“In the Heart of the Sea” would seem to have all the elements of a rousing yarn: doughty seafarers serving in hard circumstances before the mast, a ship tempest-tossed amid towering waves, a scarred white leviathan from “the deep blue unknown” (in the words of a crewman) on a vessel-shattering rampage.
And all of it based on actual events.
Yet there is something curiously flat about Ron Howard’s recounting of the final voyage of the ill-fated 19th-century whale ship the Essex. The story of the Essex, rammed by a huge sperm whale on Nov. 20, 1820, and abandoned by its crew before eventually sinking in the Pacific Ocean, 2,000 miles from the coast of South America, is a grim and gruesome one. But the main characters, first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) and the captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), are less than compelling, and minor-character crewmen are not well delineated.
The costumes and settings look authentic enough, but there is the hint of the museum about them. Particularly at the picture’s start, you get the sense you’re looking at a diorama rather than a realistic smoky bustling seaport on the island of Nantucket, center of the whaling industry in the early 1800s
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And Howard has a weakness for Hollywood excess. The sinking of the Essex is accompanied by fire and explosions that blow the ship to pieces and look very dramatic as they light up the night sky. However, in the nonfiction best-seller by Nathaniel Philbrick, on which the movie is based, there are no flames or blasts, and the wreck stayed afloat for at least a day.
The whale special effects, computer-generated of course, are genuinely spectacular. Schools of enormous creatures, breaching and spouting, sliding across the glistening surface of the sea — and propelling themselves powerfully beneath the surface — are the most impressive sights in the movie, particularly when viewed on a giant Imax screen in 3D. If there’s a theater in your area that offers those two options, see “In the Heart of the Sea” there.
Adrift for weeks in three small open whale boats, with little food or water, the Essex survivors slowly starve and start to die. And once the dying begins, the living reluctantly do what they feel they must to survive; they eat the dead.
Powerful stuff, which Howard handles in a manner that could best be described as decorous. The grisly reality of the crew’s desperate decision is not shown but rather is reluctantly recounted in terse terms 30 years later by a character who was a teen at the time of the sinking (Tom Holland), but now a middle-aged man (Brendan Gleeson) burdened by his guilty memories. He tells it to Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw), avidly scratching away with his pen, who, having heard of the Essex, has come to Nantucket to gather insights and background for a novel he plans soon to write: “Moby-Dick.”
The central conflict in the plot is between Chase and Pollard, who are at odds because Chase, a veteran whale man, is resentful that Pollard, relatively inexperienced, but a member of a prominent island family, has been given the command that was once promised to Chase but was withdrawn because he wasn’t Nantucket-born. (Islanders, they’re just so insular.) Their squabble seems small beer for such an epic tale.
The slaughter of the whales does eventually give Chase pause, and he speculates that maybe the attack was nature’s way of avenging itself on puny humans. Howard underscores the point by having the whale stalk the crew in their boats after the sinking. (Not factual.) It’s an over-obvious metaphor, one more flaw in a picture that has a lot of them.
In the Heart of the Sea
☆☆☆ 1/2 stars out of 5
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Ben Whishaw, Tom Holland, Brendan Gleeson.
Director: Ron Howard.
Running time: 2:01.
Rated: PG-13, for intense sequences of action and peril, brief startling violence and thematic material.