Chris Hemsworth was a rare find for Thor because he seems like a man beamed out of another dimension. The lacy lexicon of Marvel’s quasi-Shakespearean tragedy boasts Hemsworth’s Australian-cum-Nobleman accent, one with an ethereally hard-to-place, far, far away quality to it. When Hemsworth is smashed down to Earth and asked to perform New England for Ron Howard’s not-quite-Moby-Dick Moby Dick story he musters a punishing take on a Nantucket accent that turns the r’s in ah’s (that is when he remembers he’s supposed to be mussing up his voice at all.)
He lends that otherworldly cool and chilling Massachusetts impression to chiseled sea jock Owen Chase. Shimmying up masts and slicing mooring lines like a cirque du soleil trapezeman, Chase is a maritime frat boy irked by the fact that after his last successful sailing venture – where he netted 1,500 barrels of whale oil, bro – he’s still only first mate to a real camel toe of a captain. Hemsworth and his butchered timbre are the knowledgeable sidekicks to a superior, George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), with a weighty family name and the accompanying incompetence of a 19th-century trustafarian to match.
Howard, working from a script by Charles Leavitt (which incidentally sounds like the command I use to tell my dog to let something be), struggles from the get-go identifying exactly what he wants his picture to be about. There’s evidence that the film aspires to tell a human story of breaking rank and defying societal expectations (the underdeveloped Chase vs. Pollard tête-à-têtes) but that’s bailed on like a leaky skiff.
Then it appears to play more as a moral piece on the hubris of man (the Essex ventures so far into no man’s land that the maps of yore would have warned “Here Be Dragons”) without any real mention of the environmental issues that lurk right under the surface. This eventually transforms into a shifty meditation on the perseverance of the human spirit (equipped with a sallow crew floating 90 days post-shipwreck) that seems compulsory to the constitution of In the Heart of the Sea. Sara Fetters of Movie Freak correctly identified it as a “Unbroken with a whale” and I think that’s the most concise analysis you’ll get for the film.
There’s no binding fiber to the many disparate elements of Howard’s story. Just as Angelina Jolie’s sprawling Louis Zamperini biography lacked any kind of narrative showmanship to weave a clear, meaningful path through the heat of Olympic heights, the tribulations of being stranded at sea for 47 days and the torture of withstanding foreign POW imprisonment (at the hands of the notorious cruel Japanese), Ron Howard navigates similar issues and finds himself waylaid by parallel squalls. Much happens but there’s always a rushing sense that Howard is peering through the spyglass to the next main event instead of sitting atop his scenes and nurturing them like a protective giver of life.
We haven’t even mentioned the narrative device used to tell the story of ‘Moby Dick’’s inception, as the author of that classic American epic, Herman Melville, is himself too a character in Howard’s whale tale. And while that semi-expired tactic of telling a story via “gather round whilst I tell you a story” is tin-eared and tacky 95% of the time, it actually works in Howard’s yarn because Ben Whishaw and Brendan Gleeson sell it like snake (er, whale) oil, offering the two most competent performances in a film notably slim on them.
I can almost hear the complaints buzzing up from the well of briny landlubbers now: but Matt, this isn’t a movie about acting (*wait, but isn’t Howard an acclaimed actor’s director who just two years ago lead Daniel Brühl to the performance of his career?*), it’s a movie about a friggin’ killer sperm whale! The fact of the matter though is In The Heart of the Sea is indeed NOT a movie about a friggin’ killer sperm whale. Certainly the not-so-white whale has a place in Howard’s film but its limited role hardly accounts for the epic showdown the marketing promised. Those expecting Thor to strike down his prey with the power of a mighty (though nameless) harpoon will find themselves immeasurably disappointed.
Even as an effects vehicle, Howard’s latest isn’t much to gawk at. The director’s knack for pressing hard close-ups provides a wonky contrast with the otherwise wide-angle effects-heavy shots. In intimacy, Sea is a handsome feature. As a rig for booming visual accouterments, it’s an aesthetic blowhard vis-à-vis distractingly off-color special effects that bottlenecks the visuals and forces them through a three-dimensional lens. Those unfortunate enough to see In the Heart of the Sea in a 3D showing will find themselves craning their necks to find an angle where the thing doesn’t look funny or flat-out wrong.
In the crows nest that is hindsight, I’m sure that Howard sees the miscalculations that forced his tacking his story with such ill-tempered imprecision. The man knows how to tell a story and even though In The Heart of the Sea is not near his greatest cinematic feat, it hardly keels over in the face of punishing odds either. There’s entertainment value here, mild though their flavors may be, even if that entertainment value only provides the scarce sustenance of shipwreck rations.
CONCLUSION: “Ron Howard’s ‘In the Heart of the Sea’ chases the white whale that is meaningful special effects films and comes up short. His telling of the story that inspired ‘Moby Dick’ is an adventure film of occasionally miffed directorial artfulness and frequent bad accents made mildly entertaining by engaging, if technically not-that-impressive, set pieces.”