see anything more extensive than what is shown in the trailer, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. More attention is paid to the horrific carnage of whaling practices, which simultaneously feels victorious to the whaling crew and horrific in light of the savage brutality to the aquatic mammals. It’s oddly duplicitous, which robs what little we see of the white whale attack of the pure horror that makes monsters entertaining in the first place.
In turn, the white whale get short-changed in favor of scenes of survival at sea that don’t carry as much weight as they should due to the aforementioned lack of character development for either the leading men or for the supporting crew. Ultimately, this is a film comprised of fragments of great film ideas: a story of survivor’s guilt, a clash of hard work versus privilege, a testament of the horrors of whaling, a monster movie, and a tale of survival in the most dire of circumstances. Ron Howard is a skilled enough director to make any of those work, perhaps even two within the same film. However, the ambition exhibited here would be beyond most director’s abilities to compress adequately into a two hours film, and Howard is certainly not the one to surmount this obstacle. Maybe someday a director will make an entertaining adaptation of Moby Dick, but this isn’t the film to tide you over until they do.