Fresh off of Rush and having snagged DOP Anthony Dod Mantle and lead actor Chris Hemsworth for a second feature in a row, Ron Howard takes to his adaptation of Nathaniel Philbrick’s true-life tale In The Heart of the Sea with the same frenetic verve and machismo, lovingly detailing the rigging and operation of a whaling ship with the same open-mouthed awe that he bestowed upon Formula 1 race cars. It’s an excitingly uncharacteristic continuation from a director stereotyped for his bloated, staid prestige pics, and a unique way to approach a topic that would’ve received a conservative touch had it gone to anyone else (or even a pre-Rush Howard). As he injects newfound adrenaline into his projects, and into the by-the-skin-of-their-teeth survivalism and professionalism of 19th-century whalers, however, Howard doesn’t plumb the depths that we know he’s capable of, even in the similarly made Rush, another duel of the egos – as In The Heart of the Sea proves to be – that found a way into the minds of hardheaded F1 drivers Niki Lauda and James Hunt.
Philbrick’s account of the events that inspired Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick is skimmed for highlights to plug a thin hull of a screenplay, and Mantle’s acid-toned photography is soaking in digitized artifice, to say nothing of Roque Baños’ anachronistically percussive score, so that watching In The Heart of the Sea can sometimes feel like watching a Transformers sequel being narrated by a high school Spark Notes plagiarist. Given the license they take with facts, too, it’s something of a mystery why Howard didn’t simply remake Moby-Dick, unless we just accept that movies “based on true events” will sell better than adaptations of scholar-approved, student-reviled novels.
The writing team of Charles Leavitt, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver stresses conventional narrative over factual accuracy, anchoring its story around the rivalry aboard the whaleship Essex between First Mate Owen Chase (Hemsworth) and Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), the former fashioned to be a seasoned sailor of lowly birth and the latter a privileged scion of Nantucket whaling royalty. Told in flashback to Herman Melville (Ben Wishaw, in solid Hollywood-fashion oracular author mode) by cabin boy Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleason in the present, Tom Holland in the past), whose vivid recreation of events makes him privy to things it would’ve been pretty damn hard for him to know, the narration exists on a separate plane from the story’s events, rendering its tensest moments less than life-threatening, and at times when people do actually to die, just sort of expected. Since only a third or so of the crew are given anything resembling a personality, it makes the early expenses easy to bear, which is another disappointment, given the appearance of such familiar faces as Cillian Murphy and Joseph Mawle.
Bookending the flashback sequences are a pair of boardroom scenes with the Essex‘s shipowners that are disingenuous at best, and which further hammer home the haves vs. have-nots through line that permeates Chase’s and Pollard’s rivalry. Although exploitation and corruption are built into any tale of industrial woe, these scenes too come at a cheap price, distracting from the man vs. nature battle that proto-Ahab Pollard succumbs to in the final stretch of the movie. There’s not much effort at all really to move beyond the theme of class warfare, which is a huge waste given the source material, but it plays well for the people in the cheap seats in need of reassurance of the moral superiority of the blue-collar worker. To come from such a soulless movie, it’s hardly that sincere, though.
Howard, envisioning American Romanticism by way of Tony Scott, has at least embraced the subject matter of Melville’s masterpiece if not its high-brow aspirations. By dropping any pretense of sophistication, and making do with one philosophical exchange between a starving Chase and Pollard, he’s able to appeal to the mass audience that Melville couldn’t, even if that means leaving dozens of ideas behind (and sadly that mass audience never materialized). Hidden between the subtitles that announce the passage of weeks and months at sea are obviously the scraps of a longer, possibly smarter, movie, one that was probably trimmed down when the movie’s release date was delayed from spring to winter of 2015. It insults Philbrick with its historical inaccuracies and Melville with its simplifications, but it at least passes as a good action yarn, benefiting from riveting storm and whaling sequences, attention to detail, impressive special effects, and the collective charisma of a well-known, well-liked cast.