Save for a few random whale attacks, there’s nothing to hold your attention in Ron Howard’s latest action yarn, In the Heart of the Sea. It’s a grim, plodding affair that cares more about impressing you than entertaining you. The characters are so thin and the themes so haphazard that Howard’s film manages to be about nothing and everything, all at the same time. A couple of moderately-impressive action scenes can’t save In the Heart of the Sea from being a complete wreck.
Warning: This is not an adaptation of Moby Dick! This is an adaptation of a novel by Nathaniel Philbrick about the story that inspired Moby Dick… as relayed to Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) by Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), the last surviving member of the doomed Essex. In 1820, the whaling vessel departed Nantucket, Massachusetts on a mission to collect 2000 barrels of oil from the animal’s prized flesh. The disgruntled first mate, Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), was convinced this voyage would be his first as captain. Instead, he’s passed over for an unproven captain named George Pollard (Benjamin Walker).
You see, Chase comes from common stock, while the Pollard name represents whaling royalty. It’s a dynamic meant to fuel the interpersonal tension aboard the Essex. Sadly, this macho posturing produces only one mildly interesting action set piece; an ill-advised trip into the heart of a squall. Pollard’s obvious incompetence makes him immediately dispensable, and Chase is so busy acting manly that it’s hard to take him seriously, either. To his credit, Hemsworth does refrain from removing his shirt as he prowls around on the sails like Spider-Man (there is your Marvel connection).
Lured into uncharted waters by the promise of “flukes as far as the eye can see,” the Essex runs afoul of one pissed off sperm whale that isn’t content to be their blubbery target. This white whale strikes back, destroying the Essex and sending the surviving crew on a mind-numbingly dull open-sea quest for rescue. You don’t imagine there will be cannibalism involved, do you? By the end of In the Heart of the Sea, you’ll be praying to draw the shortest straw!
There’s nothing more tedious than spending time in a lifeboat with uninteresting people. The nuts and bolts of whaling, while atrocious, are also the most interesting parts of this story. Watching a skinny sailor slither into the whale’s head to scoop out buckets of blubber is both appalling and oddly inspiring. Howard and screenwriter Charles Leavitt, however, decide to forgo all this interesting stuff in favor of every tired shipwreck trope that you’ve ever seen. Don’t worry… the whale re-appears every 20 minutes to signify that naptime is over.
Nickerson’s tortured account of the Essex serves as the true emotional core of the film. Here is a man so tormented by the choices he made to survive that he can barely look his devoted wife in the eye. If there is one reason to endure In the Heart of the Sea, it’s the marvelous performance of Brendan Gleeson, who continues to be as reliable as he is underappreciated. The abbreviated exchanges between Nickerson and Melville hint at something profound brewing beneath the surface, but it fizzles into stale nonsense about “coming to know the unknowable.”
That’s one of several re-cycled themes thrown at the screen. It feels as though Howard was so concerned about… gasp… having an environmental message, he wanted to keep everything nice and safe. Mission accomplished. Instead of delving into the hubris that drives Man to conquer everything in His path, we get tepid speeches about humility in the face of nature. Gone, too, is the obsessive drive for revenge against the white whale and the worthwhile message that it might have inspired. This is truly middle-of-the-road filmmaking at its finest.
Between In the Heart of the Sea and 2013’s adrenaline-deprived Rush, Hemsworth and Howard are becoming a duo to be dreaded. Hemsworth, in particular, doesn’t get the push from Howard he needs to expand beyond his limited range. Here, he settles into his familiar cadence and rhythm, occasionally struggling with a New England accent to provide some unintended hilarity. Benjamin Walker does the best he can with the simplistic captain, but his story arc is neither compelling nor believable. Really, Gleeson is the only standout, and he’s noticeably absent for most of the film.
It should be noted that In the Heart of the Sea is reasonably successful at staging its few action scenes. The whale hunting is riveting, and the white whale’s vengeance is suitably bombastic. The visual effects are adequate, and Howard’s direction, minus the superfluous POV shots and extreme close-ups, is capable. Still, there’s nothing insightful about this story, and there isn’t enough raw entertainment to make the slog worthwhile. This timeless story deserved more than a lifeless re-telling.