In the Heart of the Sea is a movie with an identity problem. It’s also a movie with an acting problem, a staging problem, a plot problem, a handful of FX problems and a narrative framework problem. Did Ron Howard learn nothing from Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby? Apparently, the takeaway from that film is that telling a story isn’t enough. We have to tell the story of the story that’s being told, too, which forces big screen literary adaptations to make a hideous choice. In this case: Would you rather see a movie about the true events that inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick, or a movie about Melville hearing of those events second hand from a sailor who experienced them first hand?
Howard tries to have his movie both ways. He presents In the Heart of the Sea as an honest account of what happened to the whaleship Essex while also buckling swashes on the open sea with Chris Hemsworth and a supporting cast of his iron-wrought pecs (plus Cillian Murphy, Benjamin Lawrence, Tom Holland and Benjamin Walker). But the film runs into trouble as soon as it begins by couching adventure in the grim reality of survivor’s guilt. We open with Melville (Ben Whishaw) arriving in Nantucket to speak with Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), a surviving member of the fallen Essex willing to provide his version of the ship’s fate. Apparently, Melville thinks Nickerson’s tale could make a great book, much in the same way that Howard thinks a de-glamorized Moby Dick could make a great movie.
So Melville pays Nickerson a handsome sum for the man to regale the author with the sinking of the Essex, and the film immediately flashes back several decades to the 1820s, where we meet veteran whaler Owen Chase (Hemsworth) as he prepares to set sail on a two year journey for whale oil. Hemsworth might be the best worst person for the role: Chase has the kind of big, macho swagger that Hemsworth embodies in literally everything he does, and as an added plus, he carries a major chip on his shoulder. Though promised by his employers that he would captain his own ship on his next voyage, he’s forced to take a backseat to George Pollard, Jr. (Benjamin Walker), the son of a whaling dynasty whose name is worth more to the industry than Chase’s experience. You think that In the Heart of the Sea will revolve around them butting heads, Pollard the entitled and undeserving master of his charge, Chase the scrappy landsman who secured his position through good old fashioned hard work.
For one scene, it does: As the Essex leaves port, Pollard steers his men into a storm to test their mettle. For every order Pollard gives, Chase either issues a different order or simply ignores whatever Pollard says. Clearly, you might think, this is going to be a movie about male pride and dominance, and that will be the metaphorical foil to their eventual contest with Moby Dick himself. But no sooner does the script (by Warner Bros. staff writer Charles Leavitt) introduce this theme than it abandons it entirely and becomes a story of the younger Nickerson’s (Holland) coming-of-age under Chase’s gruff but brotherly tutelage. Hold on, though, because before too long after that, the crew is fighting for their lives against an enraged and oversized bull sperm whale, and In the Heart of the Sea becomes a “man versus nature” yarn.
That sounds like quite the steal, doesn’t it? Four movies for the price of one, and we’re only just halfway through the picture. The truth is that had Howard and Leavitt picked any two of those ideas and run with them, In the Heart of the Sea might have been at least a more cohesive movie, rather than one which hops from one mode to the next without resolving its dangling plot threads. If the production’s essence can be distilled into a single adjective, it would be “frenetic.” There’s no sense of direction here—as though Howard couldn’t figure out which movie he wanted to make, so he decided to make them all.
Unfortunately, the film still isn’t any good even when it does settle into a groove. The marquee sequence, where the Essex is blasted apart by the great white whale of legend, is structured as boilerplate Hollywood geographic chaos punctuated by a few effectively terrifying overhead shots of the beast’s dim outline beneath the ocean water. (Note: Do not take your thalassophobic loved ones to see this.)
Like the intermissive scenes with Gleeson and Whishaw, the whale’s choreographed attacks put distance between us and the film. They remind us forcefully that we’re watching a fiction of a fiction, a ham-handed and hideously green-screened attempt at blending history with fable for entertainment value. There isn’t an anchor for our perspective. Even Hemsworth, who has had his hammer confiscated and replaced with a harpoon, seems unsure of what he’s holding onto here. The cast, while bolstered by a wealth of talent, doesn’t have anyone capable of matching the stride of his charisma, and he is so much the physical superior to Walker as an actor that you have a hard time buying the notion that Chase couldn’t just arm wrestle Pollard for control of the ship. He has no one to talk to and nothing to punch. There has never before been so much disappointment in that reality.
Director: Ron Howard
Writer: Charles Leavitt
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Tom Holland, Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson, Michelle Fairley
Release Date: December 11, 2015
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has contributed to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine and Birth.Movies.Death. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.