"In The Heart Of The Sea" Is A Guppy Of A Tale

The refrain “no blood for oil” might have been a byproduct of the 2003 Iraq War, but humans have been risking life and limb for the stuff since time immemorial. Centuries before drilling or hydraulic fracturing, men with ostensible death wishes set out in creaky ships to hunt giant, mysterious sea creatures and harvest their insides.

Beginning as early as the 16th century, whale blubber was commonly melted down into a viscous yellow-brown liquid that could be used as a lamp illuminant or made into candle wax, soap, and various other household items. But up until 1850, whaling was merely a profession. It wasn’t until 1851 that it would become a sensation.

Author Herman Melville’s 927-page Moby Dick – the Romanticist classic about a captain’s obsessive quest for revenge on a monstrous white whale – immortalized the industry, ironically just as it was petering out.

Filmmaker Ron Howard’s “In The Heart Of The Sea” chronicles not Melville’s novel itself, but the making of it, a savvy move to sidestep expectations that would have come with adapting one of literature’s most cherished works. Or, it would have been a savvy move, had Howard made something worth the time and money.

“In The Heart Of The Sea” is so flat it could be used to level a table, a film free of human emotion and loaded with garish green screen work. Some of the special effects are admittedly impressive, but they uniformly remind that what we’re watching isn’t real – especially the picture’s tangle of comatose human performances.

Ben Whishaw and Brendan Gleeson are the exceptions, anchoring the movie’s best throughline. As Herman Melville and grizzled whaler George Pollard Jr. respectively, they serve as the movie’s framing device, with a nervous Melville convincingly coaxing a clearly traumatic whaling story out of Pollard. Their interplay is excellent, even if Gleeson’s character is frequently relaying story elements that he wasn’t present for and couldn’t have known.

Their first scene together suggests a much better movie than what follows.

Once Howard and screenwriter Charles Leavitt flashback several decades, all momentum is lost. Star Chris Hemsworth (“Thor”) is a calamity as First Mate Owen Chase, warbling all of his dialogue in a jumble of an accent while future Spider-Man Tom Holland (as a young George Pollard Jr.) is mostly reduced to quiet observer.

The rest of the supporting cast (led by Cillian Murphy) has less personality combined than the CGI whale that eventually leaves them shipwrecked. They’re all drawn in broad, uninteresting strokes, leaving the film’s only intrigue to whale-centric sequences that frequently look like video game cutscenes. That the story ultimately turns grisly does nothing to assuage its dramatic inertia, ending up a matted, inessential tangle of “Master And Commander” and “Life Of Pi” that isn’t half as good as either.

Moreover, the exchanges between Melville and Pollard, while relative high points, do nothing to play with the idea of mythmaking – the obvious crux of the story that Howard misses entirely. And beyond a few monologues about the nature of whalemen, it tells us next to nothing about the profession.

Howard’s last film (“Rush”) was a very good one, making “In The Heart Of The Sea” all the more puzzling. Why it plays like it was cast with a dartboard we may never know, but it’s all too clear that its only modicum of heart is hidden right in plain sight – in its title.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: December 11, 2015
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Ron Howard
Screenwriter: Charles Leavitt
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Holland, Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson, Cillian Murphy
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of action and peril, brief startling violence, and thematic material)