Though cast and crew certainly give it their all, particularly during sequences in the film clearly shot at sea versus on a sound stage, there’s simply too much of In the Heart of the Sea that looks and feels false to complete take audiences in and feel immersive. Especially when held up to other 19th Century period pieces and maritime action dramas to come to theaters in recent years, it falls far short of what it could and should have been: a cinematic experience dramatizing the incredible story that inspired a timeless literary classic.
In August 1819, the American whaleship Essex, under the command of Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) and First Mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), set sail from Nantucket, Massachusetts on what it hoped would be yet another profitable whale oil expedition in the South Pacific, expected to last no more than three years. But by November of the following year, the ship was destroyed, its surviving crew set adrift aboard its three intact whaleboats on the open sea with minimal provisions and even less hope of ever seeing land again. Miraculously, some members of that crew did survive, but what really happened to them out there was covered up, buried beneath a story about the ship running aground, a story most of the maritime community and the public came to believe.
But thirty years later, aspiring and inquisitive author Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw, SPECTRE) comes across the story and isn’t convinced by the official accounts. He seeks out the Essex‘s only living survivor in 1850, Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), who at age 14 served as a cabin boy on the ship’s fateful trip. From a haunted and reticent Nickerson, Melville then learns the truth: about the tensions and rivalry between Pollard and Chase that divided the crew, about just how far the Essex had gone “off the map” in search of whales to harvest in order to fill the ship’s hold with oil and set sail for home, and just what it was that really sunk the ship, left the men stranded for months and fundamentally changed for the rest of their lives.
A whale. A larger, stronger, more intelligent and seemingly vengeful whale with white skin that proved more than a match for the Essex, its inexperienced captain, and the capable but arrogant whalemen who thought their humanity, their ships and their harpoons made them masters of the seas.
A little more than twenty years ago, Ron Howard made his first directing foray into 19th Century period pieces with Far and Away, the Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman Irish immigrant epic that today is generally regarded at best as “uneven”: grand and opulent production, bland and shallow story. Though that production has little in common with In the Heart of the Sea aside from its general historical setting, this film may end up being cataloged along with Far and Away as strong arguments for why Howard should steer clear of period dramas and stick to stories in contemporary settings. He seems to be visually “tone deaf” in terms of just how to set a scene in a time and place far removed from his own without it coming of as staged; he understands “grand” without grasping “authentic”, something his contemporaries — most notably Steven Spielberg — have shown far more mastery of in film after film. The scenes in this film set in 1800’s Nantucket are, by far, the worst offenders in this regard — they all scream “green screen”, “matte painting”, and “hollow set”, especially thanks to the murky green patina through which the entire film seems to be filtered. When added to the stiff dialogue in the early going and the general lack of depth to the majority of the characters here, the sum total just serves as a reminder that you’ve seen this time and place in history depicted with a much more deft and capable touch than what you’re getting here. Watch Spielberg’s Lincoln again, or go back a bit further to Peter Weir’s Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World, and the difference in the directors’ facility and comfort with style, tone, and period are all too clear.
Speaking of the characters and the actors portraying them, if you’re a fan of Chris Hemsworth’s superhero film work, you might be more apt to accept and enjoy what he delivers in In the Heart of the Sea, as the film’s take on Owen Chase is as close to a mortal version of the actor’s most recognized recurring role, the thunder god Thor in the Marvel films, as is possible. As Thor was particularly in his first film appearance back in 2011, Chase is confident, capable, and charismatic, but temperamental and driven to the point of rash action to prove himself and his worthiness to lead. Unlike Hemsworth’s last collaboration with Howard, 2013’s Rush, in which the Australian actor demonstrated remarkable range beyond his well-known on-screen superhero persona, the work he delivers here feels like a regression. In comparison, Benjamin Walker, playing Chase’s rival and foil, Captain Pollard, fares a little better, as the film’s writers give that character more to work with in terms of internal turmoil and Walker makes the most of it. But the rest of the film’s impressive casting, which includes Cillian Murphy in a rare, non-creepy role, Michelle Fairley of “Game of Thrones” fame, and Tom Holland, the talented young actor who is next in line to play another major Marvel hero, Spider-Man, in multiple films starting with next year’s Captain America: Civil War, feels wasted considering how little they’re all given to work with. It’s like they’re there only because they can all carry off a period accent convincingly, rather than their capacity to actually bring to life a well-written film role.
So is it safe to dismiss In the Heart of the Sea with an awful pun, that it’s a whale of a disappointment? Sadly, yes. As a period drama, a seafaring epic, and a story of grim survival, the film pales in comparison to other films with similar settings and themes coming from Hollywood in recent years. The real-life story, as well as the bestselling non-fiction book by Nathaniel Philbrick, certainly deserved better. Save your money at the box office, and read the book, instead. It will quite likely be a much more rewarding experience.
In the Heart of the Sea
Starring Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Tom Holland, Ben Whishaw and Brendan Gleeson. Directed by Ron Howard.
Running Time: 121 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action and peril, brief startling violence, and thematic material.