In the Heart of the Sea is based on a book about a book, or, rather, the story behind the story that became Herman Melville’s American classic Moby Dick. It was a tale so fantastical that it seemingly had to be fiction… But in 1820, there was indeed a whaling ship based out of Nantucket, Massachusetts that was attacked and sunk by a great white whale in the Pacific, leaving its surviving crew 1,000 miles from land, stranded in rowboats. It’s a great story that is unfortunately only halfway gripping in this version by director Ron Howard.
It is not entirely the cast’s fault. Howard has assembled a steady and swarthy crew, led by sturdy and distractingly hot Chris Hemsworth, as First Mate Owen Chase, and Benjamin Walker, as the blue-blood newbie Captain Pollard. All the men certainly look their part as the crew of the Nantucket whaling ship Essex, but the problem is whenever they open their mouths. You’ve got Brits, Aussies, and Irishmen, who all fare just fine with American accents, but you can practically hear Ron Howard hissing every 10 minutes, “Boston! Do the Boston accent!” causing them to slip up distractingly at random intervals. It ends up sounding silly, especially in the heat of the moment when the men are making proclamations about squalls, whales, and oil.
After a personality conflict between Pollard and Chase causes the ship to almost go down in a storm after they have barely left port, the story basically coasts along like the Essex itself, with bursts of adventurous excitement interspersed with the doldrums. The excitement comes in the form of the initial whale hunt (which can’t help but owe a bit to Jaws), which includes the cabin boy (Tom Holland) having to crawl into the head of the whale with a bucket (gross!), and then of course the encounter with the great white whale, a beast so huge and craggy, that you know right away that he never loses a smackdown. Doldrums include pretty much anything involving just the men hanging out being mad at each other, or slowly starving to death in their little rowboats after they have lost their ship to the beast.
Why does In the Heart of the Sea never really click? I don’t know. There is an occasional glimmer of the movie it could have been, in the guise of Cillian Murphy, a best childhood buddy of Chase, who is one of the few sailors you really don’t want to see go. But then there’s the awkward future-framing device of Herman Melville (Ben Wishaw) interviewing the remaining aged survivor (Brendan Gleeson), trying to squeeze out the unspeakable truth (of which you can guess a mile away, even if you haven’t read the book). Finally, you can almost sense Ron Howard wringing his hands about the fact that there is absolutely no reason for women to be in this movie at all. Wait! Throw in a couple wives! Now a Hollywood kiss! Whew!
Somehow Ron Howard has taken an exciting true story of blood and gore and survival, and turned it into a kind of dull movie of blood and gore and survival (I’ve always thought that Howard is very good at making interesting stories dull). I couldn’t help but think of what Peter Weir’s Master and Commander cast and crew could have done with this material. We all know the story is great (I mean, come on! Moby Dick, people!), but this movie is not the classic telling we’ve been waiting for.
The Blu-ray release is stocked with a slew of featurettes: “Whale Tales: Melville’s Untold Story” (about Melville’s book Moby Dick), “The Hard Life of a Whaler” (the actors delve into what it was like for the real whalers of Nantucket), “A Man of Means and a Man of Courage” (about the real-life and film versions of Chase and Pollard), “Lightning Strikes Twice: The Real-Life Sequel to Moby Dick” (about archaeologists finding the wreck of another of Captain Pollard’s whaleships), “Commanding the Heart of the Sea” and “Ron Howard: Captain’s Log” (both behind-the-scenes looks into the filmmaking), plus there are deleted and extended scenes.