A disappointing whale of a tale.
‘There once was a man from Nantucket’… Pardon my immaturity, but I really couldn’t think of a better way to begin this review of the forgettable wannabe seafaring epic, In the Heart of the Sea. Based on the account of the true story of the whaling ship, the Essex, which in turn inspired the story of Moby Dick, one must wonder if anyone actually wanted or needed to see this story set to film. Director Ron Howard must have felt the need to see it through, because it seems that the filmmakers spared no expense in making it— no matter how bad the visuals, erroneous the 3D transfer, or weak the emotional storyline. In the Heart of the Sea is disappointing on so many levels, and yet its tough to figure out exactly what would’ve righted the wrongs. Hence, maybe the film, which was delayed, would’ve been better off shelved entirely.
It’s 1820 and hunky whaler Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) wants to be a Captain, but is relegated to First Mate, again! He’s mad and whines a bit but ends up accepting his position underneath Captain-by-bloodline George Pollard, Jr. (Benjamin Walker). Oh, and before they set sail, Chase participates in two “promise me you’ll return” scenes with his wife in front of a really bad CGI backdrop of Nantucket (see, my intro had a point!). I forgot to mention that the entire tale is being reluctantly recounted by one of the Essex survivors to an eager Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw). It’s a very traditional cinematic framework for an epic, and In the Heart of the Sea hits every expected beat, so you’ll know when tragedy is about to strike, when the story is about to return to the present, and how it’ll all play out. The issue is that there’s no emotional depth to compensate for the lack of originality.
If this review won’t change your mind about seeing In the Heart of the Sea, at least promise me one thing: Promise me that you won’t see this in 3D. It was the worst 3D transfer I’ve ever seen. The cinematography is constantly in close-ups with multiple objects in the super near foreground and lots of movement in the background, creating a very dizzying effect. Then, the scenes with dolphins and whales look cartoonish and weirdly flat, like a View-Master from the early 90s. The big whale, accountable for 95% of the money shots in the trailer, isn’t in the film all that much, nor does he look that real. He’s really big, and hats off to the effects team for making him look massive, but thats all the legendary inspiration for the great white whale has going for it.
Returning to my thought that it’s hard to pinpoint how one would make In the Heart of the Sea better, I think that a different lead actor, better visuals, and losing the wife and kids element could’ve combined to have an impact. Hemsworth is way too macho handsome for the role. He looks quite different from every single other person on screen who were chosen for their early 19th century looks. More scenes with the whale, and better, more haunting, views of it would’ve been nice. And then no family! Why do we need that cheesiness?! Shouldn’t this be about the Essex and the battle between humans and nature? There’s a few good moments about the futile efforts of puny men against the great forces of Mother Earth, but why cloud it up with unnecessary shmaltzy bookends? Rather than watch this film, I’d recommend reading Moby Dick, or like myself and millions of others, start to read it and realize its too long and densely involved in describing the whaling industry and give it up in favor of renting the 1998 Patrick Stewart mini-series. Problem solved.
In the Heart of the Sea opens in theaters Friday, Dec. 11th.