Review: In the Heart of the Sea
PLOT: The crew of a nineteenth century whaling ship runs afoul of a giant, enraged sperm whale, triggering a series of disasters that leaves them adrift and without much hope of survival.
REVIEW: As the trailers have no doubt already told you, Ron Howard's IN THE HEART OF THE SEA is based on the actual whaling expedition of a doomed ship called The Essex, which was turned into a non-fiction book a few years ago (which shares the movie's name) but most significantly, is thought to have been the inspiration for Herman Melville's Moby Dick. This connection is made explicit by a framing device which sees the blocked author (played by Ben Whislaw) interviewing Brendan Gleeson's grizzled sailor-turned-innkeeper about his time on the Essex and the horrible cost he paid in order to survive – paving the way for Melville's own tortured Captain Ahab.
For Ron Howard, this is a pretty gutsy attempt to make an unusual type of tent-pole movie, one which takes place almost entirely at sea and save for one or two small parts, is almost entirely focused on a disparate group of whalers – a trade which is much detested nowadays but was once the thing that kept the world illuminated with the whale oil being used for lamps. While Howard's always been a somewhat middle-of-the-road director, there's something enviable about the fact that he's always followed his own muse, with the closest he's ever gotten to making typical blockbusters being his Tom Hanks-Robert Langdon series.
All that said, with the exception of RUSH, Howard's output has been a little dull over the last decade and even the Langdon films – for all their success – are a snooze. Happily, IN THE HEART OF THE SEA is far closer to RUSH than THE DA VINCI CODE even if it stops short of being the triumphant sea-going adventure it might have been had he perhaps opted to do a straightforward MOBY DICK adaptation (and why not, considering the last good MOBY DICK movie was made in 1956).
Re-teaming with Chris Hemsworth, Howard's made a lavish, ambitious film with tremendous production value and special effects. Life on-board the whaling ship is evocative and the crew is populated by enough solid character actors like Cillian Murphy and the very capable Tom Holland (soon to be our new Spider-Man) to make them more than the faceless crew they could have been.
Where IN THE HEART OF THE SEA comes up short is in the portrayal of the two leads. Both Chris Hemsworth and Benjamin Walker are good actors, but neither has the strong personality of one of the actors featured on any of the numerous MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY adaptations (Clark Gable, Charles Laughton, Marlon Brando, Mel Gibson, Anthony Hopkins). To make this kind of story work you really needed insanely charismatic stars rather than what we have here – which are two solid, dependable actors. In the future they could become stars, but arguably neither of them are yet despite Hemsworth's fame as Thor. Neither has that star-power to carry the film that Howard really needed to make this totally work, as we should have been rooting for them all-the-way through. As it is, we're only moderately invested in their survival and someone like Cillian Murphy is able to walk-away with every scene he's in just based on the force of his personality – something neither of the leads really possesses.
Even still, IN THE HEART OF THE SEA is a perfectly serviceable adventure and fairly entertaining, and even if the actors aren't quite movie-stars, Howard's made a film that's never anything less than wholly cinematic. It has solid 3D fx and excellent technical credits including beautiful cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle and a good score by first-time Howard collaborator Roque Banos, taking the place of his regulars – the late James Horner and Hans Zimmer.
While a period adventure film about whalers is probably a hard sell next to STAR WARS, IN THE HEART OF THE SEA is still a well-made historical drama somewhat reminiscent of the kind we got when the genre was in-vogue about a decade ago. For what it's worth, Howard has made a legitimate movie-movie, in that it doesn't feel like something that would be just as good on the small-screen as the large. It lacks the crucial star-power it needed but it's still ultimately a successful film and worth seeing.
CLICK IMAGE TO OPEN GALLERY & SEE MORE PICS...