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.