‘In the Heart of the Sea’ Review: Ron Howard’s Latest Is an Under-whale-ming Epic

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Warner Bros.

There’s a gigantic sea monster! There’s Chris Hemsworth‘s muscular and skeletal frame! There’s harpoons and storms and dolphins and waves and adventure! There’s even a British man (played by Ben Whishaw) narrating the story as told by another very talented actor (Brendan Gleeson). By the sounds of it, In the Heart of the Sea should be a whale of a tale, but Ron Howard’s latest falls very short of its epic endeavors.

Based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s book, In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, the film tells the real-life story that inspired Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. Although the 1851 novel made the giant sea creature one of the most famous characters of American literature, Melville’s classic left out the grueling details of what happened to the men of the Essex after they encountered the whale. Directed by Howard, the film follows Gleeson’s Thomas Nickerson, the last-living survivor of the Essex in 1850 as he recounts the story of the ship to an eager Melville (Whishaw).

We travel back to Nantucket, Massachusetts 30 years earlier to meet Owen Chase (Hemsworth), the orphan of a farmer who’s been promised to be Captain of his next voyage. But Chase is given a new set of stipulations before he can secure his promotion – to bring back 2,000 pounds of whale oil. Benjamin Walker portrays the wealthy, inexperienced George Pollard (aka Melville’s Captain Ahab), who is named Captain, while Chase serves as the ship’s first mate. The crew sets out to sea, but a good 40 minutes goes by before they catch their first whale. (A warning to animal lovers/PETA activists/people with weak stomachs: One whale dissection scene is gruesome and will make you very, very glad Edwin Drake changed the oil industry.)

But before it gets to the whales, In the Heart of the Sea attempts to elevate the drama with a few other complications, like a tangled sail (or something, I dunno, I couldn’t understand through all the accents and sailor-lingo) and a storm. During the former, Hemsworth suddenly crawls up the ship’s mast like a 19th century Spider-Man – it’s too bad his co-star, Tom Holland, Marvel’s new Spidey, doesn’t get any climbing action in the film. At first it feels like a thrilling moment as Chase, the “hero,” risks his life to save his crew, but then you realize he’s just climbing a big pole to cut a rope and it ends up being not that big of a deal. Some of the stakes in this film are set so high, but in execution they fall remarkably low. Though sailing, especially in that era, can be a terrifying and daunting task, somehow Howard’s climactic moments in the first half of the film are stripped of urgency and excitement. Until we meet – dun dun dun – THE WHALE!

Things finally pick up some speed once the 100-foot-long creature is introduced on screen, and it certainly looks fantastic. If anything should be celebrated about this film, it’s the incredible visuals. The CG and visual effect team, paired with Anthony Dod Mantle’s dazzling cinematography, managed to create a giant whale that’s as scary as it is beautiful. Howard’s shots of the whale’s body slinking past the Essex and the men looking up at the creature’s unbelievably gigantic tail are gorgeous, chill-inducing sights to behold. He directs action sequences between the men and the whales with a rush of intensity, but too often the action is distracted by his flashy close-ups and POV shots. At one point the camera lays sideways on the deck to watch waves crash into the lens, an obvious flourish to heighten the 3D experience (I saw it in 2D). In a film like this, such shots feel like unnecessary cheap pleas to engage the audience. Sometimes simpler is better.

The whale chases only last so long, though. After the big beast dives back into the sea, Howard’s film turns into a survival tale, and an incredibly tedious one. We’re left in paddle boats with Chase, Pollard, Thomas, Cillian Murphy‘s Matthew, Frank Dillane’s Henry, Joseph Mawle’s Benjamin and a few others. On paper, their story is horrific. Stranded at sea for 90 days far from any known land without water or food, the men are driven to near-madness as they’re forced to resort to cannibalism to survive. But as stark as the circumstances are, these characters are colored with no depth and instead are just emotionless, emaciated faces baking in the sun. When the film finally has a chance to tap into something powerful and human, it’s as boring as being stuck in the middle of the ocean with nothing to do. Howard loses just as much energy as his dying characters while we wade with them far longer than necessary. Might I remind you that this is a movie where people eat other people and it’s still a drag at points.

Even when the film does try to rouse emotion, it feels like a last minute attempt to make up for lack of character development. There’s a lot of good actors in this movie, and Holland stands out as the most memorable, but they’re given so little to do besides run around and shout in the midst of splashing waves. Unfortunately there’s not a lot of heart in this sea.

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