Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Ben Wishaw, Brendan Gleeson, Cillian Murphy, Charlotte Riley, Tom Holland
Captain Ahab made some bad choices in relentlessly pursuing that notorious white whale. Ron Howard made some bad choices in his filming of the “real” story behind Moby Dick.
It’s not that ITHOTS is a bad film, per se. In fact, many a casual filmgoer will like it. Unfortunately, filmmaking is about making decisions, and a good many of them here don’t make any sense whatsoever. When looking for specificity in moviemaking, you will find a lot lacking in Howard’s approach.
Some aspects of this story aren’t surprising at all, including a cliché framing technique. Herman Melville (Wishaw) feels he’s lackluster writer. He seeks out the last surviving crewmember of the Essex, a ship that was attacked by a gargantuan ivory whale. That person (beautifully played by Gleeson) is haunted by the truth – so damaged he must be bribed and threatened by his wife and Melville to tell the tale. Maybe this man’s tale will make a good book?
Call him Ishmael? Nope, his name is Tom Nickerson.
The true story has little to nothing to do with Melville’s themes of revenge and obsession. This more has to do with commerce, politics, nepotism, and bad luck – really, really bad luck.
Hemsworth plays Chase, a man eternally stuck being first mate because his family isn’t a rich Nantucket boating clan. Walker (Kinsey, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) portrays Captain George Pollard, who gets the job via nepotism. Pollard and Chase naturally dislike each other – testing the other’s resolve and professionalism.
They spout grandiloquent but stiff and unrevealing lines like, “Look at him! Most fearsome creature ever to live on this Earth!”
They also yell “We’re heading for the edge of sanity!” and “What offense did we give God to upset Him so?”
That’s the biggest problem with ITHOTS. If this is the truth behind the fiction, why does so much of this flick look overblown, supernatural, legendary, and fraudulent? The special effects are so loud and huge that they defy realism. The matte shots of towns and islands are painterly and incredibly fake looking. The music is overdone, and the dialogue is pumped full of bravado. The characters are ciphers. It feels phony.
How could Ron Howard – a really competent filmmaker – make such a rookie mistake? The film smacks of Hollywood BS when it should’ve provided a realistic, intimate view of the 1800s whalers’ lives and work.
On top of that, there are other small missteps. I completely understand why there are shaky handheld cameras on the boat. Why in Heaven’s name would Howard use the same effect on land? Wouldn’t he rather try to give the sense of difference between the roiling sea and the solid earth?
To top it off, someone decided this should be also offered in 3D. Why? Did ITHOTS need to look even more bogus, more Hollywood-y?
Some elements help rescue the film from utter disaster. The script, though not surprising, is at least sound in structure. The acting of these wooden characters is fiercely committed. The actors even starve themselves and put themselves in physical peril to bring realism to the tale.
Unfortunately, Howard’s direction is undermining the journey. His bad choices make this supposedly fact-based plot seem even more out of proportion than that Dick of a whale.