**1/2 out of ****
for intense sequences of action and peril, brief startling violence, and thematic material
Released: December 11, 2015
Runtime: 122 minutes
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Tom Holland, Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson
Putting a Jaws-like spin on the Moby Dick legend sounds like a surefire premise, especially when you’re throwing big budget special effects at the effort, but In The Heart Of The Sea is just another example of polished mediocrity from Ron Howard, a director who – despite a few distinct highlights – has built an entire filmmaking career out of polished mediocrity. His latest is no different. There’s a lot of sea here, but not nearly enough heart.
In the early 19th Century, the Massachusetts whaling ship Essex set out on a doomed expedition that would, decades later, inspire author Herman Melville to write “Moby Dick”, the classic tome of seafaring obsession that became and remains the standard of epic American literature. That obsession, though, is only hinted at near the very end, and it’s a result – rather than a part – of the account we see here, which is more of a survival tale born of a giant whale that preys upon and attacks the Essex when it’s thousands of miles from home.
For a movie that isn’t particularly bad and is, in many respects, particularly impressive, In The Heart Of The Sea shouldn’t be so dramatically flat. It is, though, because of how it takes a real-life story and then blands it down into overly familiar story beats, stock characters, and forced drama. The action is spectacular, but since we don’t really care about the characters then we never really care about their outcome.
The ship’s first officer Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) is a gifted sailor and leader who’s continually denied a captain’s rank because of his working class roots; and, of course, he leaves behind a beautiful wife who’s expecting their first child. The beefcake Hemsworth seems chiseled right out of myth (he is Thor, after all), where even his hair is ruggedly tailored to handsome perfection, and his only flaw is a mangled regional accent that’s all over the place (is it British? Bostonian? Straight American? And why do some words sound Southern?).
The actual captain, George Pollard, is an entitled upper class young man lacking experience or leadership qualities, but was born into societal standing. He and Chase clash, naturally, as the virtuous Chase is always right while the petulant Pollard is always wrong. Then there’s the young wide-eyed and green teen Thomas; he will inevitably come of age over the course of events. And everyone else is a single note, thinly drawn plot pawn. Their dialogue is driven by declarations rather than conversations, with pat platitudes passing as philosophy. Suffice it to say, the human drama lacks actual humanity.
The film’s strength, then, is its spectacle, and yet even there the seams of its digitized splendor are much easier to see because the contrived characters and drama work against and expose them. Indeed, the spectacle itself works overtime, trying to compensate for what the human element lacks, and so every other element is done to excess.
Cameras swirl, edits cut fast, the teal-and-orange color tones are crunched and saturated, and artificial sunflares are numerous to the point of distraction. As modern blockbusters go, this is a handsome and energetic one, yet for as sophisticated as its visual effects are we, as an audience, have become sophisticated enough to recognize them. One can’t help but intuitively sense that we’re watching actors on a studio soundstage get splashed with water, while the raging sea and its monstrous creatures have been composited behind and all around them.
This is all told within a framing device that’s set thirty years after the fact, as an older Thomas (Brendan Gleeson, Mad-Eye Moody of the Harry Potter franchise) recounts the tale to a curious Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw, Bond’s latest Q). While this, too, creeks with formulaic convention, Gleeson’s spiritually burdened and haunted man provides In The Heart Of The Sea its one genuine, affecting layer of emotion and pathos. Beyond that, however, we’re given performances of people who seem conscious of the fact that they’re in the movie version of their actual lives.
If high seas nautical action, thrills, and adventure is what you’re looking for, In The Heart Of The Sea delivers that in spades, and at least has its own sense of style to distinguish it from more generically produced summer blockbusters. But even as you see the peril rage and the stakes increase, don’t expect to feel them. Howard is able to harness all that modern technology has to offer, but he (and an uninspired script) can’t imbue it with the suspense that Spielberg did forty years ago with far less technical means.