Hale and hearty as it aims to be, Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea is still not very nourishing. It endeavors to be as authentic as possible, yet wages a losing battle against artificial whales and waves.
Chris Hemsworth is front and center as veteran sailor Owen Chase, whose wife is expecting their first child. First mate Chase is about to head out to sea in 1820 New England, confident he will be made captain of a new whaling vessel, as his superiors had led him to believe. Instead, he is told that the inexperienced George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), scion of a wealthy shipping dynasty, has been appointed as captain, with Chase again promised a promotion at the successful completion of the voyage.
Before all that happens, of course, a framing device is required, one that will make abundantly clear that In the Heart of the Sea is drawn from a true story. Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) shows up on the doorstep of grizzled Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), declaring that he will write a book entitled Moby Dick and requesting that Nickerson tell him the true story behind a legendary disaster at sea.
Eventually, the whaleship Essex is underway, with a minimum goal of 2,000 barrels of whale oil mandated.. Aristocratic Captain Pollard and earthy first mate Chase are at odds, with the ship’s crew lining up solidly behind Chase. With the water in the North Atlantic fished out, the ship heads to the South Atlantic, and then, as the months pass and whales remain difficult to find, the Pacific Ocean beckons, where a fateful encounter with a giant, vengeful whale awaits.
Now, if all this sounds terribly pedantic, that’s because it is.
The source material, Nathaniel Philbrick’s book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, is a wonderful read, as I recall. (It was published in 2000 and won the National Book Award for Nonfiction.) Charles Leavitt’s screenplay struggles to give it dramatic life; what works so well on the page — the episodic nature, the digressions, the details — bog the story down on the screen.
Howard is no stranger to visual effects; his most recent effort, Rush, nicely integrated them with period drama and auto-racing thrills. But as advanced as visual effects have become, it’s still too obvious when they’re employed in place of real-life whales and waves.
If the drama in the foreground was more compelling, then the mismatching effects wouldn’t be an issue. Howard’s compositional skills and framing preferences work against that, however, and as inherently dramatic as the disaster was, it doesn’t play like that in the movie.
In the Heart of the Sea aspires to be the behind-the-scenes story of Moby Dick. It’s a respectable telling but falls short in providing fresh insight or exciting action.
The film opens wide throughout Dallas on Friday, December 11.