The 400-Word Review: In the Heart of the Sea
By Sean Collier
December 15, 2015
The now-extensive filmography of director Ron Howard contains multitudes, from the underrated (Rush) to the overrated (A Beautiful Mind), from just-shy-of-great (Apollo 13) to just-better-than-abysmal (The Dilemma).
He has not, however, taken great big ships onto the open ocean until now, the lure to put strong-jawed actors in very old coats and make them bark nautical terms having proven too great. Who can blame him? Plenty of directors have hoisted the mainsails in the past, despite the fact that seafaring epics are almost always bloated and almost never particularly memorable.
For his journey over the horizon, Howard brings us In the Heart of the Sea, the mostly-true tale of the whaling ship Essex, which met with disaster during an 1820 expedition. The subsequent legend became part of American myth and, in small part, inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick.
According to this film, though, this tale wasn't just part of Melville's source material; it was the white whale's origin story. In a dreary, unnecessary framing narrative, we follow Melville (Ben Whishaw) to Nantucket, where he tracks down Essex survivor Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson, wasted) and begs for the truth.
The truth starts with a feud between master sailor Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) and silver-spoon captain George Pollard, Jr., (Benjamin Walker) who are at odds about nearly everything except a desire to acquire quite a lot of whale oil. Pollard's recklessness nearly sinks the ship within a few days of the Atlantic coast, but Chase demands they sail on; he's been promised a promotion to captain if the journey is a success.
Their quest for large aquatic mammals leads them deep into the Pacific, where a shell-shocked old sailor told them they'd find more whales than they can fling a harpoon at. There's a catch, however: One of the beasts really likes to sink ships.
In the Heart of the Sea is far too long and utterly incapable of telling a cohesive story; since it sticks fairly close to historical events, the structure is weak. (Perhaps it would've been wiser to just adapt Moby Dick? Again?) And while Howard certainly knows his craft well enough to provide visual wonders, he's saddled with a rusty anchor of a leading man. Hemsworth does well as Thor in the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, but he should stay there; when he's asked to play a member of our own species, he's lost at sea.
My Rating: 4/10
Sean Collier is the Associate Editor of Pittsburgh Magazine and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Read more from Sean at pittsburghmagazine.com/afterdark