Chris Hemsworth in 'In the Heart of the Sea'
Chris Hemsworth in 'In the Heart of the Sea'

“A dead whale or a stove boat!” was Captain Ahab’s cry in Moby-Dick. It echoes haunting and unheard through In the Heart of the Sea, a whaling adventure — a horror adventure really — about the true events that inspired Melville’s masterpiece.

It’s a thrilling watch. Director Ron Howard and screenwriter Charles Leavitt harpoon the story, based on a book by Nathaniel Philbrick and the memoirs of two survivors, and drag it thrashing and flailing through imagery livid, vivid and spectacular. The prodigious Anthony Dod Mantle (Festen, Slumdog Millionaire) is the cinematographer. The editing, barely less bravura, is by Ron Howard veteran Dan Hanley (Apollo 13).

The Nantucket whaling ship Essex was stove and sunk in 1820, if not by a white whale, then by one mysteriously gigantic, and seemingly single-minded. The beast followed the surviving crewmen, in their fancy at least, when they undertook one of those longboat journeys whose achievement bankrupts belief. (See Bligh from the Bounty, Shackleton from the Endeavour.)

First comes the maelstrom of destruction; then the days, weeks, months at sea. It’s a Hollywood movie in the best sense, unsparing with spectacle, a-roar with conviction and cast, if not with superstars, then with voices and faces that become indelible. Chris Hemsworth, barely more than a himbo hunk for some directors, keeps transforming himself for Howard. He was wonderful as motor racer James Hunt in Rush. Here, as first mate Owen Chase, he gets the Fletcher Christian role, simmering, righteously indignant, ready to rebel against Benjamin Walker’s Captain Pollard, a bookish boy martinet.

The frictions aboard ship may be more fiction than fact. But it’s drama we’re watching, not documentary. Given the Essex catastrophe’s hazy history — one survivor’s memoir, thought lost, only surfaced in 1960 — conjecture is part of recreation. The whale itself, less white than piebald, mottled, lichened, is an evanescent monster, its CG-conjured near-ghostliness perfect for the part. If it isn’t Moby-Dick himself, it might be. As if to bestow blessing, Melville himself (Ben Whishaw) appears in framing scenes, a young author interrogating, for his book, the ship’s now grown-up cabin boy (Brendan Gleeson in close-ups bulging with pent emotion).

Soon after this sea tragedy in the quest for fuel (then whale oil’s prime use), someone says of a new energy find: “Oil from the ground. Fancy that.” It’s a peep through time’s curtain. It’s a spying out of the next saga of adversities to be set in motion by humanity’s need to light its flames, fill its lamps, fire its endeavours.

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