In the Heart of the Sea
by George Wolf
Proud, sturdy men head off to sea, promising their women they will return, only to be humbled by nature as they fight for their lives.
It wasn’t such well worn territory in 1851, when Herman Melville kept readers rapt with the tale of Moby Dick. In the Heart of the Sea gives us the actual ordeal behind Melville’s inspiration, but can never muster anything more worthwhile than some randomly impressive 3D visuals.
Director Ron Howard does himself no favors by setting his film as a storytelling flashback. A young Melville (Ben Whishaw) has ambitions of writing a book on the whale ship Essex and its legendary encounter with a massive white whale, but fears that “If I write it, it will not be as good.”
He seeks out the ship’s last living survivor, and after much cajoling and a wad of cash, Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleason) begins his tale, and we climb aboard the Essex with him as a young boy excited to join a whaling crew for the first time.
His captain (Benjamin Walker) and first mate (Chris Hemsworth) are at odds with each other, almost as much as they are with that tricky Boston accent, making lines such as “sailing to the edge of sanity” sound even more awkward.
The integrity in point of view also becomes troubling. Our window to events is young Tom, yet we regularly witness pivotal exchanges where he is nowhere close, erasing the chance he could be recalling them to Melville.
Howard and screenwriter Charles Leavitt adapt the best-selling book by shifting intermittently between Nickerson describing the events, and flashbacks bearing them out, giving neither approach the chance to build sufficient dramatic heft.
Quint’s first hand account of the U.S.S. Indianapolis in Jaws was entirely gripping without any dramatic flourish, and though that speech was only a few minutes, it’s hard not to remember it each time In the Heart of the Sea thinks the story needs a breather.
Howard is more successful at delivering smaller details about both the ship above and the whales below, as well as a few sequences worthy of an IMAX 3D spectacle. The search for an emotional anchor to this fabled story, though, remains fruitless, and Melville’s early fears finally come to fruition.