"This tale has haunted me. It consumes me." Herman Melville tells the storyteller in In the Heart of the Sea, Ron Howard's new film that reveals the origin of Moby-Dick. What we don't know is why. Melville, played by Ben Whishaw, might as well be anyone. The author is used to frame the film, nothing more. Why Howard didn't simply make Moby-Dick is the real question.
In fact, the story behind the story has become a new genre as studios try to figure out ways to wring every last drop out established properties. So In the Heart of the Sea comes from that seed and it's germinated in profitable monster movie fashion. The problem is, by telling the origin instead of the story, Howard is saying he's got a better fish tale to tell than Moby-Dick, and that's far from the truth.
In the Heart of the Sea is a fruitless film with zero character that brings nothing new to either the monster genre or the adventure genre. The actual whale on man violence is short-lived, and save for a few impressive CGI shots of a fluke smashing little people below, it's boring as well.
In the opening scenes, and several edited between the action, Melville hunts down and speaks with Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), the last surviving member of the true-life Pequod: the Essex. He recounts the tale in flashback.
The Essex is captained by George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), an inexperienced blowhard with a famous last name who challenges his appointed first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), the man with the pulse of the crew. They set off to kill whales with harpoons and secure their valuable oil, an increasingly valuable commodity in the modernizing world. Set on Nantucket, the whalers and ships are countless and Howard displays the bustling industry in the tiny island community.
At sea, the two leaders predictably butt heads but agree to stand each other long enough to get their oil and return home as soon as possible. They gam with other ships and hear tales of a "demon," a white whale who seems to be protecting a giant pod in the deep ocean. Determined, the Essex sets out for the pod and there, they meet their reckoning.
Based on Boston author Nathaniel Philbrick's novel of the same name, In the Heart of the Sea falls into the trap of many non-fiction adaptations: It doesn't know how people talk. The dialogue is clichéd and without character. The result is a movie that simply goes through the motions. Compared to similar genre films like Master and Commander, Howard's movie doesn't even come close. Even the characters are mailed-in. Moby-Dick was filled with white men, black men, and Kokovokian Indians. But In the Heart of the Sea is a bunch of handsome white boys, with a few exceptions. They all speak with fake New England accents and say stuff like, "THAR SHE BLOWS!" and "Land ho!" Haven't we seen this stuff before?
Admittedly, this film was always going to include those old maritime sayings, but there's no creativity to how they're used. I kept picturing that grizzled old-timer in Master and Commander with "Hold Fast" tattooed across his eight knuckles. Now, that's how you skirt cliché while staying true to the source. In the Heart of the Sea bares no signature. And that mistake falls on Howard, but also on leading man Chris Hemsworth.
Hemsworth, who dedicated himself to losing weight for the film's ending (which won't be spoiled here), is a physical actor who's yet to master the intricacies of character creation. Some of that is the fault of the pedestrian script, by Charles Leavitt (the man behind the god-awful Seventh Son), of course, but Hemsworth does little to help himself. He's not a man, he's a machine, steely-eyed in the face of immense danger as if he's seen it all before. It's not believable, and it's an insult to the great book this story inspired, which hissed with danger.
The good stuff in the film is the production design by Mark Tildesley and the technical work, especially the sound. Howard certainly knows how to stage action sequences and he proves just as adept at sea as on land. 1800s Nantucket is bustling and lively. The ship sets are beautiful and antiqued perfectly and Howard puts his cameras on ropes and masts to get close to the action while never going handheld. It's simply a shame he doesn't have the story to go with his technical prowess. Oh wait, he does. It's called Moby-Dick.