If you’ve ever wanted to watch Thor and Spider-Man battle a giant, angry whale, Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea is as close as you’re going to get. The movie stars Chris Hemsworth and Tom Holland—the God of Thunder and Web-Slinger from Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, respectively—as olde timey New England Whalers, and in reality it isn’t so much them fighting a pissed off whale is it is them routinely getting thrashed by one.
What should have been an epic seafaring adventure and a harrowing tale of survival based on real events, instead turns into a two-hour slog weighed down by the clunky framing device of Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) researching Moby Dick. Obsessed with the sinking of the whaling ship the Essex, the young writer tracks down the sole surviving crew member, Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), and compels the old man to tell him the story, the real story, he has never told anyone.
An orphan, Nickerson was just 14 (and played by Holland) when he signed on aboard the Essex, sailing out of Nantucket on the hunt for the whale oil that lit the world at the time. The story, as Nickerson explains it, is really all about the first mate, Owen Chase (Hemsworth), and the captain, George Pollard (Benjamin Walker, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter). Pollard is inexperienced as a leader, but born into a wealthy whaling family, he was given the commission as captain, even though it was promised to Chase, who not only earned it, but has the experience and the respect of the men. As expected, they come into conflict as the ship sets sail, a situation only exacerbated as they venture deeper and deeper into the ocean, towards the edge of sanity, without finding any whales to slaughter.
When they happen upon a near-mythical whale ground, with forests of flukes as far as the eye can see, they think their fortunes have finally changed—they’re right, of course, but not how they expected. In the middle of the hunt, they encounter a monstrous white whale with a vindictive streak, and the beast smashes their boat to ribbons, leaving them adrift thousands of miles from the nearest land. Here In the Heart of the Sea becomes a survival tale as the men cling to their cobbled together crafts, going through extreme hardships and making horrifying decisions in the name of staying alive. All while occasionally still being hunted by a cranky, scarred whale.
If the story had just been this, In the Heart of the Sea would have been a decent high-seas journey of a style that doesn’t get made much anymore. Even if the framing device had been relegated to bookends, the structure still might have worked. But as it is, every few scenes, Howard cuts back to Melville and the elder Nickerson to see how the old man feels about what he experienced in his younger days, and it kills the momentum and pace.
Here’s the rub: though it’s completely unnecessary to the larger plot, the narrative of the frame story is far more engaging than the action on the open water. As you get into Nickerson’s response to what he witnessed—the younger version is more an observer than an active participant—Gleeson gives him a depth that is lacking elsewhere, and though he’s never fully formed, Melville, and what drives him, is almost interesting and compelling. To be fair, the most intriguing presence in the movie is the whale, who, with a latticework of wounds and scars, you can’t help but wonder about.
It may not be much, but you have to cling to what you’ve got, because there is precious little character development elsewhere. Chase is basically a superhero, scaling the riggings, spearing whales, and performing great feats of derring-do. Other than that, there are a few facts about his life thrown at you—he has a wife and a child on the way, his father was a convict—but no actual work done outside of that to establish character, and Hemsworth’s come-and-go accent doesn’t help matters. Aside from the fact that Pollard is a rich, entitled dick, there’s not much more to his personality. Each has a sidekick character—Matthew Joy (Cillian Murphy) for Chase, and the aptly named Henry Coffin (Frank Dillane) for Pollard—that are supposed to show another side of their personalities, but only exist for cheap, manipulative moments intended to be much more emotional than they actually are.
Even the overwrought score by Roque Banos, designed to engender tension and excitement, is mismatched and scheming. The pulsing, driving arrangements seek to heighten a sense of exhilaration and adventure that just aren’t there, trying to pump up a flat narrative with emotion the story simply does not contain.
None of this is helped by the fact that In the Heart of the Sea just doesn’t look very good. Perhaps it would be better in 2D, but the 3D IMAX transfer I suffered through was a fuzzy, headache-inducing mess. The early 19th century backdrops are a muddy blur, and no matter how much smoke and steam Howard attempts to use to filter it through, they still look terrible. The color palate may be intended to hearken back to big screen adventure films of an earlier era, but it’s hard to tell if that was the ultimate goal, and regardless, much of the movie just looks like a smudge of paint.
It’s easy to see when the director and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle try to make use of the 3D technology, but sporadic moments where the camera zooms along the ship’s rigging or hovers half above the water, half below the surface, feel injected and gimmicky. While there’s no real practical way to film a movie like this, the whales, which should be the centerpiece that sells the film, are nothing more than middle of the road.
In the Heart of the Sea isn’t a terrible movie, and some will be able to latch onto the moments of high-adventure, but there is little to recommend running out to the theater. The awkward structure hems in the clunky narrative, and subpar special effects and presentation muddy and squander the potential for sheer spectacle. [Grade: C]