Is it possible to be fairly enthusiastic about a movie you don’t like much? There’s much to admire in Ron Howard’s “In The Heart Of The Sea,” a retelling of the story that inspired Herman Melville’s classic “Moby Dick.” A high-seas adventure yarn with some of the best CGI that 2015 has to offer, plus top-shelf visual grandeur and thrillingly crafted spectacle, the allegedly true story of a vengeful, massive white sperm whale that nearly killed an entire vessel of hunters is often gripping and epic. Unfortunately, “In The Heart Of The Sea” excels in action and impressive set pieces but not much else; a by-the-numbers script begets what is ultimately a pedestrian movie.
Much like Robert Zemeckis’ “The Walk,” the visual resplendence of “In The Heart Of The Sea” has the ability to inspire awe, but its human elements are clichéd and its drama is routine. The film’s conventional framing device doesn’t help. An aspiring writer named Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) wants to write an enduring piece of literature; this puts him in the orbit of a grizzled Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), a drunken ex-sailor traumatized by an incident at sea of which he refuses to speak. Melville pleads with Nickerson to tell his story and offers a hefty sum to do so, but it takes the old man’s wife (Michelle Fairley from “Game Of Thrones”), worried about the post-traumatic syndrome he has suffered for years, to convince him to finally unload his burden.
And then “In The Heart Of The Sea” fades back to decades earlier, when a handsome first officer named Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) is expecting a child, as well as a promotion for his upcoming assignment: captaining a prestigious vessel called The Essex. In the early-19th century, much of the civilized world needs kerosene, which is most often syphoned from the blubber of whales, hence the ship’s mission. But since he is a “landsman” not born into a whaling family, Chase is immediately asked to stand aside so a younger, inexperienced silver-spooner named George Pollard Jr. (Benjamin Walker) can captain the ship instead. Initially incensed, Chase’s pride eventually recedes when given financial compensation he cannot refuse.
Conflicts built on arrogance, bitterness and class cause additional friction and carry throughout the picture, but much of the clashes are predictable with a lot of banal grandstanding — Pollard’s entitled petulance masks his inexperience, and the veteran Chase begrudgingly goes along with orders that he knows could land the ship in danger.
The movie’s uninspired, formulaic framing device is made clunkier by the fact the young Nickerson (Tom Holland) is a wide-eyed cabin boy who isn’t central to the story. So Melville and aged Nickerson reflect back on a story that isn’t really told through his point of view. “In The Heart Of The Sea” tries to be the heroic, virtuous tale of the rugged Owen Chase, the man responsible for anyone on the ship coming back alive, but this of course features its own set of routine narratives. The film’s crew-member supporting cast is expendable. In a role far beneath his talents, Cillian Murphy plays the thankless second mate, and Frank Dillane earns the dubious distinction of playing the film’s most annoying and poorly written character, Owen Coffin: Pollard’s bratty and haughty cousin.
“In The Heart Of The Sea” is not unlike “Unbroken,” Angelina Jolie’s 2014 movie of enduring triumph of the spirit, in that Howard’s movie transforms into a traditional survival narrative, complete with starving crew members having to resort to unspeakable acts in order to live. Both dramas feature dour, washed-out color palettes, but curiously enough, Anthony Dod Mantle‘s cinematography for Howard’s film stand out much more than the venerable Roger Deakins‘ for Jolie’s film (no, really).
With The Essex and its crew sailing on the Pacific Ocean, there’s a kinetic and visceral quality to the images that makes these sequences easily the most exciting of the movie. Handsomely rendered throughout, the mid-section of the picture features some tremendous visuals, set-pieces and incredibly convincing CGI. Perhaps more importantly, the 40-minute-plus middle section is a gripping procedural in seamanship and whale hunting that communicates not only tactile grit — sailing on one of these ships is physically punishing — but the cruel conditions of being at sea otherwise. Here, the script begins to finally show, not tell: the audience learns about the procedures of sailing and hunting sperm whales by watching them unfold and not having it spoonfed. Additionally, these scenes are where all the characters are at their most convincing, never speaking much or saying more than they need to — their actions express everything we need to know.
Yet the movie can’t resist the temptation to bellow sentimental and environmental “we should respect the creatures of the sea” themes. After the first whale is slain in the film’s first spectacular action sequence, the characters — who kill whales for a living, mind you — suddenly show remorse for what they have done in a moment of unconvincing regret, replete with twinkling melancholy music and a drizzling rain of whale’s blowhole blood.
If “In The Heart Of The Sea” is engaging during its second act, it loses almost all of its steam and vitality in the third section, which is focused on emaciated men too delirious to get back to shore. This chapter feels almost like an entirely different movie — compared to such arresting survival movies of the last few years, it is quite routine.
As Howard’s movie sails into port, the overlong final act strains to feel poignant by showing every character at their most vulnerable. Chase and Pollard learn to respect each another; Melville reveals his fears of being a hack writer; and the elder Nickerson finally confesses the burdens of his hidden shame. Everyone essentially overcomes their demons, and the heroes make it home, albeit by the skin of their frail teeth. As this protracted film begins to signal its farewell, the banality of a “Moby Dick: Year One” origin story comes into focus. Howard’s middle-of-the-road, eager-to-please choices hurt the crucial human element of “In The Heart Of The Sea;” visual daring is nice, but it means little in the end when the ultimately safe story never rocks the boat. [C]