In the Heart of the Sea

Movie Information

The Story: The "true" story that inspired Moby Dick — at least in theory. The Lowdown: Sure, it's well made for what it is. Unfortunately, what it is ... is a tough slog of epic proportions — and not the kind of epic the filmmakers intended.
Genre: Historical Adventure Drama
Director: Ron Howard
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Brendan Gleeson, Ben Whishaw, Michelle Fairley, Tom Holland
Rated: PG-13



I have yet to be genuinely surprised by a Ron Howard film. (Oh, I once thought he had surprised me with the first part of 2003’s The Missing, but he fixed that before the movie was over.) I know going in that I am going to see a (generally) nicely crafted piece of Hollywood midcult, made by a nice guy with no discernible personal signature — except, maybe, a bad case of Spielberg Envy. I know the movie is unlikely to be actually bad, but that it’s equally unlikely to be very exciting. It will almost certainly be incapable of upsetting anyone. If we’re lucky, we find ourselves in the realm of pop culture junk — like those goofy films made from Dan Brown thriller-novels. If we’re not so lucky, it’s likely to be Howard straining for significance. And that’s where In the Heart of the Sea comes in.




Just who decided that what the world needed was a Moby Dick origins story, I cannot imagine. But that’s what this film version of Nathaniel Philbrick’s historical In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex is. For that matter, I’m not at all sure of the appraisal that there’s much of a market for an “iron men in wooden ships” actioner, where people say things like, “Come on, lads,” and attempt to harpoon whales — with or without the pseudo-weighty concerns tacked on. (That the film had a clear shot at taking the box office its opening week and was beaten by the four-week-old The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2 perhaps answers that.) I suppose there’s a kind of charming quality to making something as determinedly old-fashioned as this — at least in theory. Actually, sitting through it is apt to diminish such a thought.




In order to add the desired importance, Howard and screenwriter Charles Leavitt have added a framing story involving Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) coming to Nantucket to interview the last survivor of the ill-fated Essex, Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson). But Nickerson — an alcohol-dissipated old salt who whiles away his time building ships in bottles and is not at all like Taylor Coleridge’s  garrulous fellow in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner — is not inclined to tell his tale and has to be forced into it by Mrs. Nickerson (Michelle Fairley). Apparently, she believes that until his “ghastly tale is told,” Nickerson will never be set free. (She’s either read Coleridge’s poem or harbors theories that predate Dr. Freud.) So the story finally begins, and a pretty trite one it turns out to be — part seafaring melodrama, part class-struggle hoo-ha. Somehow, it even manages to turn into a pointed (if clunky) critique of reckless capitalism as evidenced by any form of the oil business.




Along the way, we get a dose of pretty decorous cannibalism (the reason for Nickerson’s reticence) and a giant (whitish) whale out of Jaws: The Revenge (1987). In other words: “This time… It’s personal.” No, I’m not kidding. This monstrous makeshift Moby is out for vengeance on the crew of the Essex for inhospitably sticking him with a harpoon — even if he has to follow them all over the Pacific to do it. Think of him as Michael Myers with fins and a blowhole. Yes, this really is that silly. Maybe more so.




It’s not that the film is badly made — though it is certainly badly structured. It’s that it seems utterly clueless how to bring all these elements together. The framing story — perhaps the most successfully realized (but no less corny) aspect of the movie — isn’t enough to hold it together. And nothing could make it move smoothly. All of the action is in the first half of the movie. Once the film meets the big fellow, it’s pretty much over — except for what feels likes hours of survivors in lifeboats going through the things survivors in lifeboats tend to go through. And for what? A lesson in the unethical behavior of Big Business. The characters are thin and uninteresting. At best, they have one defining trait — chip-on-his-shoulder lead, spoiled rich boy, reformed alcoholic, etc. — and those are the lucky ones. The actors do what they can (despite a riot of dodgy accents and dreadful dialogue), but that only goes so far — and not nearly far enough. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action and peril, brief startling violence and thematic material.


About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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35 thoughts on “In the Heart of the Sea

  1. T.rex

    There was nothing about this movie that grabbed me and I saw the trailer many times. I am surprised I do not like Ron Howard as much as I should. After looking at his IMDB he has more “meh” features than great ones. I admit that I still like Beautiful Mind but his best is still the double punch of The Paper followed by Apollo 13. Ofcourse, my generation will always hold up Gung Ho on an altar.

      • Edwin Arnaudin

        Ofcourse, my generation will always hold up Gung Ho on an altar.

        And with that statement, T.rex and I are officially not part of the same generation.

          • Edwin Arnaudin

            I think he’s Gen X and I’m Gen Y/Millennial.

          • Edwin Arnaudin

            No. You’re not one of the entitled-acting ones with no sense for his/her surroundings.

          • Ken Hanke

            True, but I’ve never noticed that any generation held the patent on that attitude.

          • Edwin Arnaudin

            I guess it stands out to me because I think they should know better.

        • T.rex

          Come on, Gung Ho was funny. (if you laugh six times in a comedy it works, not my rule) Can we all agree that Apollo 13 was Ron’s best?

          • Ken Hanke

            Whose rule is it? Who set that rule? Who enforces it?

            No, I won’t agree about Apollo 13.

          • T.rex

            Funny, I thought I got it from you or Kermode. I guess it was the latter.

          • Me

            Pro Night Shift, I didn’t even realize Ron Howard directed that, and I’ve never even heard of Gung Ho, and I’m Gen X.

          • Ken Hanke

            Well, there is that, but we only have Travis’ word for it that his generation venerates Gung Ho. This is the first time I’ve heard it even mentioned in years.

          • T.rex

            To be fair I have not seen it in a long time. I remember it being great. I also thought Throw Mamma from the Train was great but I just saw it recently and…… its not. I will leave well enough alone with Gung Ho.

          • Ken Hanke

            Even with the grimmest determination, I could not accomplish that.

  2. Edwin Arnaudin

    despite a riot of dodgy accents

    Casting modern-day Australians, Brits and Irishmen as early 19th century Nantucketers was maybe not the best move.

    • Ken Hanke

      Having them speak in a weird accent that lands somewhere between international stage English and modern working class Bostonian didn’t help.

    • Big Al

      19th century sailing crews were very diverse, drawing professional seamen from all cultures and corners of the globe. The Captain and officers of a Nantucket whaler were more likely to be from New England, but the rest of the crew could have been from anywhere, hence Queequeg in “Moby Dick”. Also, if you read the history of the 1847 U.S. Navy Exploring Expedition (the “ExEx” in “Seas of Glory”, which like Philbrick’s “In the Heart of the Sea” I would not be surprised to see a film made of), you would have found a surprisingly high ratio of Pacific Islanders signed on at the voyage’s beginning in Norfolk harbor.

      The most authentic thing Howard could have done is let every actor keep his original accent (Whishaw’s Brit, Helmsley’s Aussie, etc.). It would have been far more authentic than trying to fake a Bahhhston brogue.

  3. yandoodan

    So why do the stills of the sea scenes look like they were shot under florescent light? Maybe they are in the 19th Century Matrix and don’t realize it…

    • Ken Hanke

      I think it’s an attempt to look aquatic. That it looks somewhat like a dirty aquarium is close, I guess. Come to think of it, when I was a kid I had a grocery store “painting” of an ocean scene (anybody remember when grocery stores gave “art” as a bonus?) that looked kind of like that.

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