Review: Whale tale ‘In the Heart of the Sea’ is all wet
A lumbering sea adventure that never finds its bearings, Ron Howard’s “In the Heart of the Sea” is a whale of a dud.
Based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s 2000 book, “In the Heart of the Sea” tells the story that inspired “Moby Dick.” The extra layer of filtering is unnecessary (why not just do “Moby Dick” instead?) and it creates an awkward framing device around a story that’s already treading water.
So we see Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) hearing the tale of the whale ship Essex, told to him by a reticent Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson). Melville jots down notes by candlelight as Nickerson recounts the tale of how he and his crew went on a voyage to collect whale oil and ended up lost at sea for months on end after encountering some massive, angry sea beasts. The scenes between the two are stiff and we get no sense of Melville as anything but a guy who once heard a story, then wrote a book that would become the most famous piece of literature in American history. Sounds easy!
Most of the movie’s action is dedicated to Nickerson’s tale within a tale, with Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) and his crew mates on the high seas in search of whales to slaughter. Of course they battle big storms and things go terribly wrong, because when have you ever seen a movie on a boat where things don’t go terribly wrong? (Yes, that includes “Boat Trip.”)
There are internal struggles onboard the ship, mostly between Chase and the ship’s captain (Benjamin Walker) and his second mate (Cillian Murphy). There is the story of the young cabin boy (Tom Holland), who after crawling inside the head of a whale (rendered in very gross detail) grows up to be the guy who tells Melville his tale. And then there is that whale, a big CGI creature that creates a whole mess of trouble for the men on the ship.
The whale watching never impresses visually. Howard cuts from wide shots of the vast ocean to close ups of the men on small whaling boats, and the obviously green-screened shots look as cheesy as covers of sea tale paperback books. (Skip the needless 3D upgrade, it doesn’t add anything but a headache.) The fakery makes it difficult to suspend disbelief and is always taking you out of the story.
Not that the story is all that compelling in the first place. It is a familiar lost-at-sea yarn, with the desperation and struggle to survive that comes part and parcel with the territory. This one, in particular, gets rather gruesome, though its more fringe elements (cannibalism, anyone?) are glossed over off-screen, while Charles Leavitt’s screenplay forgoes the psychological torture of being adrift in the ocean and instead focuses on the physical strains.
Hemsworth comes off stiff, as he often does when used in wooden heroic roles. When hosting “Saturday Night Live” earlier this year (and in summer’s “Vacation,” where he was the lone bright spot), he showed strong comedic sensibilities, but here he’s the rugged, stoic, honorable type — he’s Thor as an 1800s whaler — and beyond his incredible good looks, he doesn’t leave an impression.
Howard, who also teamed with Hemsworth for 2013’s thrilling Formula One drama “Rush,” is off his mark here. In attempting to deliver the story of the story of “Moby Dick,” he — and the movie — are on a sinking ship.
‘In the Heart of the Sea’
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action and peril, brief startling violence, and thematic material.