Ron Howard may have found himself a golden-haired, steel-jawed muse in Chris Hemsworth because his two films with the actor have pushed way beyond his usual comfort zone. “In the Heart of the Sea” is a thrilling, sea-faring whale of an adventure that, like “Rush” before it, shows a level of technical mastery beyond what we normally see out of the workmanlike Howard. And with Hemsworth literally manning the helm the film takes the shape of a grand, deep sea epic with visuals so impressive they may leave audiences waterlogged.
Herman Melville’s whaling classic “Moby Dick” was inspired by “In the Heart of the Sea”‘s mostly-true story, an account of the doomed vessel Essex which ran into one whale that refused to be turned into candle wax. Melville himself appears in the framing sequences, played by Ben Whishaw, who arrives in Nantucket to interview drunken former sailor Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) about his traumatic experience on the Essex years ago as a fresh-faced kid (Tom Holland). Nickerson is reluctant to relive the horrors of three decades past, but encouraged by his wife (Michelle Fairley) and the need for some cash, he gives in and the tale is told mostly in flashback.
It’s clear right away why Tom doesn’t want to revisit that plagued 1820 voyage, as it was cursed before it ever left dock. Hemsworth plays stalwart seaman Owen Chase, whose promise of captaining the Essex is waylaid by the arrival of the untested George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), who gets the job because of his family legacy. Chase is considered a “landsman”, meaning that he can’t boast a similar lineage, and despite being passed over he agrees to be the ship’s first mate with the promise he’ll get a ship to captain upon returning with barrels full of whale oil.
That’s if he returns, of course, and it isn’t long before Pollard is drawing the ire of Chase, who has the respect of the crew where the Captain does not. The tensions continue to simmer as the Essex is battered pillar to post by the crashing waves, rendered in beautiful CG that captures the ocean’s true danger. For a long yet consistently engrossing stretch the film focuses on the taxing nature of whaling, capturing the massive creatures with ropes and harpoons, dragging their carcasses aboard, and finally the grizzly practice of extracting that glorious oil. There’s a reason it’s referred to as “the treasure”; whale oil was everything back in a time before we learned how to pull it straight out of the ground. To find it, and harvest it quickly, means getting back home as soon as possible; back into the loving arms of family with pockets full of coin. But when Pollard arrogantly steers the ship straight into a perfect storm it also sets them on a course to encounter a gigantic “alabaster” sperm whale, big enough to shatter a ship with one lash of its tail.
The arrival of the giant whale turns the film into a gritty survival horror. The men are stalked by a creature they can’t understand that pushes them to limits they can’t fathom. It’s the breaking of these sturdy men and their sturdy ship where the film finds greatest purchase, as we see the human spirit tested beyond belief. DP Anthony Dod Mantle captures every creak of the ship’s wooden frame, every frayed rope as the vessel verges on breaking in half. And that’s nothing compared to the physical toll taken on the men, who go from strapping lads to withering scurvy dogs. Where the film suffers is in not having a true point of view. While it’s Tom reliving this story for Melville’s ears, when we see him as a young man he barely has a part to play. There’s nothing truly seen from his perspective, and the character has no impact on Chase, who is clearly the film’s hero. What’s also missing is that burning passion, the “man vs. nature’ battle so crucial in “Moby Dick”. While nuts and bolts were clearly what inspired Melville there are few themes between the two that marry up. It’s also tough to get beyond the actors who are largely underutilized, specifically Cillian Murphy as the ship’s second mate. Much of the crew fade into the background and fail to make much of an impression.
Also failing to leave much of a mark is the film’s too-simple conclusion, which finds each character learning whatever lesson they need to be learned for a happy ending. It’s at this point that “In the Heart of the Sea” finally begins to feel like just another Ron Howard film, dutifully leaving audiences with a smile on their faces. It goes against so much of what the film had accomplished before, but as a dark tale of greed, masculinity, and industry, “In the Heart of the Sea” still proves largely unsinkable.