There is an odd surface quality to Ron Howard’s recounting of the tale of the whaleship Essex, which famously inspired Moby Dick. It is a fantastical tale in itself, but Howard directly adds in the Moby Dick literary weight in the mix, by having the tale retold to Melville. Moby Dick certainly has its detractors, but it is undeniably a book of depth and substance. It seems strange that with such a rich list of ingredients, something so based entirely on the surface should have been constructed. It’s like taking port, lard, venison and aged stilton and somehow managing to bake a light, airy souffle.
Sometimes this surface quality adds to the film – the colouring of Nantucket recalls the artificial, but nonetheless artful sets of 1950s epics. But the CGI whaling scenes do not generate the sense of peril and substance. You do not feel the oppressive claustrophobia and seafaring griminess that, say, Master and Commander generated. Hemsworth does a decent job at standing on ship decks and shouting, but he’s all together too rugged a hero. “Why doesn’t he just wrestle the whale or blast it with a bazooka?” your genre addled brain demands. Caught between Jaws, Mutiny on the Bounty, Alive and Moby Dick itself the film never quite finds its own footing, like a greenhorn destined to be shark fodder. It’s a reasonable Sunday afternoon watch, but then so was the TV movie, The Whale.