In the Heart of the Sea, Ron Howard’s new maritime epic, is based on the same true whaling misadventure that inspired Moby Dick. In case audiences aren’t aware of this fact, the very first character who appears onscreen is a young Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw), seen listening to a tale about a giant sperm whale, a shipwreck, and survival against all odds. It takes a degree of audacity to compare your movie so early on to one of the greatest dramatic epics of all time, and what follows might possibly leave viewers longing for Melville’s heroic, allegorical masterpiece, as opposed to the sober tale of endurance that plays out.
In the Heart of the Sea is based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s nonfiction book, which explored two narratives of the sinking of the whaling boat Essex in 1820—one from a hardy first mate, Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), and another from a cabin boy, Thomas Nickerson (played by Tom Holland as a youngster, and Brendan Gleeson in his advanced years). Along with those stories, the book laid bare the intricacies of the whaling industry and the tight-knit community of Nantucket that formed its hub. And yet in the film adaptation, Howard and the screenwriter Charles Leavitt barely scratch the surface in two hours of plodding action.
As a character, Thomas is less a sentient being and more the equivalent of a Go-Pro camera lashed to the front of the ship—he’s there simply to observe the action and relay it to Melville many years later. Owen, although more of a conventional hero as an orphaned outsider and veteran whale killer, is unfortunately one-dimensional, existing onscreen mostly to grit his teeth and shoot steely gazes at the ocean. Hemsworth and Howard’s previous collaboration, Rush, was an energetic biopic where the Australian actor got to play a compelling scoundrel. Chase’s motivations are plainer: He’s got a wife at home, he’s angling to become a captain himself, and the more whales he kills, the closer he gets to that goal.
The first hour of the film sees Chase clashing with his blue-blooded commander George Pollard (Benjamin Walker),who’s been installed as the captain of the Essex through nepotism. But there’s precious little at stake: It’s clear that a terrible calamity awaits them in the Pacific Ocean, and their squabbling hardly amounts to much since Chase is always right and Pollard is a stammering fool. When the crew finally encounters a monstrous whale, Chase is quickly dissuaded from bringing it down when it crashes into the ship and practically tears it in half.
That’s the one big action sequence, but if you came to In the Heart of the Sea looking for intensity, you’ll be sorely disappointed. The sea, as Grantland’s Chris Ryan once noted, is dope—a great setting for epic cinema, whether the waves are rendered in glorious CGI or the actors are freezing their legs off in real dunk tanks. But Howard, who’s never been a supreme visual stylist, somehow misses out on the expansive sweep of the ocean, and the whale-attack scenes are a confusing mess to watch. The audience knows things are going wrong, but not much more than that. Brief, quiet shots of the whale gliding by underwater or stalking its unwitting human prey, make more of an impact, but those moments end much too quickly.
In the Heart of the Sea is, in the end, a worthy retelling of a fairly simple tale, but it’s a bare-bones story without an Ahab or a Starbuck or a Queequeg there to add some magic. Near the end of the film, Melville sits down with a manuscript to write the famous line, “Call me Ishmael,” but viewers are no closer to understanding why he would have been driven to do such a thing. To hear its plot described, the film sounds epic—but what’s an epic without real characters? If a silent whale is your most magnetic screen presence, he should probably appear for more than a few minutes. The rest of the time, the film’s flaws are reflected in Hemsworth’s face as he squints blankly out at the ocean.