In the Heart of the Sea is a curious beast.
The ambitions are the size of a whale; the results are an earnest wreck.
If seen, perhaps, as a metaphor for the story being told, the Ron Howard film could work.
Yet such a view seems a little too “meta” for something that should be straightforward.
The movie ostensibly involves the real expedition that inspired the Herman Melville novel Moby-Dick — which Nathaniel Philbrick addresses in his 2000 nonfiction book.
Beyond the promising start of the film, however, something is lost in the spectacle and the framing device, which ultimately undermines the story.
Howard uses Melville as a character (played by Ben Whishaw) and his curiosity about the mysterious circumstances of how the whaleship Essex sank as the entry into the story.
Seeking big answers about the unknown, he finds Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), the ship’s only remaining survivor, who is drinking his life away.
At his wife’s pleading — and Melville’s promise of generous payment for one night’s conversation — Tom starts to spill about the events of 30 years ago, when he was 14 (played by Tom Holland).
This is the story of two men, he says: a captain, George Pollard (Benjamin Walker); and his first mate, Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth). Pollard, the son of the expedition proprietor, is wealthy, arrogant, entitled and inexperienced. Chase is the real seaman, with a classist chip on his broad shoulders. He is also arrogant but has the skills to back it up.
Chase flexes his hero muscles early, bounding up a ladder to cut free a tangled sail, and the captain responds with ill-advised bravado in leading the men full speed into a squall. But the “Who leads?” question is abandoned quickly and without much resolution once the whaling starts.
Perhaps the most striking scenes are those that deal with the process of catching a whale. But whales are scarce on the ship’s normal route, and they must sail on to get enough oil for their bosses. Thousands of miles off the coast of South America, they encounter the big one, which locks on the Essex.
Hemsworth is best when barking orders or doing something physical. Of all the actors he shares scenes with, it’s Cillian Murphy as his second mate who brings out something resembling emotion. But we never really care about the lead, so there’s little hope that we’ll be interested in the rest of the men once it becomes solely about survival.
Indeed, most of the second half is spent drifting with them on lifeboats. During the interminable minutes, there’s no understanding of how they survived (or didn’t) either mentally or physically.
In the Heart of the Sea tries to be about so many things — greed, ambition, capitalism and survival. In the end, it seems most interested in how Melville got his classic.
The pieces are there, but apparently it’s up to Moby-Dick, not Howard, to assemble them.