The late science fiction author Ray Bradbury used to tell a wonderful anecdote about his time writing the screenplay for John Huston’s 1956 film version of “Moby Dick.” One day he received a telegram from the front office demanding that the writer work a sizable female role into the film, in essence putting a woman aboard the Pequod. Bradbury stormed and agonized and pitched a fit — and then noticed Huston, who had sent the telegram as a joke, doubled over in laughter.
“In the Heart of the Sea” plays as if the joke was real and everyone on the production had caved in. The result, as a movie, is a joke.
There’s no high seas love interest in Ron Howard’s glib and glossy adaptation of Boston native Nathaniel Philbrick’s 2000 book, a fine historical bestseller about the real-life voyage that influenced the writing of “Moby-Dick.” On the other hand, there is a giant sperm whale that doesn’t merely attack and sink the whaleship Essex, as happened on Nov. 20, 1820, but that then stalks the survivors over months of drifting at sea, occasionally surfacing and wreaking further mayhem. Psycho cetacean, qu’est-ce que c’est? After a while, you wonder why they don’t put a hockey mask on the beast and call him Moby Jason.
The rest of “In the Heart of the Sea” isn’t all that hot, either. The main problem is a shallow screenplay (by Charles Leavitt, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver) and a lavish, heavily digitized production design that emphasizes Hollywood hokum at the expense of realism or grit. Early-19th-century Nantucket has never looked so sanitized.
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Chris Hemsworth, who was excellent in Howard’s race-car movie “Rush” and is very likable as the current incarnation of Thor, has been instructed to bring as much strappitude as possible to the role of Owen Chase, first mate of the Essex and the movie’s manly hero. Hemsworth also works hard at a period New England accent that quickly devolves into fisherman’s stew. In fact, all the accents in this movie sound as if the actors had been coached to talk like Red Sox fans magically transported to the 1820s.
That there were tensions of social class and professionalism between Chase and the ship’s young captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker, last seen traducing history in “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”) gives the filmmakers excuse to work up a righteous “Mutiny on the Bounty” vibe in the first half of the movie, before the ship hits the fin. The suspense ratchets further during an early squall but is set aside for a bloody, high-speed whale hunt — the best scene in the movie, it illustrates both the nearly lunatic bravery of the whalemen and the savagery of their work.
All human relationships are then nullified by the attack on the Essex by the great white whale — mottled, really, as if he’d had a bad paint job — and three months of floating at sea that leads inexorably to bouts of PG-13 rated cannibalism. (“No right-minded sailor discards what might yet save him,” Chase observes pragmatically.) Awaiting them back in Nantucket are Owen’s knockout of a wife (Charlotte Riley) and an early American corporate coverup.
Framing this story is an even sillier one in which the insecure young Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) tracks down the last surviving crew member of the Essex, Thomas Nickerson, who is played by Brendan Gleeson as a traumatized rummy. (Tom Holland plays the character as a young man.) It’s a fair trade: Nickerson absolves his guilt by telling his story and Melville gets over his inferiority complex about Hawthorne. The world is made safe for “Moby-Dick” as well as parboiled Hollywood reductions of the tale that inspired it. They should have titled this movie “Nantucket Slayride.” Better still: Call it fishmeal.
IN THE HEART OF THE SEA
Directed by Ron Howard. Written by Charles Leavitt, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver, based on the book by Nathaniel Philbrick. Starring Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs; Jordan’s Furniture IMAX in Reading and Natick. 122 minutes. PG-13 (intense sequences of action and peril, brief startling violence, thematic material, serial-killer whales).Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.
Ron Howard's new movie starring Chris Hemsworth tells the story of the whaling voyage that helped inspire Herman Melville to write 'Moby-Dick.'
A sort of maritime Donner Party, In the Heart of the Sea is a rugged but underwhelming true-life drama of a cursed 19th century whaling voyage. The hook here is that the journey of the Essex from Nantucket to the South Pacific in 1820 helped inspire Herman Melville to write Moby-Dick thirty years later; this is, however, only partially the case and hardly seems enough upon which to base a tragic tale driven partly by hubris and insecurity but mostly by very bad luck. Ron Howard's film of Nathaniel Philbrick's 2000 National Book Award for Nonfiction winner holds the interest but never generates white caps of excitement, making this look like a holiday season also-ran for Warner Bros.
In terms of recent cinema, there are shades of Unbroken here, as a significant stretch of the yarn involves men bobbing about in the Pacific Ocean, thousands of miles from anywhere, and forced to extreme measures to stay alive. If there is one epic survival tale that will prevail during this Christmas season, it will likely be The Revenant rather than this one, which could end up performing significantly better overseas than domestically.
The adaptation by Charles Leavitt (Blood Diamond) is a solid piece of traditional carpentry that would have passed muster at the Hollywood studios back in the late '30s or early '40s, when this sort of high seas adventure based on famous books was most in vogue. The framing device of an author — in this case the young Melville (Ben Whishaw) — interviewing, in 1850, the last surviving member of the ship's crew, Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), in order to flash back to the sorrowful events, is the definition of old-school. That impression is only somewhat undercut by Howard's second consecutive collaboration with rough-and-ready cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, who does his muscular best to evoke the spectacle of whaling's heyday in a comprehensive manner.
What Melville is after is the full, lurid and true story of what happened to the hapless sailors who famously had their ship capsized by a white whale the size of which no one had ever seen. Like his late crewmates, Nickerson has never spoken of what transpired thereafter, and it takes a significant amount of cash for the nearly destitute older man to open up. But he does, which is wherein lies the tale.
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In 1820, Nantucket was considered the whaling capital of the world; in some striking CGI vistas fronted by countless ships, the town looks a lot larger than it does now. The men would sail off for a year or more and often meet new offspring for the first time upon their return. That's the future that may be in store for headstrong seaman Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), who thinks he now deserves to captain the refurbished Essex, but must settle for another stint as first mate in deference to the owner's son George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), a young greenhorn being placed in command.
When local sea behemoths prove elusive, the undersized Essex moves on into the South Atlantic, where the cry of "Blow!" is finally heard and a whale is hauled in and processed. In one scene, young Nickerson (Tom Holland), as the smallest one on board, is ordered to descend into the malodorous innards of the beast to extract its most precious contents. For audiences unfamiliar with the past, the economic primacy of whale oil, and its importance in illuminating long dark nights, is spelled out.
A measure of personal drama is sustained via the resentment of the ultra-capable working class Chase for the silver-spooned Pollard, who can't really pretend he knows what he's doing and at the first sign of adversity wants to return to port rather than toughing it out. But with whale sightings at a minimum, the men proceed around Cape Horn and into the Pacific in their quest to stockpile 2,000 pounds of oil. During a stop in Ecuador, they hear tall tales of a "demon" whale that's sent at least one ship to its doom, as well as of an abundance of whales a thousand leagues west. So after more than a year at sea, they set off on a voyage to what Nickerson calls "the edge of sanity."
Sure enough, they find not just plenty of whales, but The Big One they've been hearing about, which, in a welcoming gesture, slaps down its giant fluke and capsizes one of the launches. It's a monster, alright, a splotchy dark gray-and-white beast that's as long as Essex and makes a sound like Godzilla. And the way it peers at the men and their boat, it would look to have something special in store for them.
And indeed it does. After flapping its whale tail down a bit more, the Essex capsizes and poor Captain Pollard has no choice but to abandon ship, which forces the survivors onto the three remaining launches some 3,000 miles from Easter Island, the nearest known land. With precious little to eat or drink, no sails or equipment and nothing to protect them from the elements, the men just drift, and after a month find a largely barren island, where a couple of them elect to remain. For the rest, one more month adrift becomes yet another and, with it, inevitable death and, horror of horrors, cannibalism under duress. And through it all, the giant whale still has them in its sights.
In the end, this isn't anything near the tale that Melville told; it's merely a story of great personal misfortune and tragedy, rather than one that trades in such lofty matters as the defiance of God, personal will and civilization versus the natural elements, the line between obsession and madness, revenge, the existential meaning of the sea and so many other matters (not to mention its rich cast of characters and status as the most complete account of the mechanics of whaling ever written for mass consumption). By comparison, In the Heart of the Sea comes off more like a long anecdote.
The actors are attractive but mostly one-note: Hemsworth is the brawny mate with whom you'd confidently entrust your life, Walker (who here bears an uncanny resemblance to a younger Colin Firth) a boy uninspiringly trying to fill a man's shoes, Cillian Murphy the ever-reliable second mate and Holland the game youngster destined to send the story down through the ages. Whishaw's Melville comes off as quite pushy and hard-edged in his insistence that grumpy old Nickerson open up to him; charm seems absent from his arsenal of personal attributes.
There's a lot of CGI here, but the muted color schemes and crafty professionalism all around make the assorted elements mesh well enough.
Production: Cott Productions, Enelmar Productions, Roth Films, Spring Creek, Imagine Entertainment
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Brendan Gleeson, Ben Whishaw, Michelle Fairley, Tom Holland, Paul Anderson, Frank Dillane, Joseph Mawle, Edward Ashley, Sam Keeley, Osy Ikhile, Gary Beadle, Jamie Sives, Morgan Chetcuti, Charlotte Riley, Nicholas Jones, Donald Sumpter, Richard Bremmer, Jordi Molla
Director: Ron Howard
Screenwriter: Charles Leavitt, story by Charles Leavitt, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, based on the book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick
Producers: Paula Weinstein, Joe Roth, Will Ward, Brian Grazer, Ron Howard
Executive producers: Bruce Berman, Steven Mnuchin, Sarah Bradshaw, Palak Patel, Erica Huggins, David Bergstein
Director of photography: Anthony Dod Mantle
Production designer: Mark Tildesley
Costume designer: Julian Day
Editors: Mike Hill, Dan Hanley
Music: Roque Banos
Visual effects supervisor: Jody Johnson
Casting: Nina Gold
PG-13 rating, 121 minutes