You were probably forced to read Herman Melville’s Moby Dick at some point. It’s the classic tale of one man’s obsession with a giant white whale. What many of us don’t know is that the work of fiction was inspired by harrowing real-life events that took place aboard the whaling vessel Essex. Nathaniel Philbrick’s gripping chronicle of that tale, In The Heart of The Sea, also became a best-seller. Director Ron Howard’s cinematic adaptation – his DICK pic, if you will – lightens up Philbrick’s densely-worded novel, molding it into a standard action-adventure about corporate greed and malfeasance rather than a resonant character-driven drama.
We begin on a rudimentary wrap-around story involving Melville (Ben Whishaw) prying the details from The Essex’s lone survivor, Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), in order to write what would become his magnum opus. Melville has something to prove, and Nickerson is clearly in desperate need of unburdening his soul. He was barely a teen (played by Tom Holland in these years) when he boarded the ship which was under the command of two men – Captain George Pollard (Liam Neeson doppelganger, Benjamin Walker), who got his job via nepotism, and first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), a seaman who’s worked his way up the ladder only to still called “landsman” by stuffy society types. But the ocean and mother nature don’t care about titles, as the crew of the Essex will soon find out – everyone is equal when it comes to the devastation greed can bring. While on a fairly fruitless mission to bring back whale oil, a commodity in 1800’s, the men hear of a mythical place where whales are bountiful. However, the gold mine of their dreams will become their worst nightmare thanks to a giant white whale who pushes back against them – and that won’t even be the worst thing to transpire.
MASTER AND COMMANDER this ain’t. It’s not even ALIVE. Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of The Edmund Fitzgerald” edges it out in the epic department. While things are never truly boring, nothing is ever genuinely engaging. Mile markers are there, but the journey in between isn’t nearly as impacting as it should be. A certain modernity within its driving force creeps in far too often instead of being cleverly cloaked. Howard and screenwriter Charles Leavitt (working from a story also by Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa) structure the extraordinary story in such ordinary fashion. We never feel fully immersed in the life aboard the ship: We see the ship get battered by a squall – a metaphor for the tempestuous relationship between Pollard and Chase – but it doesn’t lead anywhere. We see glimpses of how the crew capture whales and harvest the blubber, but it stops too short. There’s a poignant friendship shared between Chase and Matthew Joy (Cillian Murphy), but there’s no meat to it. An integral part to the character-driven dramatics is tangibly missing as the audience barely bonds with any of the crew members. We should feel sick to our stomachs when crew members are picked off, even if it’s not shown gratuitously, and yet here we are.
Strong performances from the cast keep this film afloat. Hemsworth is inherently someone you can root for. There’s some depth to his character, who’s caught in the push-pull between two worlds. Walker’s charisma helps sell the idea that his character isn’t totally dislikable. Holland has the least material out of the bunch – despite this film being from his perspective – but is still good. Since we’ve traditionally seen Murphy playing edgier roles, it’s refreshing to see him play up a more sweet, caring side.
It’s incredible that the actors poured out their heart and souls – and pushed themselves to the brink of starvation – to bring us such forgettable mediocrity. You’d hope the filmmakers could explore the intrinsic emotion of the story more. It might not be a whale of a tale, but at least the whale looked massive.
3 out of 5
IN THE HEART OF THE SEA is now playing.