“In the Heart of the Sea” stars the man who plays Thor, another guy who was Batman villain Scarecrow and ‘Mad-Eye’ Moody from the “Harry Potter” series but it’s not aimed at the comic book crowd. Based on a the best-selling Nathaniel Philbrick novel of the same name, it’s a retelling of the true events that inspired one of the literature’s greatest novels, Moby Dick.
The story begins with Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) offering inn owner Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) three months room and board for one night of conversation about a terrible whaling disaster. As a young man Nickerson’s first seafaring job saw him sail out of Nantucket aboard the Essex. Crewed by Captain George Pollard, Jr. (Benjamin Walker), first officer Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) and second officer Matthew Joy (Cillian Murphy), their mission is to reach the Pacific Ocean and harvest 2000 barrels of whale oil.
Their journey leads them to 1000 leagues along the equator, a place where, they are warned, “wales go to hide from men.” There are whales aplenty, but soon the tables are turned and the hunters become the hunted as a “demon whale, 100 feet long, white as alabaster,” attacks the Essex, destroying the ship leaving the crew a drift in small whaleboats.
The ship gone, the remaining crew attempt to sail to South America battling not only repeated assaults from the whale, but also starvation and dehydration. At sea for three months the men were pushed to the edge of sanity as they took drastic steps to survive.
“In the Heart of the Sea” feels like an old-fashioned whale-of-a-tale. Big strapping men battle nature, drip testosterone, reinvent sushi (I guess you’ll eat almost anything when you’re adrift) and drink grog. The only thing missing is Errol Flynn.
Director Ron Howard does a good job of respecting the power of the sea, effectively showcasing the brutal payback from Mother Nature when the Essex sail too close to a storm. It’s too bad then, later, when the whale is using the Essex as a ping-pong ball, the movie isn’t nearly as intense or exciting. By that point it’s a horror movie with the whale as Freddie Kruger and the crew as scared-but-determined teens trying to stay alive. The whale is menacing due to its size but it’s barely a character, more a malevolent force but Jason Voorhees had more personality than this leviathan.
At the same time it’s hard to view the sailors as victims when they have been spearing the whales and scooping oil from inside the beast’s heads. So it feels like a lose, lose situation where you don’t care much about the creature or the sailors.
“In the Heart of the Sea” is a handsomely mounted film, just not an exciting one.