Director Ron Howard has a made a career out of creating compelling melodrama from stories both fictional and true, focusing on character-driven tales that deal less with the events themselves and more on the people involved with them. His more recent resume has not been a particularly impressive part of his career, with films far less memorable or resonant than the earlier years. In The Heart Of The Sea is almost note-perfect Howard — a historical tale, namely the final voyage of the ill-fated whaling ship The Essex — and dealing with the characters and emotions that played a role in that journey, as well as how it eventually came to inspire Herman Melville to write Moby Dick.
The film opens with Melville himself (Ben Whishaw), tracking down Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), one of the last survivors of the Essex to hear his tale in the hopes of inspiring his next great novel. Howard’s first misstep is right out of the gate, because by allowing Gleeson to serve as a narrator, and routinely coming back to the interaction of Whishaw and Gleeson, he creates two problems: first, he removes any sense of narrative flow with the frequent interruptions, and second, he creates an excess of dramatic conflict by focusing too much on Melville himself as a character. The story isn’t Melville’s, but it’s often framed that way, with Melville and Nickerson peppering their moments with moody, narcissistic and pseudo-existentialist aphorisms about the nature of man and their individual despairs. It’s not what we’re here to see, and when we do see it, it’s handled rather clumsily.
When the film kicks back into the story itself, it works well in some ways. The cinematography is unsurprisingly breathtaking, even if the camera work is at times a bit over-edited. Full of bright colors and lush, glimmering waters, it contrasts splendidly with the later gloomy grays and bloody reds when events on the Essex start to go sideways. That story, for those who don’t know, deals with Captain George Pollard, Jr. (Benjamin Walker), scion of a wealthy Nantucket whaling family, and his first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), a landborn everyman. The two are at odds from the get-go, yet they propel their crew to seek far and wide, well beyond the conventional boundaries of other ships, to find a near-mythical region of the Indian Ocean where the whales are bountiful. And they do find that bounty, but it’s protected by a massive leviathan of a whale that ultimately destroys their ship and then hunts them as they flee in rowboats. From their, they encounter starvation and desperation, pushed to increasingly gruesome acts in order to survive.
It all sounds quite compelling, and often it is. But the leads are not strong enough to bear the weight that Howard wants to give the film. If In The Heart Of The Sea had more conventional goals, to simply be a tale of high sea adventure, Hemsworth and Walker would be fine choices to head the cast. However, Howard wants it to be too much, seeking instead to make an introspective statement on the nature of man, on how they become that which they despise and whether or not they can redeem themselves. It’s deep, heady stuff and Hemsworth, while great at the hale-hearty-fellow bit that works so well in productions like Thor, is ill-suited for more serious drama of this nature (and his wonky, in-and-out attempt at a northern Massachusetts accent certainly doesn’t help things). Walker fares slightly better as the arrogant aristocrat, but the character is scripted with so much cliche that even a solid performance can’t help the eye-rolling villain who actually says things like “do you know who I AM?”
To make things more complicated, the characters themselves are inherently unlikable. The entire sequence of events is directly linked to the arrogance, avarice and hubris of the two leads, which make them solely responsible for the death that surrounds them. And while there’s an attempt at a redemptive arc, it’s not enough to make them better people. Rather, they’re jerks with survival skills, and that’s not a particularly engaging character to watch for two hours. Amazingly, the film doesn’t even cover the depths of how terrible this journey was — it leaves out how they found land and not-quite-accidentally set fire to a small island, completely decimating it and as a result, wiped out a species of tortoise and several types of rare flora. These were not good people, despite the excitement of their journey.
In The Heart Of The Sea may well have been better served as being a simple adventure story, leaving out all of the added melodramatic weight. Instead, it becomes bogged down in its own dreary, navel-gazing pretentiousness, with neither the actors nor a strong enough script to shoulder the burden. It’s sailing and whaling scenes are taut and energetic and thrilling, filled with terrific detail and intense action. Yet there’s not enough for that to bolster the lazy characterization, excessive and tired attempts at haughty self-reflection, or hollow storytelling. It’s a beautiful, often thrilling film that ultimately leaves one feeling surprisingly empty.