IN THE HEART OF THE SEA Is A Whale In Search Of Its Ahab

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In The Heart of the Sea starts 12/11/15.

Call me Ishmael. No, wait, don’t do that. Ron Howard didn’t. With IN THE HEART OF THE SEA, Howard managed to make Moby Dick in full glory, creating a killer (no pun intended) whale that is almost as likeable as Godzilla. It’s a shame, though, because there’s just no reason not to make MOBY DICK. Howard decided to play it safe and make the story behind the story, the truth of which I would think would be pretty hard to verify. The film is based on a nonfiction book of the same name, detailing the misadventure of the Essex, a Nantucket whaler in the 19th century. I have no doubt that the Essex’s misadventure happened, the book was non-fiction, verified by various firsthand accounts in historical records, but the odds that it informed Herman Mehlville’s writing of MOBY DICK seem pretty long. In playing it safe, or perhaps trying to be different from previous attempts to capture the great white demon on film, Howard made a tepid, waterlogged pseudo-action movie when he should have made an intense drama of Ishmael and Queequeg assisting their increasingly crazed Captain Ahab, hunting their great nemesis.

The cast features some fine actors, particularly the neo-Mel Gibson, Chris Hemsworth. As First Mate Owen Chase, he exudes the classic hero traits. His foil is Captain George Pollard, Jr., played by Benjamin Walker, a novice seaman whose captaincy is gained by family power rather than experience. Cillian Murphy is excellent as Matthew Joy, ship’s Second Mate and Owen Chase’s best friend on the crew. I would have been fine watching this cast go off the deep end (rim shot!) as the core of a MOBY DICK crew, but Howard employees a framing sequence that regularly interrupts the flow of the film to show Ben Whishaw as a young Herman Mehlville taking notes from Brendan Gleeson, as the aged Essex cabin boy Tom Nickerson, who is now old, married and living ashore. This is the conceit of IN THE HEART OF THE SEA, the attempt to paint MOBY DICK as a fiction based on real events, a connection which really can’t be verified. Gleeson is always eminently watchable, but here he’s simply unnecessary. He would have been fantastic as a narrator voice in a MOBY DICK movie, though.

The film is pretty to watch, despite the studio’s predictable meddling with 3D effects that add absolutely nothing to the experience. There were no splashes, no debris, and no flying whales that ever appear to jump off the screen at you. It’s a bloody shame that American audience haven’t seen the light yet—the studios tack on 3D so they can tack on to the ticket price for the privilege of watching their films, despite the likelihood of physical illness in a certain percentage of moviegoers who are otherwise fine watching 2D. If moviegoers would flock to 2D screenings and leave the 3D auditoriums vacant, maybe Hollywood would either figure out a way to make 3D actually work—at best it slightly enhances depth perception—or drop it altogether and quit gouging the public for their crappy gimmick. Either that or more directors should stand up to their studios and refuse to make the film if they slap an underwhelming effect over their hard work. The soundtrack by Roque Baños is solid enough but at times lacked the blood-pumping vigor you might expect from a John Williams score. The Essex and the crew’s costumes seemed fine, though Nantucket seemed awfully ramshackle—I kept looking for Popeye’s Pappy to be standing among the throngs like a salty sea-Waldo.

IN THE HEART OF THE SEA is an easy title to forget, and the film won’t stick with you for long either. It teases a little MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY, a healthy dose of JAWS (as a whale) and a little bit of CASTAWAY, while failing to be particularly effective at of those elements. I didn’t find it an arduous chore to sit through—I’ve always been a fairly easy sell for old timey nautical adventures—but it misses the boat when it comes to being what it should have been, MOBY DICK on the level of James Cameron’s TITANIC. Instead, it’s merely the big fish (I know, it’s a mammal) that got away from Ron Howard.   

Grade: 
3.0 / 5.0