As handsomely constructed as the wooden vessel on which it’s largely set, yet dramatically choppy as the ocean its protagonists set out to conquer, In the Heart of the Sea feels like the most windless, workmanlike adaptation of its ambitious story possible.
That may sound utterly damning, though it should be said that there are far worse things for a movie to be than serviceable. Director Ron Howard does his best to recreate the physical and psychological adversities endured by his characters, even succeeding in some places, and most of the central performances are appropriately rough-and-tumble. There are also a couple of solidly executed action sequences in the movie’s first half, moments Howard mines for decent amounts of tension. But anyone familiar with the real-life tale at the heart of this endeavor should be nonetheless dismayed by how strangely rudderless Howard’s take on the material feels, from first frame to last.
An adaptation of Nathaniel Philbrick’s non-fiction novel, about the real-life whaling expedition that inspired Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, In the Heart of the Sea begins with a tedious voice-over, then an even more tedious narrative framing device, both involving Meville himself (Ben Whishaw). “How does one come to know the unknowable?” The author muses, somewhat unbearably, fascinated by the elusive story of a doomed whaling vessel called the Essex.
Determined to find out exactly what happened to it, he pays a visit to the only living link to the ship’s final voyage: a hard-drinking, PTSD-afflicted Nantucket native named Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), who proceeds to enlighten him over the course of one long, dark night. (There’s no real drama to this setup – though Melville lacks charm or manners, Nickerson opens up all the same, and occasional throwbacks to them talking just chew up the runtime.)
Though Nickerson was just a boy (and played by the very likeable Tom Holland) when the Essex set sail, the way he tells his tale conveniently permits audiences to see events from the perspective of a more traditionally masculine protagonist: First Mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth, giving a fiercely committed performance), a strapping and skilled sailor with a loving wife (Charlotte Riley) back on land expecting their first child. As embodied by Hemsworth (whose intimidating frame and penchant for handsome brooding leaves the character feeling unfortunately like Thor minus his divine silver spoon), Chase is the seasoned pro every sensible sailor would want calling the shots.
The ship’s elitist owners, however, are far more concerned with privilege than prowess, and so Chase is passed over for captainship of the Essex in favor of George Holland Jr. (Benjamin Walker), a much less experienced seaman from a prestigious naval family. It doesn’t take a genius to predict a fairly calamitous clash of personalities. After Chase thinks on his feet to deal with a malfunctioning sail, impressing the crew, Holland is sure to bring up his first mate’s lower class status. And once Chase directly disobeys an order to save the ship after Holland moronically steers it into a furious storm, the pair agree to make no further secret of their hatred for one another.
Still, they steady the course, only to suffer misfortune after misfortune in their hunt for whales to spear and cut up for valuable blubber. Infuriated and weary but too ashamed to return home without the valuable cargo they set out to retrieve, Chase and Holland agree to set a course for the South Pacific, where they’ve heard tale of a huge pod of whales lying in wait. Turns out, those rumors were right – eventually, the Essex stumbles upon more than enough whales to fill its hull. Unfortunately for its crew, this discovery comes with one big, angry, 100-foot-long catch: a sperm whale of unparalleled size and fury that makes it a priority to send the Essex and its occupants to a watery grave.
In the Heart of the Sea has its pick of dramatically promising conflicts, from the escalating tension between Chase and Holland, to the paranoia of hunters realizing they’ve become the hunted, to the impossible decisions faced by shipwrecked sailors. But the movie inexplicably fails to build any of them, instead shifting back and forth between those three and others so suddenly that none really take hold. As soon as one source of conflict rears its head, the others all too expediently duck beneath the waves, only to reappear with no semblance of build-up or flow whenever the story threatens to grind to a halt.
On paper, In the Heart of the Sea should be an absolutely transfixing yarn, an iconic tale of human survival pitting its characters against the elements, one another and the animosity of a godlike nemesis. More than enough pieces are there – but there’s nothing in the finished product to suggest that anyone knew of even a midway-decent way to put them together. Instead, Howard’s adaptation, in part due to a resolutely surface-level script by Charles Leavitt that never seems to figure out what kind of story it wants to tell, feels adrift in a terrible kind of narrative purgatory where even the sight of a charismatic actor like Hemsworth wasting away into an emaciated skeleton warrants little more than a shrug.
The film is hobbled even further by some truly wretched CGI work that yanks audience members out of the story – it’s painfully obvious whenever a green screen is being used, and In the Heart of the Sea can’t seem to comprehend that it doesn’t matter how many times it throws obstacles at its characters if those obstacles feel fake. The one exception to this is the movie’s “great whale,” brought to life with such shockingly effective detail that its arrivals on screen carry with them a momentous dread and terror one wishes Howard could muster anywhere else.
Without any sustained energy or driving conflict to put wind in its sails, the pic ultimately possesses all the urgency of driftwood floating into shore. There’s an involving, thematically deep thriller to be made both of Melville’s novel and of Philbrick’s non-fiction account, but In the Heart of the Sea is regrettably feeble in its stabs at emulating the former and disappointingly shallow in how it tries to do justice to the latter. Moreover, even when taken entirely on its own terms, this is a dull, desultory piece of filmmaking that sinks a great premise to the depths of dramatic adequacy. For a tale of hardship and horror on the high seas, In the Heart of the Sea shouldn’t feel nearly this dead in the water.
For a tale of hardship and horror on the high seas, In the Heart of the Sea shouldn't feel nearly this dead in the water.