In the Heart of the Sea is a savage story of survival encased in Ron Howard amber — the gooey, dull coating of self-importance and respectability that typifies most of the pictures he has directed (Apollo 13, The Da Vinci Code, A Beautiful Mind, Frost/Nixon). In his previous film, 2013’s Rush, Howard seemed to be reinventing himself, using the story of the rivalry between two Formula One drivers as the foundation for a dynamic, furious movie. Rush felt like the work of a filmmaker breaking free of his old habits and trying out new things: It was brash and stylish and invigorating.
In the Heart of the Sea is none of those things. The movie is an adaptation of Nathaniel Philbrick’s nonfiction book about the doomed voyage of the Whaleship Essex in 1819, a stranger-than-fiction story that was one of the inspirations Herman Melville used to write Moby-Dick. The film uses a flashback structure, starting in 1850, when one of the survivors (Brendan Gleeson) recounts the horrors he witnessed to an awestruck Melville (Ben Whishaw).
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Those scenes, which Howard cuts back to periodically, are stodgy and plodding, pedestrian bits of exposition that, with one critical exception, feel like nothing more than screenwriter Charles Leavitt’s solution to jumping over large patches of time (the tribulations the sailors of the Essex endured, from start to finish, spread over two years). The only moment in the film in which Gleeson’s narration doesn’t come off as an intrusion is when the story takes an astonishingly grisly turn and Howard, careful to respect that PG-13 rating, wisely tells instead of showing. Although the trailers make In the Heart of the Sea looks like a grand, family-friendly adventure, parents unfamiliar with the real story should know certain things happen in the movie that could be difficult to explain to young children.
In the Heart of the Sea comes to life once the Essex sets sail. The focus is on first mate Owen Chase (played by Chris Hemsworth and his magnificent hair, which blows photogenically in the wind) and the inexperienced cabin boy Thomas Nickerson (Tom Holland, soon to be seen playing Spider-Man) who doesn’t yet have his sea legs. The captain (Benjamin Walker) is an officious dullard. The second mate (Cillian Murphy) is a teetotaler. The captain’s younger cousin (Frank Dillane) is a sycophant. This is the sort of movie in which every character is given one easily identifiable trait, so you can tell them apart once the special effects take over and the whales attack.
About those special effects: The computer-generated images in In the Heart of the Sea look so blatantly fake, you have to give Howard the benefit of the doubt and assume he was going for an artificial, storybook feel, like Spielberg did in the opening 15 minutes of War Horse. How else to explain the CGI dolphins that look like they swam over from Finding Nemo or the open-sea skies that look like velvet paintings you’d find at a Motel 6? Once you make peace with them, the effects are fine — the sequence in which a mammoth white whale rams the Essex is well done and appropriately terrifying — until the critical scene late in the film in which the actors sport some makeup so jaw-droppingly awful, audiences could well break into laughter.
The story of In the Heart of the Sea is strong enough to overcome everything Howard does to ruin it, even a completely fictional scene in which the “demon whale” turns into the shark from Jaws: The Revenge and comes looking for payback. A long sequence depicting a successful whale catch and the messy business that follows would please Melville (it’s gross and wet work, this whaling stuff). But you come away from the movie lamenting the missed opportunity and wondering what a stronger, bolder filmmaker would have done with this material. If you want to see a great movie about survival in the wild, wait for The Revenant. If the true story of the Essex fascinates you, then try to see In the Heart of the Sea on the biggest screen possible. The tale is here, although torn and battered by bad dialogue (“How does a man come to know the unknowable?”) and Howard’s pedestrian direction. His is a career that continues to take on water like the Essex: Glug glug glug.
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Tom Holland, Joseph Mawle, Frank Dillane, Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson, Paul Anderson.
Director: Ron Howard.
Screenwriter: Charles Leavitt. Based on the book “In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex” by Nathaniel Philbrick.
A Warner Bros. release. Running time: 121 minutes. Graphic imagery, gore, strong adult themes. Playing at area theaters.