There’s enough story in the story behind Moby Dick to fill a two-hour film and then some. Based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s non-fiction narrative, In the Heart of the Sea mines from a rich story of tradition and adventure, of the unique history and customs of Nantucket Island, of the terrifying fate assigned to the whaleship Essex. It’s a grand yarn, one that director Ron Howard shrinks into a too-tidy fairy tale complete with winking bookends and easy questions of morality.
Tom Nickerson (Tom Holland, once, Brendan Gleeson in adulthood) is a cabin boy, or “green hand,” on the Essex, manned by the privileged Nantucketer captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), born off island and with much to prove, and second mate Matthew Joy (Cillian Murphy), ceaselessly loyal to Chase and unlucky from the first. Nickerson comes of age during the ninety days the crew is shipwrecked at sea after an 85-foot sperm whale of unnatural menace and cunning sinks the ship. This whale, acting in a manner entirely unusual to its station as peaceful prey, then tracks the smaller whale boats the crew uses as rescue vessels, protecting or even avenging his pod from the once-relentless whalers.
This is a breathless story of high seas derring-do and survival at the highest cost, one in which the players fight, scrap, starve, rebuild and debase themselves to outlast their opponents: the whale and nature itself, which thwarts them at every turn. There are also hints here of the singular traditions and classism of 1820s Nantucket Island, of the snobbery of island folk like Pollard for the landmen, however hard-working, like Chase. The relationship between Pollard and Chase is made more interesting by making neither man clear hero nor villain despite first looks. Pollard has more integrity than we might guess at first flush, and Chase – Hemsworth’s innate charisma and humanity aside – is a bit of a dick. But even this unconventional dynamic is made conventional with an easy coda that has each man standing up for the truth over riches. It’s a test that is both unimaginative and unlikely, but the movie would have us care that they pass.
Adventure, survival, societal inequality, the fundamental, age-old battle of man versus nature: that’s a hell of a story, and a mostly true one, at that. But it’s not enough story for this movie. In the Heart of the Sea frames this tale with a visit to the adult Nickerson by Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw), who of course loosely used the history of the Essex to inspire his masterpiece. You see, Melville has his own demons, demons that we’re meant to find as harrowing as Nickerson’s, who suffered devastating atrocities to win his long life. Melville fears he isn’t a very good writer – not as good as Hawthorne, for instance. He fears he’ll never be good enough to tell the story inside him the way it deserves to be told. After watching a dashingly tuniced Chris Hemsworth level a rifle at the eye of an immense sea beast resolved to kill him, it’s not easy to care about Melville’s professional inadequacy, and the present day segments fall in the same trap as do so many framing devices: not only are they tedious in and of themselves, but they greatly detract from the A-plot, which could make for a fun little adventure film on its own.
The Melville scenes are In the Heart of the Sea’s biggest, but not only problem. The film isn’t visually cohesive, pairing the quaint fairy tale characteristic of 19th century Nantucket with the effects-laden quality of the Essex and oceanic scenes, in a way that feels haphazard rather than intentional. The cinematography, by Anthony Dod Mantle, is striking but not convincing, and made less so by the meaningless 3D of the press screening. Hemsworth is handsome and heroic, and his supporting cast is equally game, but no performance here is served by the stilted and unemotional dialogue. This whale, this prodigious monster of the deep, is scary but not duly so – the stakes never feel as high as they should in a film where men are fighting desperately for their lives against ungodly odds. Their plight, first frenzied, then interminable, and at last one of black, soul-deep resignation, the acceptance of death and of their infinitesimal place in the vastness that surrounds them – none of this lands with us the way it should. We know it intellectually, but we do not feel it. In the Heart of the Sea never makes us feel it.
The entire effect is one of chilly distance. Visually, emotionally, narratively, we’re never immersed into this thrilling tale that was silver-plattered to Howard and screenwriter Charles Leavitt. The story of the Essex feels like such a no-brainer, as it was to Melville, but by bringing in Melville and holding Chase, Pollard and the rest of the men at arms’ length, In the Heart of the Sea fails to engage on almost every level.