-- Starring Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Ben Whishaw, and Brendan Gleeson
Two-and-a-half out of five stars
Ron Howard is a gem. The director has few rivals when it comes to giving audiences visceral, cinematic experiences. I can only imagine his excitement when presented with the opportunity to tell this tale, based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s National Book Award-winning non-fiction tome "In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex." I mean, you’ve got a gigantic whale, the ocean, the elements, and actors starving themselves to serve the story. And did I mention the whale?
The story here is young Moby Dick author Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) tracks down Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), the only living member of the crew of the ill-fated whaleship Essex. The story has become a maritime legend but Melville feels, in his soul, that Nickerson’s personal account will inspire his next novel.
Through alcohol-infused flashbacks, a reluctant Nickerson shares his story -- a story, he says, of two men: Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) and George Pollard (Benjamin Walker). Chase is an experienced whaler, deserving of his own ship. Pollard is a legacy, handed the Essex and, much to his chagrin, assigned Chase as his first mate.
The two men detest each other but will be spending at least the next year together at sea, harvesting whales for oil. This sounds like it should be exciting -- and in dribs and drabs, it is.
We all relate to stories of survival, especially when that story involves a bully. In this case, the bully is an obscenely large whale. This particular story’s weakness, however, is the imbalance between the frightening elements of the crew’s adventure, and the execution of the conflict between Chase and Pollard.
In this story of survival, the crew resorts to the unimaginable, but it has little emotional impact. That speaks volumes about the story structure and writing. Much has been made of Hemsworth’s physical transformation for this role: the actor best-known to audiences as the muscular, hammer-swinging superhero Thor lost a substantial amount of weight and muscle mass. We respect that sort of discipline and devotion, but it would have been better showcased had the screenplay focused more on making these characters likable or relatable.
"In the Heart of the Sea" is a technical marvel, demonstrating that Howard is still a master of making movies look and sound stunning. Unfortunately, the screenplay was lost at sea.