In the Heart of the Sea **

Ron Howard’s open seas epic flounders with mediocre effects and spotty storytelling.

Is it worth $10? No

There have been great movies made about man’s encounters with nature while lost at sea. “In the Heart of the Sea” is not one of them.

The flashback structure is one of its many problems. In 1850, young author Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) bribes Thomas (Brendan Gleeson), a retired sailor, to discuss a voyage he endured 30 years earlier. This voyage, Melville suspects, includes a giant sperm whale attacking humans at sea, leaving them stranded for months with little hope to survive. Nothing like this has ever happened before, meaning it’d be great material for a story if Thomas can provide the details.

Director Ron Howard (“A Beautiful Mind”) and screenwriter Charles Leavitt (“Blood Diamond”) infuriate us by initially having Thomas resist telling the story. Why? Because it was hard, we surmise from Thomas’ reaction. Of course it was hard. Melville wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t hard. Now stop wasting our time and get to the parts the trailers have been promising for months. This is an adventure that can sell millions of books (it is the story that inspired “Moby Dick,” we’re told), so it seems kind of foolish not to talk about it.

In 1820, younger Thomas (Tom Holland) was a 14 year-old lad on his first excursion to sea onboard the Essex whaling ship based out of Nantucket, Massachusetts. With whale oil prices at a premium, Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) and First Mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) lead the crew out to sea; they’re not to return until they’ve filled 2,000 barrels with whale oil, which could take years. Pollard, in command due to nepotism, and Chase, who deserves command and is clearly the more competent seaman and leader, butt heads as they travel the world with little success.

Later, after getting word that a pod of whales reside in the outer reaches of the Atlantic Ocean, Pollard leads the Essex into uncharted waters. What he doesn’t realize is that there’s also a 100-foot sperm whale there that seems to be defending its kin against humans, making for some nasty encounters.

You’d think this would lend itself well to visual effects and action, but you’d be wrong. The action is rarely impressive and often unclear. It’s also not always necessary, such as early on when Pollard takes the Essex into a storm to “test the men,” which when translated from a Hollywood screenplay means “to insert an extended big budget visual effects sequence for no good reason.”

The flashback structure never lends any worthwhile perspective to the story, and more appallingly there’s plenty Thomas does not – and could not have – witnessed that’s included, meaning the entire framework of the narrative is at best disingenuous. What’s more, director Ron Howard struggles to capture a sense of urgency regardless of the life or death stakes surrounding the crew. There should be a strong narrative drive that keeps our rapt attention, but it’s all just kind of “meh,” culminating in one of the flattest endings you’ll ever see. Or better yet, don’t see it.

Did you know?
The cast was on a diet of 5-600 hundred calories a day in order to convincingly lose weight as the story progresses; Hemsworth ultimately dropped 33 pounds.

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