In the Heart of the Sea

“Thor, row your boat ashore… Hallelujah!” Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Ben Whishaw and Brendan Gleeson star in Oscar winner Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea.

In the Heart of the SeaCast of Characters:
Owen Chase – Chris Hemsworth
Capt. George Pollard, Jr. – Benjamin Walker
Matthew Joy – Cillian Murphy
Young Thomas Nickerson – Tom Holland
Herman Melville – Ben Whishaw
Old Thomas Nickerson – Brendan Gleeson

Director – Ron Howard
Screenplay – Charles Leavitt
Based on the book In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick
Producer – Joe Roth, Paula Weinstein, Will Ward, Brian Grazer & Ron Howard
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action and peril, brief startling violence, and thematic material

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In 1850, innkeeper Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) is visited by author Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw), who offers him money in exchange for his account of the Essex, the sunken whaleship of which Nickerson is the last living survivor. Though Nickerson, still haunted by what happened all those years ago, has no interest in entertaining Melville’s request, he, at the behest of his wife, eventually agrees.

Rewind back to 1820, aboard the Essex, Capt. George Pollard, Jr. (Benjamin Walker) and First Mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) have set out to sea from Nantucket in search of whale oil, a high commodity used to supply the country’s energy needs. On board with them is a young Nickerson (Tom Holland) who over time looks up to the whaling-experienced Chase as a mentor.

Of course, if you’ve read Melville’s Essex-inspired novel Moby Dick, you should have a good idea of where this is leading. While out searching for new, un-fished territory, the crew finds themselves the targets of an angry bull sperm whale, named in myths as the “white whale”. They somehow manage to survive the attack, but it’s the fight to survive the harrowing aftermath that pushes them to their limits.

As was just mentioned, In the Heart of the Sea, based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s 2000 non-fiction book of the same name, isn’t a retelling of Moby Dick, but a retelling of the events surrounding the Essex, the whaleship which was attacked and sunk by a sperm whale in the southern Pacific Ocean, which would inspire Herman Melville to write his acclaimed novel. Pretty much, it’d be like if Francis Ford Coppola didn’t give us Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but instead gave us a historical biopic of Sir Henry Irving (for those that don’t know, Irving is assumed by many to be the possible real-life inspiration for Stoker’s iconic monster).

Obviously, the real-life account of the Essex must be fascinating if it drove Melville to write one of literature’s greatest works, and director Ron Howard and screenwriter Charles Leavitt must agree if they’d much rather give us a film version of the true story instead of an adaptation of Moby Dick. However, Howard and Leavitt’s version of the Essex’s tragic fate is at best a middling affair.

Not that this is a tragically bad movie, far from it, but it is disappointing, and despite its sweeping appearance, it’s certainly not the sorta film you expect to have open during the box office heavy month of December (this was originally slated for release back in March, but was later moved to this month).

The strength of In the Heart of the Sea is its visual presentation. This is beautifully shot by Danny Boyle’s go-to cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, and the visual effects used in creating the whales are astoundingly good. Much like Robert Zemeckis’s The Walk, the digital trickery in making the monstrous white whale look photo-realistic is seamless  (for those that assume Howard and effects-heavy films don’t mix, keep in mind, this is the same director that gave us Willow and Apollo 13). From a purely spectacle standpoint, the movie delivers.

See, the downside is that the whales are the most compelling characters in the film, unlike the unfortunate flat characterizations that are given to the film’s talented cast (complex like Capt. Ahab, they are not). While Leavitt does provide some solid insight into the whaling process, the characters have very little, if any, arc to them. For the most part, the performances are fine, particularly by Cillian Murphy, Tom Holland (your soon-to-be friendly neighborhood Spider-Man), Ben Whishaw and Brendan Gleeson, but good performances or not, it’s hard to feel anything’s at stake when there’s little given to the real-life men they’re portraying, here reduced to cardboard stock types.

Chris Hemsworth, who was great in Ron Howard’s last film Rush, is held back by a distractingly awful Bostonian accent, which switches back and forth between his natural Aussie accent and what sounds like the worst attempt at imitating Matt Damon or Ben Affleck from Good Will Hunting. I wanna believe that Hemsworth has more in him than just playing Thor. Though just one performance isn’t much of a sample size, his work in Rush showed he might have to rely on those Marvel films to pay the bills. Between this film and last January’s Blackhat, 2015 hasn’t been so kind to him.

Oh, well, he still had Age of Ultron.

Adding insult to injury, Howard and Leavitt can’t resist the urge in drawing an obvious parallel between the story’s whaling industry to today’s oil industry. Any idiot with half a brain would be able to piece together the connection on their own, but Howard and Leavitt feel obligated to hold the viewer’s hand and make sure we really understand it just in case we’re too stupid to figure it out.

In the Heart of the Sea features a talented cast, albeit one led by a horribly faux-accented Chris Hemsworth, and the CGI whale and attack sequences are first-rate, but unfortunately, its promising first half is undone by a lagging second half filled with uninteresting characters and Howard’s on-the-nose sermonizing. Overall, not terrible, but still a far cry from the compelling account the enduring classic it inspired demands it should be.

I give In the Heart of the Sea a C+ (★★½).

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