Directed by Ron Howard
Written by Charles Leavitt
Moby Dick is considered a great American work. If you are like me, you’re a terrible American because you have never read Moby Dick. If you’re a great American, and have read Herman Melville’s famous novel from 1851, then, well, good for you. Here’s the deal, I have a great love of books in general, but when it comes to actually sitting down to read them, I usually struggle. Whether I have a short attention span, or just find it hard to dedicate the time to reading, books I buy are often found on shelves collecting dust. I should do better, but for now I will settle for Ron Howard’s interpretation of a non-fiction book about the event’s that inspired Melville’s work of fiction. That’s gotta be pretty much the same thing as reading Moby Dick, right?
Probably not exactly. Howard’s film In the Heart of Sea does find Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) in search of Thomas Nickerson (Brendon Gleeson), the lone survivor of the Nantucket whaler Essex, which met an untimely demise in the Pacific at the hands of a great white whale. Melville offers all his money for a recounting of the tale of the Essex, which begins with its First Mate, Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth). Chase, an experienced sailor but son to a farmer, is hoping to become the captain of his own whaler, but instead receives news that he will serve as first mate to the incapable George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), whose family name earns him the title of Captain. The Essex sets sail to fill its hull with whale oil. But after struggling early in the journey, Pollard and Chase hear a story from a Spaniard about the “Offshore Grounds”, teeming with whales, including one that cost the lives of a few of his crew. Hoping for greener pastures, the Essex sets out to the remote Pacific only to find the terror of the whale all too real.
Ron Howard once again delivers a solid, and very entertaining narrative. His penchant for telling compelling tales is impressive, but as with his past efforts, In the Heart of the Sea never seems to become anything more than solid and entertaining, not the worst curse to befall a director. What In the Heart of the Sea gets right is the inner workings of a whaling ship. Not that I know what those look like, but that’s the point. Howard does a good job at showing us what life on a whaler is like, including the gut-wrenching process of procuring the oil from the captured whale. The film proceeds in much a similar, calculated manner which is a shame, as it is never able to break out of its own comfortable, predictable shell to propel it above anything more than well-made mediocre fare. This is particularly disappointing given the largeness of the tale being told.
The setting at play, the wide open sea, allows for some incredible staging. The resulting product is incredible cinematography by the more than capable collaborator Anthony Dod Mantle. Howard and Mantle incorporate the CGI and impressive practical effects into the vast seascape background and grand ships to deliver a stirring visual experience. From a technical perspective, the film succeeds. The tale is large, exciting, and unbelievable, and yet the story feels rushed at times, preferring exciting set pieces to character development, which results in a limited emotional investment to the characters at the time of their greatest peril. I was fully expecting a 2.5+ hour epic, knowing Ron Howard and the wide open sea was involved, but ultimately this is the trimmed down two hour version.
I would be interested to watch an extended “Director’s Cut”, which might afford Howard the time to not only include the exciting, crowd-pleasing action, but also the more integral character interaction to build a solid foundation for emotional connection. There is great potential in this story, but we only see Chase’s capable sailing skills in a scene meant to force-feed us that information. We hardly see the deep connection between Chase and friend Matthew Joy (Cillian Murphy) before harsh conditions bring their longstanding friendship to the forefront. Are we meant to hate the whale, or respect him and his great power. Does Chase? There very well may be a great film sitting on the cutting room floor, but the “Theatrical” version I saw is just a solid, entertaining film with little depth.