Director Ron Howard’s big whale movie slaps its enormous tail fins against a rising sea of Christmas entertainment, but produces only a dull thud.
Spread the blame: Lame dialogue, overly familiar characters and an unforgivably bland central performance are among the prime factors keeping the movie from attaining epic status.
PG-13 for intense sequences of action and peril, brief startling violence, and thematic material
For 27 years, Robert Denerstein was the film critic at The Rocky Mountain News. Read more of Robert's reviews at Denerstein Unleashed.
One expected better because In the Heart of the Sea tells the story of the Essex, a Nantucket whaling ship that was destroyed by a huge whale in 1820. The crew of the Essex was stranded for months after their ship was wrecked in the southern Pacific.
If all this sounds vaguely familiar, it could be for two reasons: The story of the Essex reportedly inspired (at least in part) Herman Melville’s masterwork, Moby-Dick.
Or perhaps you’re aware of Nathaniel Philbrick’s award winning nonfiction account of the Essex’s tragic fate, also called In the Heart of the Sea and the principal source for Charles Leavitt’s soggy, clichéd screenplay.
Howard frames his story with a visit by Melville (Ben Whishaw) to Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), the last remaining Essex survivor. With some prodding from his wife, a reluctant Nickerson begins to recount what happened to him and his shipmates some 30 years earlier.
At the time of the Essex’s voyage, Nickerson was a cabin boy. Tom Holland portrays Nickerson in the movie’s flashback scenes.
Howard makes a point of reminding us that in the early part of the 19th century, whale oil was the elixir that kept society’s lamps burning, a bulwark of the economy and, therefore, a very big deal.
The movie’s principal human conflict arrives early on. George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) lands his position as captain of the Essex because of family connections. He takes the job that had been promised to Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), an able first mate.
Our sympathies are meant to lean toward Chase, clearly the more competent and manly of this pair of antagonists. Besides, who wants to root for a legacy case who lands a job he hasn’t really earned.
Cillian Murphy signs on as the Essex’s second mate, but doesn’t have enough to do, especially considering that Hemsworth’s performance seems to consist mostly of looking ruggedly handsome.
Howard devotes considerable attention to the brutality and sometimes repellant demands of whaling. At one point, Nickerson is ordered to climb into a dead whale’s blowhole so that he can retrieve buckets of oil, a job that’s difficult to accomplish without losing one’s lunch.
When the Essex finally encounters the heavyweight champion of whales — the product of a team of CGI wizards — the Essex and the movie are ready to capsize. A behemoth of a creature, the whale has a speckled gray body that’s bigger than the Essex, but it’s no Moby-Dick.
Once relegated to small boats, crew members struggle to survive, even resorting to cannibalism, the principal cause of the terrible guilt that burdens Nickerson in his intermittently presented conversations with Melville.
Melville took this story and made something towering, great and classic of it: Too bad he wasn’t around to help with the script for Heart of the Sea, which leaves only intimations of what might have been in its otherwise forgettable wake.