Call me indifferent. As choppy, though not nearly as deep, as the waters in which its characters find themselves stranded, “In the Heart of the Sea” is a pedestrian retelling of a harrowing real-life survival story that served as one of the key inspirations for “Moby-Dick.” Even stripped of the unhelpful comparisons to Herman Melville’s masterwork, however, this account of the sad fate of the Essex — a Nantucket ship that was destroyed by an enormous sperm whale in 1820, and whose crew members were lost at sea for months — generates altogether less suspense, terror and awe than “Jaws” managed with a single Robert Shaw monologue. Woodenly adapted from Nathaniel Philbrick’s superior nonfiction account, and directed in alternately stolid and frenetic fashion by Ron Howard, the Warner Bros. release could take advantage of its 3D showings and lack of strong early-December competition to spear a decent opening on Dec. 11, before succumbing the following week to the B.O. white whale known as “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”
“How does a man come to know the unknowable?” a man intones solemnly over the opening shots of the watery deep. Well, if you’re Herman Melville (played here by Ben Whishaw), you turn up on the doorstep of a hard-drinking former seaman named Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), slam down a wad of cash, and insist that he cough up every last detail of the most traumatic ordeal he’s ever experienced. Cue extended flashbacks to 30 years earlier, in 1820, when the young Nickerson (played by Tom Holland, “The Impossible”) had the misfortune of being one of 21 young whalers on board the Essex, sent out from Nantucket on a two-and-half-year voyage around the coast of South America to bring back barrels of whale oil — the precious resource that all but kept the world running in an era before drilling and fracking.
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As a young cabin boy still acquiring his sea legs, Tom bears witness to the tensions between the ship’s untested 29-year-old captain, George Pollard Jr. (Benjamin Walker), and his brash and confident first mate, Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth). As presented in the script by Charles Leavitt (“Blood Diamond,” “Seventh Son”), the two men are ideally positioned to rub each other the wrong way: Pollard, unlike Chase, hails from a well-established seafaring family, but Chase is the more knowledgeable and experienced seaman by far, and resents having been passed over for a promotion. It’s a difficult relationship, mediated to some degree by their even-tempered second mate, Matthew Joy (Cillian Murphy), and greatly watered down, so to speak, from the more complex dynamic described by Philbrick. And it effectively allows the film to blame Pollard’s insecurities for some of his more reckless decisions — like steering the Essex into the path of a storm that causes significant damage, making it all the more crucial that they return to Nantucket with as much oil as they can carry.
Having captured the world of Formula One racing with such a potent sense of stylistic adrenaline in “Rush,” Howard tries in vain to do something similar for his maritime milieu here, even retaining the same excellent d.p., Anthony Dod Mantle, and the crack editing team of Mike Hill and Dan Hanley. The director sends the camera flailing in all directions over the deck of the Essex (or a full-size replica of it, anyway), aiming to sweep us up in the barely controlled chaos that ensues as all on board try to keep their vessel on course. And there is a certain fascination in the scenes of Chase and his men attacking their majestic, largely defenseless prey with harpoons, even if the brutality of the whole process feels largely sanitized for PG-13 purposes, notwithstanding the sight of blood spurting from one whale’s blowhole. (The young Nickerson is forced to climb into that snotty orifice to scoop out the last few buckets of oil, in a scene that makes you grateful Smell-O-Vision is a thing of the past.)
Disaster strikes when the Essex sails into remote waters several thousand miles off the coast of South America, where hundreds of whales have retreated after having been hunted to near-extinction closer to land. It’s here that the men make contact with a behemoth nearly as long as the 88-foot Essex itself, its scarred, white-and-gray-flecked body rendered with impressive CGI verisimilitude. The crew have never before encountered a whale of this size, let alone a whale that has managed to destroy and capsize a man-made vessel, as Proto-Moby manages with a casual flick of its massive tail. Those who survive the fiery wreck manage to climb aboard two whaleboats, at which point “In the Heart of the Sea” becomes a sort of retread of the survival-at-sea horrors of last year’s “Unbroken,” with some compulsory cannibalism thrown in. “No right-minded sailor discards what might yet save him,” Chase grimly notes after the first seaman dies.
Apart from one brief stretch on an unoccupied island that will surely spell the men’s doom if they remain too long, the two boats remain adrift for months, and the sense of a movie lost in its own creative doldrums is palpable. There’s nothing cathartic or even particularly stirring about the sight of these whalers slowly wasting away, despite the strenuous plucking of every heartstring by Roque Banos’ score, the actors’ persuasive display of weight loss, the excellent scorched-skin makeup effects, and the anguished cutaways to the older Nickerson, still crazed with guilt over what he had to do to survive. Whishaw’s Melville looks on with strained pity in these scenes, and you can just about see the gears in his head spinning away as he tries to figure out how to turn this by-the-numbers jumble of set pieces into the Great American Novel.
It took Melville’s vision to shape the story of the Essex (among other influences) into an epic meditation on man’s capacity for obsession. Howard’s movie is under no such obligation; a crackerjack thriller, a devastating story of loss, or an atmospheric dispatch from the bygone days of 19th-century seafaring would have more than sufficed. (The final scenes back on dry land do suggest a widely applicable metaphor for the lengths to which unscrupulous, deep-pocketed men will go for oil.) Yet for all the care and expense that has gone into its production (including shooting off the coast of La Gomera, one of the Canary Islands), “In the Heart of the Sea” feels stiff and unconvincing, weirdly devoid of texture, and populated by ciphers who speak primarily in the leaden language of exposition.
The actors suffer serviceably enough. Holland barfs, Murphy bleeds, and Frank Dillane waves around a pistol as Pollard’s fiery younger cousin, whose own grisly death gets tweaked here for dramatic effect. And while it may be rooted in reality, the Pollard-Chase interplay feels like a poor man’s version of the infinitely juicier rivalry in “Rush,” not aided by the fact that Hemsworth is effectively reprising his role in that film here. Sadly, at no point during the proceedings does he utter the line “Thor she blows!”