'In the Heart of the Sea'
Some 3D movies would benefit from an alternative screening option that allows audiences to see a highlight reel of the set-pieces in IMAX for $10 instead of the entire film. The ‘Transformers’ movies certainly qualify, as did Robert Zemeckis’ unfortunate ‘The Walk’, and now Ron Howard’s ‘In the Heart of the Sea’. The whaling action scenes in the movie are a remarkable sight to behold on the big screen. As for the storytelling? Not so much.
It’s a middling would-be blockbuster struggling to double as a serious drama that really only succeeds as spectacle. That’s a shame, since there’s a good movie to be made from this material, but unfortunately it fell into the wrong hands.
Based on the bestseller by Nathaniel Philbrick, the film is about the true-life tragedy that inspired Herman Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’. The tale kicks off with Mellville himself (played Ben Whishaw) confronting a man named Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) who survived the tragic voyage of the Essex. Nickerson has never spoken about the ordeal, but thanks to a little bribery, he opens up. So now we have a narrator to speed things up and tediously underline all the drama and ham-fisted attempts at symbolism or subtext. (Yay?)
From there, we meet Chris Hemsworth’s strapping whaling expert, Owen Chase, who’s supposed to captain his first voyage, but is forced to be First Mate to a jerk (Benjamin Walker) thanks to good old-fashioned nepotism. Owen’s best friend Matthew Joy is also on the journey, and since he’s played by Cillian Murphy, he seems like he’ll be a major player. However, don’t bother paying too much attention because whatever Murphy’s role might have been initially, most of it ended up on the cutting room floor. Instead, we get a story of feuding seamen struggling to hunt whales for oil and taking some questionable advice to go into uncharted waters. Once there, the ship is destroyed by a giant white whale, leading to a painful journey home filled with tragedy and unimaginable behavior. And it’s all told through the eyes of a youngster (Tom Holland, soon to be Spider-Man). So that’s adorable.
The subject matter of ‘In the Heart of the Sea’ is undeniably strong. It should be a rip-roaring adventure filled with grandiose action, underscored by harsh tragedy and filled with symbolic imagery about the folly of man, as well as ties to one of the great literary masterpieces. Unfortunately, that’s all too much for Ron Howard to chew on as a director. Howard has made some fine movies in his day (‘Apollo 13’, ‘Parenthood’, ‘Night Shift’, etc.), but it would be a stretch to call him an artist. He’s a populist filmmaker, and there’s nothing wrong for that except for the fact that he often takes himself a little too seriously. Howard is well aware of the meaty material in this film, so he slaps the audience in the face with it repeatedly until viewers are beaten to a pulp begging for mercy.
In case you didn’t realize that the tragic tale is sad, Howard continually cuts back to Gleeson telling the audience exactly that. If any of the relationships between the characters carry dramatic weight, at some point the actors are forced to vocalize that through thudding dialogue. The importance of ‘Moby Dick’ is stated endlessly, then written again in text before the credits. Even the subtext of the deadly greed for whale oil mutating into the current dependence on natural oil is spoken aloud by Gleeson in a moment so absurd, it would have actually been subtler for Howard to walk into the frame and explain the idea to the audience himself.
‘In the Heart of the Sea’ brings out all of Ron Howard’s worst qualities as a filmmaker and plays them at maximum volume. However, the director does also get to show off his skill with crowd-pleasing spectacle fairly well. The whaling sequences are truly amazing, featuring some incredible CGI mixed with just enough human stunts to sell the illusion. The 3D is immersive and the pacing of the sequences relentless. As a thrill ride, the movie works, carried on the back of Chris Hemsworth reminding us all that, yes, he is indeed a big ol’ movie star.
Unfortunately, whenever Hemsworth opens his mouth and a jarringly bad Boston accent slips out, scenes get cringe-worthy. But don’t worry, Howard’s got another big action scene coming up and wow doesn’t that look amazing? Yep, it sure does, Opie, but could you have possibly cast a less compelling screen villain than Benjamin Walker? It’s hard to feel intimidated or threatened by him in any way. Wait a minute, there’s that white whale again. That’s the actual villain. You know what, this movie is pretty entertaining after all. Oh no, wait, now the characters are speaking again. This is utter nonsense.
Forgive that ridiculous little digression, but it’s the easiest way to communicate the experience of watching ‘In the Heart of the Sea’. Audiences will leave the theater suffering a severe case of whiplash. Not from the epic action sequences, mind you, but from how frequently and painfully the flick seesaws from stunning effect sequences to mind-numbingly awful drama. Admittedly, once the movie transforms into a full-on survival horror movie of sorts, there’s about a 30-minute stretch when things work rather well. Toss in the other half hour of spectacle, and you’ve got a solid 60 minutes of movie. If only it were possible to ignore the other hour.
When the movie hits Blu-ray, those with 3D televisions will appreciate Ron Howard’s latest cinematic contraption. For now, unless theaters decide to show a condensed version, audiences will be forced to suffer through half the running time to get to the good stuff. Whether or not that will be enough to justify the ticket price is a matter of taste.