The whale in “Moby-Dick” is not only one of the biggest living creatures on the planet, but also one of the biggest metaphors in all of literature. So it’s easy to forget the genuine horror we might feel if we ever actually encountered such a beast.
“In the Heart of the Sea,” a new film from director Ron Howard, strips away the myth from Herman Melville’s classic novel, instead focusing on the real-life whaling voyage that inspired it. As a tale of adventure and survival, the film is plausible and compelling. The screenplay, however, uses a clunky framing device for the narrative, creating an unfortunate distance from the action.
Before Howard’s film gets to the Essex, the whaling ship that saw several near-disasters after setting out from Nantucket in 1819, he and screenwriter Charles Leavitt imagine a fictional encounter between Melville (Ben Whishaw) and Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), who served on the Essex as a cabin boy as a teenager. Now a sullen drunk, Nickerson is still haunted by that journey, and the struggling writer offers his life savings to hear the story, which is then told in flashback, with Melville and Nickerson occasionally interrupting to offer additional commentary.
The cinematography in “In the Heart of the Sea” is terrific, with some images clearly inspired by 19th-century maritime paintings. Although he’s only first mate, the natural leader of the Essex crew is Owen Chase, played by a dashing Chris Hemsworth, whom Howard films like an old-fashioned screen hero from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Chase does not have the madness of Melville’s Ahab; instead, his main adversary is George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), the ship’s novice captain, who lacks Chase’s experience, despite coming from a prominent Nantucket whaling family.
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Their journey begins badly. Pollard tests his crew by sailing directly into a dangerous squall that almost capsizes the ship. But Chase persuades Pollard to journey onward by appealing to his greed.
This leads to a series of whale encounters that define the story. “Sea” does not shy from the bloody realities of the industry: One memorable scene features Tom (played, as a boy, by Tom Holland) literally hopping inside a hole cut into a dead whale’s head to get at the cache of spermaceti oil inside. Howard uses the massive size of a whale to his story’s advantage, undercutting the hubris of Chase and Pollard with a shared sense of awe and danger in the face of these beasts. We never get a close look at any whale, which is treated as an otherworldly creature. Tellingly, one minor character refers to a whale as a “demon.”
An 1820 encounter with a whale in the Pacific Ocean sinks the Essex, leaving the second half of the film to tell the story of how Chase, Pollard and the other 19 crewmen struggled to survive, notoriously resorting to cannibalism as food ran low. Although Howard has no problem showing whale blood, he squeamishly cuts away from those grim realities.
Gleeson and Whishaw appear with greater frequency in the second half. Yet while they are both good actors, “In the Heart of Sea” can’t seem to stick to the part of the story that really matters. Perhaps the Essex’s tale is too brutal for conventional entertainment. But a less oblique approach would better honor those who sacrificed part of their humanity. Jumping back and forth in time kills suspense. When the Essex’s crew is on the brink of death, it seems an odd choice to focus on a side discussion about Melville’s literary reputation as compared with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s.
Based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s National Book Award-winning 2000 book, “In the Heart of the Sea” uses the accounts of Chase and Nickerson as its primary source material. A more straightforward adaptation of Philbrick’s work could have been in the tradition of such red-blooded adventure films as “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” and “Mountains of the Moon.” Instead, Howard’s meta-narrative resembles the recent adaptation of “The Great Gatsby,” which imagined Nick Carraway writing the Fitzgerald novel.
No stranger to stories about survival and male ego, Howard has made several recent films about visceral experience and how it changes people. Unfortunately, the lure of this “Sea” feels secondhand, like listening to someone tell a good story. It’s a tentative, half-realized tale that ultimately suffers from a significant identity crisis.
In the Heart of the Sea
Rated: PG-13 for intense violence, maritime peril, disturbing thematic material. Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Cillian Murphy, Brendan Gleeson. Director: Ron Howard. Running time: 122 minutes. Theaters: Edwards 21 (2D, 3D), Edwards 9 (2D, 3D), Edwards 14 (2D, 3D), Edwards 12 (2D, 3D), Majestic 18 (2D, 3D), Village Cinema.