It takes only the immediate introduction of its prologue for Ron Howard’s whaling drama In the Heart of the Sea to become far more off-putting and pitiful a movie than the cinematic tale that inspired Moby Dick has any right or reason to be. This could be a tight, terrifying adventure pic that immerses us in the experience of 1820s whalers who ran up against a vengeful white sperm whale, but oh wait, not so fast! Turns out we need to start this off with a cheesy setup device that has Ben Whishaw appear as Herman Melville looking to extract the Essex story from Brendan Gleeson’s gruff lone survivor so Melville can go on to write a little book that might become a hit or something. It’s just such a Ron Howard thing to do, isn’t it?
This opening narrative device becomes a screen time hog for the rest of the movie and accomplishes nothing good. There’s the constant winking where Melville modestly disses his writing skills, but insists this story must be told! There’s a whole mystery around what specifically shell-shocked the survivor into silence that completely fails to build any dramatic anticipation. There’s lazy foreshadowing, momentum stalling, and clumsy exposition dealing.
Perhaps some viewers will appreciate the context, but the way that Howard and screenwriter Charles Leavitt, adapting Nathaniel Philbrick’s non-fiction book of the same name, employ this device just feels like unnecessary hand-holding. We apparently need to know that the story we’re about to witness was the basis for one of the most famous pieces of American literature ever and we need to know it immediately, because then we’ll, what… pay more attention?
Again, this is classic Ron Howard. He always seems to distrust that either the story will engage the audience or that the audience will fully comprehend the story, so he piles on more and more and more until the experience is a misshapen mess that hardly feels like the work of an industry veteran. And this is just the prologue!
Before long, we’re sent back to 1820 Nantucket, where whaler Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth, Howard’s latest muse and a fair match for his mediocrity) is preparing to say goodbye to his pregnant wife (Charlotte Riley) as he heads off on his latest voyage. The perennial First Mate has been promised he’ll be promoted to Captain for this job, which is a pretty big deal because he has the name of a farmer and a tiny cottage on the outskirts of town.
Of course, this is inevitably setting him up for disappointment as he soon finds out that the ship owners have gotten cold feet and decided to hand the captaincy to snootily well-bred George Pollard, Jr. (Benjamin Walker, the less said about the better). To make matters worse, Pollard likes to subtly diss Chase because he’s not a member of the Nantucket elite or whatever. Conflict! At this point, a giant sperm whale putting these two characters out of their misery would seem more like a blessing than a tragedy, but obviously that’s not how Howard sees it.
To his credit, once the Essex sets sail, Howard at least tries to capture the grit and grime of mariner life. Lots of shots illustrating the harsh conditions on board and the less-than-appetizing meals the average sailor gets to choke down. And after the men have gone out in their rowboats and harpooned some whales, Howard provides a curious glimpse of the slimy, awkward process of gutting a whale and extracting its precious oil inside. At one point, we even join a young cabin boy (Tom Holland) on a trip inside the literal belly of the whale, which is basically disgusting.
These touches mark an admirable effort by Howard to depict the whaling experience, but even though this is as good as the movie ever gets, these moments are still marred by Howard’s impatience. He flits over the shots too quickly so it feels a little glossed over in the end, a problem made worse by the actually glossy photography. Here is a big issue with the movie, that Howard wants to show us the reality of the whaling world and yet does so with such a stylized visual aesthetic that the ocean and its hunted denizens look oddly cartoony.
For a 2015 movie with a $100 million budget, In the Heart of the Sea has a rather embarrassing arsenal of digital effects. Modern technology would seem to be one of the biggest temptations to tell this kind of whale vs. whalers story again, but the opportunity to create incredible imagery is quickly lost. There’s still some fun to be had, especially when the vengeful whale that the crew runs afoul of in the teeming waters of the Pacific launches itself vertically out of the water like a missile, scooping up a whalers’ row boat in its narrow, though still massive jaws.
But for the most part, the whale effects are unconvincing and the human characters are never worth caring about enough to give any of these sequences much emotional heft. Sure, Howard can fill the screen with whale tails and leaping dolphins in a way that John Huston certainly couldn’t when he made his famous ’56 Moby Dick adaptation, but what’s the point when everything has that digital sheen that makes the suspension of disbelief such a lofty hurdle to clear?
Such shortcomings matter greatly in an expensive production from a veteran director, but since that director is Ron Howard, it’s probably to be expected. This year marks the 20th anniversary of Howard’s Apollo 13, which by my estimation is his last good movie. The mind boggles that such a prolific and successful filmmaker has managed to stumble so many times in two decades.
He certainly hasn’t grown as a storyteller, arguably only getting worse with each new movie. His indulgent cookie-cutter style is creatively worthless and he has a knack for finding the dullest, least imaginative way to approach each story. In the Heart of the Sea is a good tale told terribly, but after so many missteps by Howard, it’s a bit tough to act surprised or even take any of this seriously anymore. To sum up the whole affair: the whale’s a dick, the sea makes some sick, and Ol’ Reliable Ron just made another truly bad flick.