Bare-knuckled, bloodthirsty, fact-inspired survival sagas are a thing this holiday movie going season. One of those epics features a rampaging wild bear that doesn’t rape its star Leonardo DiCaprio. The other man vs. nature tale is In the Heart of the Sea, an unapologetically old-fashioned seafaring epic in 3D directed by Ron Howard (who spoke with me for Playboy’s Jan-Feb Interview). The screenplay, by Charles Leavitt, is an adaptation of of Nathaniel Philbrick’s 2000 National Book Award winner about the white whale that attacked the good ship Essex in 1820 and, 31 years later, inspired Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.
As we’d expect from a Ron Howard movie, it’s expertly carpentered, well-mounted and packed with good actors. But leave it to the CGI whale to flat-out steal the show, mostly because it looks ridiculously awesome and anthropomorphic, but also because the human characters have comparatively little flesh on their bones. That flaw leaves In the Heart of the Sea rudderless, especially whenever the action get dry docked.
The movie stars the utterly contemporary Hemsworth, shaky New England accent and all, as proud, headstrong 19th-century first mate Oliver Chase who, along with the audience, gets forced to endure all the way from Nantucket to Cape Horn the arrogant incompetence of silver spoon-fed new captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker). Their conflict? Think Mutiny on the Bounty crossed with the much better Ron Howard-directed Rush. As the crewmembers risk life and limb to slake the world’s insatiable thirst for oil, they go head-to-head with that gigantic, righteously pissed-off whale – and that’s where our empathy shifts. Clearly, Howard, who was influenced by King Kong, wants us to understand how risky and essential the job of whale-hunting was, but at the same time he encourages us to sympathize with the sea beast. And we do, especially during thrilling, queasy harpooning sequences beautifully shot by Anthony Dod Mantle and edited by Daniel P. Hanley.
Once the whale exacts revenge by decimating the ship and leaving the crew stranded miles from anyhere, the movie becomes a harrowing and tragic of story of luckless survivors quickly running out of hope – and food. The grimmest bits are wonderfully played by Cillian Murphy and (Spiderman-to-be) Tom Holland, among others, some of whom dropped scary amounts of weight and who appear properly ravaged thanks to makeup that makes them look sunburned to a crisp.
It’s a pity the characters aren’t well drawn enough to make us care for them. Worse, the action keeps cutting away to scenes set decades later featuring Ben Whishaw as Melville, who is trying to plunder the anguished memories of haunted, highly reluctant survivor Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson playing the older version of Holland’s character). Both actors are strong, but the movie’s constant reminders – this story inspired Moby-Dick! – only emphasize that while Melville’s novel charts hauntingly deep philosophical and psychological waters, In the Heart of the Sea navigates a shallow, if entertaining, pool.