“In the Heart of the Sea” tells the story of the 19th-century whaling expedition that served as the inspiration for Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” It isn’t exactly a movie version of “Moby Dick,” hence the bland title. Straightforward adaptation or not, I say this film still should have used the “Moby Dick” name. There isn’t a lot of demand for whaling movies, so it should have at least afforded itself the advantage of name recognition.
What we’re actually seeing is a story being told by Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), the last living survivor of the expedition forty years later, to Herman Melville himself (Ben Whishaw). In the story, Thomas (Tom Holland) is a deckhand on the whaling ship Essex under the command of Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) and First Mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth). Pollard is an inexperienced captain, having gained the position through a family connection. Chase is one of the best sailors in Massachusetts, furious that he wasn’t chosen to be captain himself. The two don’t like each other, and the tension makes for a morale issue that is the first of many problems for the expedition.
Of course, more problems come from the sea itself. The ship is badly damaged in a squall, months go by without a whale sighting, and then there’s a setback involving a certain massive whale (which is not white, but has big white patches, much like a cow). And by “setback,” I mean the whale wrecks the ship. The remaining crew spends the rest of the movie in fishing boats trying to stay alive, sometimes resorting to unsavory tactics.
This film was originally scheduled for release in March, but was pushed back nine months. Supposedly this was done to place its release in the heart of Oscar Season. If the move really was an attempt at awards-baiting (awards-harpooning?), then it was an unsuccessful one, as critics aren’t taking to it. There are other theories about the move, such as unreported production delays or the studio not thinking they had a hit on their hands. My theory is that they didn’t want to release another “stranded at sea” movie less than three months after last year’s “Unbroken.” The move did little good, watching this I still got the feeling I had already seen the superior lifeboat movie.
The biggest crime that the movie commits is that it isn’t very exciting. I didn’t find myself drawn into the squabbling between Pollard and Chase or the inconveniences of daily sea life, before or after the wreck (though I did squirm for the right reasons at a scene where young Thomas had to extract oil from a whale carcass). Even the feud with the whale isn’t that interesting from a psychological perspective. Captain Ahab of “Moby Dick” is synonymous with tragic ceaseless obsession. Here I just wanted to say “Guys, don’t take it personally” a few times. This is not to say that the movie is not exciting when it wants to be. The battles with the whales are everything you want from man vs. monster action sequences and the latter, desperate parts of the lifeboat portion are appropriately compelling (though the makeup on Chris Hemsworth is consuming him more than his character’s hatred of the whale).
“In the Heart of the Sea” doesn’t do much to offend, but it doesn’t do much to appeal either. It’s a forgettable movie, which is sometimes worse than being a bad movie, though it does have a certain competency that keeps it afloat thanks to practiced direction from Ron Howard. It’s not the Oscar contender it allegedly wanted to be, and I can see why it’s having trouble finding an audience, but it has its moments.
“In the Heart of the Sea” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action and peril, brief startling violence, and thematic material. Its running time is 121 minutes.
Robert Garver is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University. He has been a published movie reviewer since 2006.