Two years after pairing for the exciting, albeit overlooked racing film Rush, Ron Howard and Chris Hemsworth have joined forces once more to tell the story that inspired Henry Melville’s greatest work. The results are nowhere near as epic as Moby Dick, but if you look closely you might catch a few great cinematic moments worth the price of admission.
We begin in 1850, when a curious and determined Henry Melville (Ben Wishaw) travels to the island of Nantucket to speak with Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), the last living survivor from the lost ship Essex. Melville is on a two-part mission: to hear a story that will inspire his next novel, and to learn of just what happens to a man’s mind when he is pushed to the very brink of sanity and survival. Nickerson is hesitant to tell his tale, as is it’s a story not even his wife knows in full, but he agrees to break his silence in exchange for some much-needed cash.
Once Nickerson begins to tell his story, In The Heart Of The Sea jumps back 30 years to recreate his experiences in vivid detail. Nickerson claims the story of the Essex and its mission to retrieve oil from whales is really the story of two men, Captain Pollard (Benjamin Walker) and First Mate Owen Chase (Hemsworth), whose refusal to allow one another to lead is a source of constant tension aboard the ship. Neither man asked to work with the other, and after the initial months at sea come and go with rarely even a sighting of whales their anger towards one another only continues to grow. When the crew encounters a storm, a miscommunication between Chase and Pollard results in the ship nearly being destroyed, and from that point forward neither one can stand to be in the presence of the other.
Following a brief stint on an island hundreds of miles from home, Pollard and Chase agree to follow the advice of a stranger in hopes that discovering a nest of whales will shorten the amount of time they must remain in close quarters. The Essex sails further out than any other whaling vessel, and just when things seem grim they spot a sight no one ever thought they would see. There are literally dozens of whales, all in one place, and there are no other ships for probably hundreds of miles. It’s a feast fit for the hunger of the Essex crew, but before they can kill even one of the whales they encounter a white whale that seems to be more than 100 feet in length. To make matters worse, the whale has a temper, and in what appears to be an attempt at saving the other whales the monstrous mammal rams its head into the belly of the Essex, quickly sending the ship to the bottom of the sea.
Those who survive the sinking of the Essex spend the remainder of In The Heart Of The Sea focused on survival. Stranded thousands of miles from home, hope is a rare commodity amongst the crew, but through sheer human will they each find a way to push on as long as they are able. Not everyone survives, and no one leaves unscarred. It’s a heartbreaking and terrifying situation, but the script from Charles Leavitt, who adapted the story from a novel by Nathaniel Philbrick, does not allow the film to stop long enough for any of the more dramatic moments to sink in. For a film that tries to convey a story spread over several years, the runtime is just under two hours without credits, and that leaves very little room for reflection or pause. There is just too much to be told, and when you factor in the wraparound story involving Melville and Nickerson you’re left with practically 90 minutes to tell what could easily be a three-hour story.
Beyond the problems with pacing, the only person who appears to be happy to be in this film is Chris Hemsworth. The rest of the performances, including that of future Spider-Man star Tom Holland, come across as acceptable turns and nothing more. Brendan Gleeson, burdened with the task of conveying the weight of the story without the time or dialogue required to do so, looks downright miserable. The apparent lack of conviction is obvious from very early on, and as the film begins to turn towards the darker moments in the crew’s journey you feel no reason to care much, or at all, if anyone dies. You know Moby Dick will be written either way, so the only thing capable of keeping you engaged is your concern for the well-being of the characters, and that is where In The Heart Of The Sea falters most.
Ron Howard, working with a budget rumored to be around $100 million, does deliver a visually compelling story despite the shortcomings of the performances and script. There are numerous moments where everything on screen looks like a sequence from a timeless film or painting, with high contrast and emphasized greens giving the entire affair a very distinct look and feel that sticks with you even if the story does not. Howard’s passion for the story and his desire to share their fight to survive is clear in everything he does, but all the polish and directorial expertise in the world cannot lift an otherwise-mediocre film out of mediocrity. Like with his 2008 film Frost/Nixon, Howard’s presence is the best thing about the project, and it’s hard to imagine the movie would have gotten made without him. One only wishes his talent and dedication might have rubbed off on other aspects of the film.
Though it is entirely watchable, In The Heart Of The Sea is never more than just okay. It’s a film that hopes to piggyback on what is arguably the greatest American novel of all time with a similar tale of man versus beast in the middle of the ocean, but the results far fall short of its source material. Even when the film is at its best, which usually occurs when the white whale is spotted, it is impossible to shake the notion that you really have very little reason to care about everything happening on screen. The audience is never made to feel a part of the action, so every major sequence comes and goes in all its CGI glory without eliciting even the slightest rise in the viewer’s heart rate. It looks good, sure, but that is hardly enough to keep us engaged, and when the credits roll you have to ask yourself why you didn’t just wait for the film to arrive on Netflix.