There is quite a bit to like with Ron Howard's In the Heart of the Sea, but there is also a plethora of things that lie there, flopping like a fish on the deck of a boat. Sorry about that. No more fish puns. Maybe.
First off, the film has a strange framing device that ends up giving the film more endings than Return of the King. Herman Melville (played by the always excellent Ben Whishaw), once and future author of Moby Dick, comes to visit Thomas Nickerson (the always even more excellent Brendan Gleeson) in order to hear a story about Nickerson's youthful days aboard the whaling ship The Essex. Nickerson is the only living survivor and Melville is desperate to hear the story as he would like to base a novel on the events. Nickerson's recounting of the events is the body of the main film starring Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy and Tom Holland.
Hemsworth is Owen Chase, a veteran whaler who is promised his own ship, but instead is forced to be first officer to George Pollard Jr., an inexperienced captain of a proud naval family. Chase and Pollard don't like each other, butt heads a ton, and sail after some whales for their sweet light bringing oil. If you're remotely familiar with the tale of Moby Dick, then you know what comes next. Big whales smashing ships and men having to do terrible things to survive.
As much as Hemsworth is inarguably a leading man and has excellent presence here, his accent is all over the place, leading me to believe the character of Owen Chase is dealing with dissociative identity disorder. But whether it is Hemsworth or Benjamin Walker's Captain, or any of the characters in-between, everyone is so underwritten that every single action comes out of plot momentum more than it does character.
After the blisteringly incredible Master and Commander, films set at sea (regardless of time period or country of origin) have a certain standard to uphold, the greatest of which is to transport the audience onto that ship and make them feel the claustrophobia. Every creak of the wood and gust of wind could be felt in Master and Commander, while In the Heart of the Sea struggles to even suspend the disbelief that the actors are outside of a soundstage. The computer generated effects feel very poorly integrated into the beautiful natural scenery and the excellent set of The Essex, so that halfway through the film everything feels like a softly lit fever dream.
All of the story beats come straight from a survival film guidebook, leaving the film feeling airless and not giving the audience much investment in any of the characters. There hits a point for most filmgoers where when a poorly written film hits the 30 minute mark, they can tell you exactly where the story will end up and this one is no exception.
Everything isn't terrible though. The film looks incredible in 3D IMAX and Anthony Dod Mantle's cinematography is always a pleasure to look at. Ron Howard is an old pro and knows how to frame his shots for maximum intensity and setting up some of the action pieces to be absolutely breathtaking. The second half of the film is almost enough of a rousing adventure to make you forget the turgid and predictable first half, but it's all too little too late.
This movie is failing heavily in the box office; I assume because people don't really want to see whalers doing their thing anymore after Blackfish, but also probably because the trailers aren't too great. It's a terrible conundrum because this movie is obviously going to play better on IMAX than it will at home, but I can't recommend people pay $18 to see it, either. Maybe it's best if we all forget this ever happened and just go see Star Wars next week like everyone else.
In the Heart of the Sea
Dir. Ron Howard
Now Playing at Old Mill Stadium 16 & IMAX