Call me irritated.
“In the Heart of the Sea” could have worked. But director Ron Howard tries too hard in some places and not enough in others.
Based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s nonfiction best-seller of the same name, the film smooshes together that telling of the 1820 sinking of the whaleship Essex with Herman Melville’s fictional “Moby-Dick,” along with some obvious political allegory from the present day.
Chris Hemsworth plays Owen Chase, a Nantucket whaleman assigned as first mate to a ship he thinks he should be captaining. Instead, nepotism rears its ugly head, and the helm is given over to George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), who was born into the business.
As happens in the movies, the two don’t hit it off. With egos too big for the same ship, the boys figuratively measure their booms, steering their ship into a squall, and the crew narrowly escapes death. Instead of turning back for repairs, Pollard and Chase double down on bad decisions, sailing onward in hopes of filling the hold with whale oil.
When the crew finally spots a pod of whales months later, the largest of the beasts lashes out at the Essex and destroys it, leaving the surviving crew adrift for months in rowboats, hoping for rescue or landfall on South America, thousands of miles away.
If you’re one of those hearty folks who doesn’t see a movie until after you’ve read the book, don’t worry. Howard and screenwriter Charles Leavitt take so many liberties with the story of the Essex that “In the Heart of the Sea” should be considered fiction. It’s an adaptation of Philbrick’s book in name only.
The film frames its narrative around a fabricated conversation between Melville (Ben Whishaw — Q in the recent James Bond films) and survivor Tom Nickerson (played as an adult by Brendan Gleeson and as a teen by Tom Holland, the next Spider-Man). In one booze-filled night some 30 years hence, a haunted Melville is struggling to finish what would become the Great American Novel. As Nickerson reluctantly tells his story, the film switches to gauzy, aquamarine flashbacks, a color filtering that evokes memory while conveniently obscuring the special effects work.
The filmmakers inject the whale with an improbable sense of vengeance — screen time that could have been better spent anthropomorphizing the film’s humans. The characters all speak and think the same. When it comes time for one to sacrifice himself for the greater good, you can’t empathize because you’re trying to figure out, “Now, who was he again?”
The crew is nigh indistinguishable. Which is strange, because if you’ve spent any time around fishermen — whether they’re at the local reservoir or a seaside dock — you soon find yourself surrounded by memorable characters. Not so on the Essex. As if the crew’s fate weren’t tragic enough, whaling is a dour business aboard this vessel. The men tell no jokes, and the main dialogue concerns the nasty and short lives of men of the 19th century, with the occasional overwrought exposition on sperm whales.
At one point, Chase rhapsodizes from the stern of a rowboat on what a fearsome beast his prey is, as if he’s the star of a below-average wilderness reality show. Hemsworth also doesn’t fare well at a Nantucketer’s accent, but the hunk you know as the movie Thor certainly looks heroic at the attempt.
Otherwise, the players are all fine with what they’re given. The most compelling moments come in the simple boardinghouse scenes between Melville and Nickerson, though little of their dialogue ever resonates. Their conversation eventually veers near the ridiculous toward film’s end when the script makes the earnest comparison to the oil industry of today, a conclusion most audiences will have drawn within the first 15 minutes.
“In the Heart of the Sea” contains a couple of thrilling moments, including a harpooned whale dive that threatens to drag one of the rowboats below. But the cinematography rarely gives a sense of scale that shows what exactly is at stake.
Like a fisherman whose seafaring yarn doesn’t match reality, Howard can’t quite get his story straight in “In the Heart of the Sea.” The film didn’t have to adhere to all the facts — liberties have to be taken in condensing a story that unfolded over years. But while the truth of the Essex is horrifying, tragic and made for the spectacle of cinema, a heartbreaking drama requires humanity, and this film has precious little.
David Frese, firstname.lastname@example.org, @DavidFrese
‘In the Heart of the Sea’
3-D or not 3-D?
Definitely not. “In the Heart of the Sea” has some of the worst 3-D effects since “Clash of the Titans.”