Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Ron Howard. Screenplay by Charles Leavitt; story by Charles Leavitt, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver; based upon the non-fiction book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick. Produced by Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Will Ward, Joe Roth, Paula Weinstein. Music by Roque Baños. Photographed by Anthony Dod Mantle. Edited by Dan Hanley, Mike Hill. Production designed by Mark Tildesly. Costumes designed by Julian Day. Starring Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Brendan Gleeson, Ben Whishaw, Michelle Fairley, Tom Holland, Paul Anderson, Frank Dillane, Joseph Mawle.
In the Heart of the Sea tells the story of the whaling ship Essex, which set sail from Nantucket Island to Cape Horn in 1820 before running afoul of a vindictive sperm whale. That attack was mere overture for the harrowing ordeal that followed: a shipwreck, an inhospitable island, death, disease, terrorization from a pod of whales, mutinous feelings, and then ultimately cannibalism and crippling, horrific guilt. Like Titanic, this is a story of men believing they have dominion over the sea, before being reminded that the machines with which they bind their faith to that premise are perfectly fragile. That is one of two story threads that In the Heart of the Sea covers; the other involves a young writer arriving in Nantucket to hear the story from a survivor (Brendan Gleeson). Since the writer’s name is Herman Mellville, I will argue that his plot contains considerably less suspense than the other.
That’s one of the issues with Ron Howard’s okay-but-forgettable In the Heart of the Sea: it can’t quite manage to step out from Moby Dick’s shadow. Of course, the true story this movie is based on did inspire Mellville’s Moby Dick, but “The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex,” (as so dubbed by the subtitle of Nathaniel Philibrick’s non-fiction book) is not a footnote to the writing of Moby Dick. It is a bone-chilling survival tale that should stand on its own. Here, it has been yoked to a frame story of limited interest, made slightly uncomfortable by the way it tries to manufacture false uplift by showing you how the tale became fodder for Mellville’s novel. True, Moby Dick is one of the best American novels ever written, but that information would probably come as cold comfort to the crew of the Essex.
If Moby Dick is a story about revenge and obsession, then the real story is about greed and economic pressure. For the first hour, its central conflict rests between two gruff men. Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) is a natural seaman who has more than earned his own command. Corporate politicking makes him instead a first mate under Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), a privileged and naïve beneficiary of nepotism, who likes to enforce the class divide, belittle his subordinates, and blame them for his own mistakes. They are tasked with delivering 2,000 kegs of whale oil (then one of the world’s most crucial commodities), which is the type of expedition that could take a year or more. Spurred by pride, greed and their own mutual enmity, Chase and Pollard push the vessel further south, along less-traveled whaling routes, where the wildlife seems more akin to the abilities of sea monsters. Soon the ship is down and the crew is now at the mercy of the elements, hunger, and vengeful whales.
This is a corker of an adventure story, as the crew descends into a Lord of the Flies scenario where social conventions cease to matter. But Howard’s movie keeps pulling us out of the narrative with the Mellville framing story and Gleeson’s dutiful narration. It’s a choice that relaxes the story’s tension rather than aiding it, and the effect pushes the audience away rather than involving them. The narration feels like a device to gloss over the unsavory portions, preserve the PG-13 rating, and make the shipwrecked survivors’ story more toothlessly episodic. The shipwreck scenes are bite-sized, self-contained, slightly sanitized mini-dramas about shame and regret, and they don’t add up to enough. Another issue may be the script, which gives us characters who lack definition outside shopworn clichés. Charlotte Riley, who plays Owen’s good, sweet and perpetually worried wife, has the unenviable task of saying the horary line “Promise me you’ll come home” and trying hard to make it look like she means it.
The surprisingly cheap and murky cinematography, by Anthony Dodd Mantle, favors yellows, as if everything was shot through a dingy spyglass. That might have been done to obscure the more unconvincing special effects, but it doesn’t help our desire to be immersed. Ron Howard is an accomplished director who has made superlative pictures, but In the Heart of the Sea is unfortunately a whale long way from his very best.