After an hour of exposition, a slightly intense and entertaining 20 minutes of whale fighting, and an excruciatingly long 40 minutes of being lost at sea with Chris Hemsworth (not as fun as it sounds), we come to the end of Ron Howard’s latest film, In the Heart of the Sea, which does a lot of things except allowing the whale to consume us prior to being subjected to this laundry list of boredom.
Following the viscerally engaging Rush, Howard takes us to the sea with this tale of the “origins” of Moby Dick and the shipwreck, and whale battle, which inspired the story. Bringing back Rush leading man Chris Hemsworth to play Owen Chase, the not-really but kind of really captain of the Essex, Howard brings the same visually-appealing technology that made Rush such a…well rush…and puts it on the open sea with a ship.
The second time around isn’t as strong as the first with In the Heart of the Sea leaving an engaging script back at home. Instead, cliché after cliché follow a host of forced rivalries and damningly boring sub-plots that feel hollow amidst the plumage of the whale war.
Chase is a budding seaman, looking to move up the ranks towards captaining a ship, but is blind-sided by nepotism when the voyage’s patron asks for his son, George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), to captain it instead. Along for the journey to find oil is Thomas Nickerson (Tom Holland), who is also re-telling the story years later to an interested Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw), who is looking for a subject for his next novel.
Howard is clearly attempting to make a magus opus with parts Master and Commander and parts literary epic, but where the film falters is creating a sense of urgency and emotional pull from its cast. Hemsworth seesaws Massachusetts accents while being forced into a rivalry between Walker’s character almost mimicking the portion of Rush — the clash between Hemsworth and Daniel Cruhl’s characters — that worked more than anything.
Instead of paying off like his previous film did, the conflict between the two leads feels like a ploy to make us more interested in this flat story. Pollard comes with a silver-spoon while Chase is a hard-working every man, but that doesn’t mean we should be convinced that they are friends or enemies. It feels more like we are given basic reasons to create contrast and are expected to go along with it for the sake of entertainment when there was never really a reason to side with either man outside of two quick “character moments” prior to the battle with the whale.
In one scene, Chase rights the ship after the sails are not going up properly — displaying that he has every skill set required to be captain. Follow that with sailing into a bad storm, at the request of Captain Pollard, and an outburst from the leader towards Chase after he tried to defy his orders and fix the problem at hand. Neither add to the plot, and are there for the sake of reminding us that these two men are at each other’s throats.
But all of that is irrelevant when we become stranded at sea and are forced to come to terms with the futures of each of the characters with most of them being unrecognizable due to lack of exposure before. The deaths occur, but they don’t seem to have the shock Howard is going for. Rather, we become almost annoyed with the predicament facing us because the time in between core moments is boring and trying.
In the Heart of the Sea is looking to be an escape into the unknown, and a break from Howard’s general fares, which are usually schmaltzy and happy-ended. Instead, it is a film with few wonderful moments and too many moments of tired eyes and sighing. There’s definitely a story in there, but maybe the cinematic liberties taken weren’t enough to make us convinced this movie was as interesting as the fish fight.