Ron Howard continues to prove himself to be one of Hollywood’s most maddeningly inconsistent filmmakers, following up his superb 2013 racing drama Rush with a confused, messy and often rather dull seafaring adventure flick.
Based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s 2000 novel about the 1820 sinking of the American whaleship Essex, the very story that inspired Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, the tale follows Captain George Pollard, Jr (Benjamin Walker), First Mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) and their crew as they set out to capture a fleet of whales in order to extract their oil for mass profit. When a seemingly vengeful white whale attacks their ship, however, survival will become their only priority.
There was certainly plenty of promise for a great movie here, but Howard is disadvantaged from minute one by Charles Leavitt’s (Blood Diamond) misguided screenplay. The film’s framing device, which sees the Essex’s cabin boy Thomas Nickerson, now an old man (Brendan Gleeson), recounting his story to Melville (Ben Whishaw) himself, feels lazy and tacked on, as though to enhance the story’s relationship to his classic tome. And really, that’s the movie all over; at times it can’t help but over-exaggerate the influence it had on Moby Dick, yet considering how aggressively the film was marketed as a man vs. nature, effects-driven adventure film, the whale is in fact a rather small part of the film, and hardly the focal point. It is a film in the desperate throes of an identity crisis, unsure of what it wants to be.
More than all this, though, it’s surprisingly boring aside for the aforementioned whale scenes (which are themselves hampered by mediocre visual effects, poor green-screen composites, pointless 3D and ugly yellow-tinted cinematography that looks like it was strained through a used teabag); characterisation is wafer-thin throughout, and until the grim third act, there’s just not much intrigue to speak of. Even when things get dire, though, the pic’s tame PG-13/12A rating doesn’t allow Howard and his cast to fully realise the horrors of the day, making it ultimately feel woefully neutered.
And to speak of the cast, they’re a wildly mixed bag, with Hemsworth giving a Razzie-worthy performance in the lead role, his accent never quite settling and hilariously even switching back to his Aussie twang mid-sentence; it is a terribly transparent effort and doesn’t imply much effort on his part. Whishaw’s accent also isn’t too convincing, though things improve when Gleeson, Cillian Murphy, Walker and the new Spider-Man himself, Tom Holland, are called to screen. Still, with the overall emaciated nature of the material, they don’t get much to draw on.
A flaccid monument to squandered promise, a flat script, dubious acting and unfortunate visual choices conspire to ensure that In the Heart of the Sea is destined to become lost at sea amid the glut of titanic holiday releases heading our way – or just Star Wars.
In the Heart of the Sea is in US cinemas now and UK cinemas December 26th