In the Heart of the Sea, the latest epic from director Ron Howard, purports itself to be a prequel or origin story to Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick. In fact, it’s not about the actual whale of that title, but the inspiration that drove Melville to write a book about it. This becomes blatantly obvious within the first few minutes as we meet Melville, played by Ben Whishaw (Q from the Bond movies), as he sits with Nantucket Inn owner Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) to hear the harrowing story of the Essex, a whaling vessel that sailed from Nantucket 30 years earlier when it encountered and was sunk by a great white whale.
Nickerson’s story begins with Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), a family man and master whaler constantly having to prove himself because he’s a “landsman,” a farmer’s son not from the immediate area. Due to his lineage, Chase is assigned as the First Mate on the Essexunder the leadership of the far less-experienced Captain George Pollard (Broadway star Benjamin Walker). The crew of the Essexisn’t happy with the decision, but for the younger and more impressionable Nickerson (played by Tom Holland), it’s his very first whaling voyage.
Much of the first act is about the conflict between the ship’s command as they try to pull the crew together. After Pollard has them sailing headfirst into a storm that almost destroys the ship, they still don’t find the whales needed to deliver their payload. So they sail all the way around to the Pacific Ocean where they encounter the mythic beast that would inspire Melville’s novel.
After the Essex is destroyed, the survivors are left stranded on the open sea, and the film becomes something more like Unbroken or Cast Away as they’re forced to commit atrocities to survive (we’ll let you use your imagination there).
Howard’s reunion with his Rush stardoesn’t quite offer the level of thrills or tension that Formula 1 racing film did, maybe because the idea of yet another sea epic never seems particularly exciting. Hemsworth’s good looks do little to make Chase a particularly inspiring character, lacking the charm or bravado of his character in Rush.
Howard proves his mettle as a filmmaker with two or three fairly impressive set-pieces, but there are other aspects to the film that don’t quite gel. For instance, most of the film takes place at sea, and while watching the Essex sailing across the water is indeed quite glorious, the landscapes just look too perfect and clearly computer-generated. There are also constant issues of scale, not only with the white whale, but with the Essex itself, which seems to be changing size throughout the movie. It seems huge from afar but close up, it looks far too small to hold the three lifeboats let alone a giant cauldron to melt down the whale blubber, as shown in one scene.
For those anticipating an epic extended battle with the white whale, you’re likely to be disappointed since after the initial attack, roughly an hour into the film, the whale makes a couple more appearances “just to rub it in” as the handful of survivors drift at sea for months.
Who is supposed to believe this single whale is so vengeful against the crew of the Essex it would follow them far away from its own pod to continue to plague them? Wasn’t destroying the Essexenough? The third time they encounter the whale seems especially egregious and gratuitous since Howard fails to create the necessary menace and threat of something like Jaws or Orca.
Outside the three or four main characters, much of the Essex’s crew seems one-dimensional and therefore, expendable. Even the normally fine Cillian Murphy is squandered in the role as a former alcoholic, a condition meant to create more drama that never really goes anywhere.
Since most of the film takes place at sea, the lack of women in any significant role also leaves things lacking other than the obligatory promise to return from the sea moment between Owen and his wife Peggy (Charlotte Riley). Otherwise, the film flounders through most of the non-action moments, bogged down by a bland screenplay by Charles Leavitt (Blood Diamond) that does little to inspire the diverse cast assembled around Hemsworth.
Some might find In the Heart of the Sea interesting for its historical relevance and how it attempts to authentically depict the whaling industry of the time when much of the country’s fuel came from the great sea beasts. But even with deliberate metaphors to what’s happening in present day, this is no There Will Be Blood in terms of trying to make viewers care about the whalers’ quest for oil.
A larger issue is the film’s inconsistent point of view. If this is indeed a story being told to Melville by the older Thomas, confirmed by Gleeson narrating the film, how would he know about Owen’s home life or what was happening behind closed doors before and after the events he personally witnessed?
While one could probably ignore In the Heart of the Sea’s many flaws and just enjoy it for the scenery, those hoping to see an updated big screen version of Melville’s Moby Dick are likely to be left wanting something more significant than this film delivers.
In the Heart of the Sea opens Friday, Dec. 11.