“In the Heart of the Sea” is sorely in need of something to bring life to a story that should be brimming with it. After all, this is the amazing true story of a disastrous whaling expedition that inspired the great American novel, “Moby-Dick.”
Somehow, director Ron Howard loses the thread of his tale long before his 121-minute movie runs its course.
It’s never a good sign when the trailer does a better job conveying the story’s power and mystery and majesty than the film itself, but that is definitely the case here.
The impressive but ultimately doomed whaling ship Essex sets out from Nantucket in 1820. The determined hunt for elusive whales takes the crew south the length of the Atlantic, around Cape Horn, and deep into the Pacific Ocean. During a stop in Ecuador they hear tall tales of a place teeming with whales, including a white demon whale of monstrous proportions. The Essex heads out and does indeed encounter the great white whale and pays dearly for it. With very little food or water, the surviving crew members clamber aboard three small boats and proceed to drift aimlessly for days and then weeks and then months on end, a good 3,000 miles away from Terra Firma. And as the crewmen drift, so too does the movie.
The initial whale hunt and the confrontation with the great Moby-Dick are both nicely handled and provide the only real dramatic juice to the movie. The CGI work does a good job of demonstrating just how daring and risky whale hunting was, as these relatively tiny men in tiny boats try to take on these mammoth creatures with their tiny harpoons. But because the first great catastrophic clash with Moby-Dick happens a little more than halfway through the movie, it’s a long slog to the end.
It may be an incredible tale of disaster and survival but the various crew members are so poorly defined that their individual fates – some grisly, some forlorn – barely register emotionally. The film begins promisingly with a contentious rivalry between the ship’s inexperienced captain and the hard-scrabble first mate. The imperious but green captain has nothing but scorn for the uppity first mate who in turn can barely contain his resentment of his superior’s silver-spoon background. This natural rivalry is rife with potential but ends up going nowhere, since neither character is developed beyond their initial postures. And the rest of the crew is mostly featureless.
Director Ron Howard seems to sense that he needs something to pump up his movie. For starters, it’s an IMAX film shot in 3D, so the images are sharp and all-encompassing. But even that is not that helpful because the many action close-ups are often too close up, even disorienting, with the viewer losing perspective and context.
Howard also uses a framing device that he hopes will provide substance to a movie that sorely lacks it. Most of the movie is an extended flashback, as the film begins with author Herman Melville paying a reluctant surviving crew member to tell him what really happened on that fateful trip. This set-up allows the crewman/narrator, played nicely by Brendan Gleeson, to intone profoundly and philosophically on the tragic goings-on.
At various times, this narrator speaks of men “on the edge of insanity” and of their being doomed by “greed and obsession,” but we have to take his word for it because we don’t see that demonstrated in the movie. It’s as if Howard feels the weight of Melville’s epic haunting overshadowing him and thus feels the need to inject some fake profundity into his own project. If that’s his hope, he’s defeated as surely as Ahab is by Moby-Dick.