Director Ron Howard’s “In the Heart of the Sea” has the makings of a great story. It has a man, placed upon a turbulent ocean in a sailing ship and pitted against a massive whale. It made for a classic American novel in Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” But it does not make for a good movie.
This is odd, since the film is based on the real life story that inspired Melville to write “Moby Dick.” Set partially in 1819, it follows Captain George Pollard, Jr., first mate Owen Chase, and the crew of the Essex as they set sail from Nantucket, Mass., to hunt whale for oil. During their voyage, an enraged bull rams their ship and sinks it, leaving them stranded at sea and more than a thousand miles from land. After the attack, the crew sails for South America, and eventually resorts to cannibalism.
Other scenes take place years later, with Chase sharing the details of the expedition with Melville, who comes to him seeking inspiration for a novel. Melville aspires to be a great writer, but he’s living under the shadow of Nathaniel Hawthorn, a literary genius. Chase is reluctant to help, as doing so will require him to reveal things he’s kept locked away in his memory for decades, but he eventually agrees.
Most of the problems with “In the Heart of the Sea” stem from a weak script. In adapting Nathaniel Philbrick’s non-fiction thriller about the sinking of the ship, screenwriter Charles Leavitt paints in broad strokes, and then allows the colors to fade. For example, Pollard is the incompetent captain who inherited his position from his privileged family, and Chase is the strapping first mate who seems to be able to bend the sea to his will. (What else would one expect of Chris Hemsworth, who’s been stuck in superhero mode since Marvel cast him as Thor?) This creates tension between the two men, but Leavitt does nothing with it. Later, it’s unclear if the two men have become friends, or merely come to an understanding.
Once the survivors of the attack are adrift, Howard has nowhere to go. But with time to fill, he checks off the obligatory scenes of survival at sea and then brings the movie into port for an unsatisfying ending. In the most glaring example of Leavitt struggling to impart meaning to the story, Chase asks Melville what he’s gained personally from their conversation. “Perhaps the courage to go where I thought I could not,” the author replies. (I’m paraphrasing to the best of my memory.) He’s referring to Chase sharing the less savory aspects of his story, not to his voyage across the sea, but it feels forced.
Technically, “In the Heart of the Sea” looks good, especially the attack. Watching the whale’s massive tail slap the Essex and send splintered wood sinking into the watery depths raised me out of my stupor, and there’s a gorgeous shot of the ship approaching a squall that was very impressive on the IMAX screen on which I viewed the film. While the animation is stiff in places, and the backgrounds of Nantucket are surprisingly fake, these scenes are brief.
Also, Howard occasionally demonstrates an eye for intelligent, engaging imagery, as he does when a wave swells to kiss a seagull’s wings. The rising water obscures the Essex, which is sailing in the distance, suggesting its vulnerability. If only the filmmakers had invested the entire story with the same degree of thought.
Although “In the Heart of the Sea” whitewashes over the critical and commercial failure of “Moby Dick” upon publication (like most of Melville’s works, it was not considered a masterpiece until years after his death), it’s worst sin is that it’s uninteresting. It has the makings of a great story, but like the Essex, its pieces lie buried at sea.
Two stars out of four. Rated PG-13 for intense action and peril, brief startling violence, and thematic material.
David Laprad is the assistant editor of the Hamilton County Herald and an award-winning columnist and photographer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org