"No right-minded sailor discards what might yet save him," a first mate tells one of his desperate men after a month adrift at sea. Screenwriter Charles Leavitt (Blood Diamond) and director Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13, Frost/Nixon) take that mantra and sail it right into the middle of the Pacific, where it accounts for the sluggish maudlin wreck that is their latest venture, In the Heart of the Sea. Based on Nathaniel Philbrick's best-selling book of the same name, the film makes the true story of the Essex, a Nantucket whaling ship that was stove by a white whale in 1821, into the driving inspiration behind Herman Melville's Moby-Dick. (In reality the story was one of many accounts that Melville drew upon.)
Shot in utterly gratuitous 3D, overly reliant on whizz-bang CGI and other special effects that do little to mitigate the flimsy sets, atrocious accents (a grating mashup of Masshole and cockney brogue) and eye-rolling one-liners, the film opens with Melville (Ben Whishaw), insecure about his status in the American literary pantheon, offering Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), a sodden inn owner and the last surviving member of the Essex, a thick stack of cash to tell him about the doomed journey. Nickerson, hounded by the terrible things he witnessed as a 14-year old deck boy, is driven to confession by Melville's insistence—and a bottle of whiskey.
Chris Hemsworth plays Owen Chase, a strapping blond-haired proletarian "landsman" who is bumped from his rightful place as captain on the Essex's voyage in order to give George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), a quivering and sallow-faced brunette, a chance to impress his blue-blooded islander father. Howard and Leavitt relish in the vapidity of the tension between Chase and Pollard, relying on the most tired tropes about American pastoral exceptionalism imaginable: Pollard is an effete metropolitan who relies on deep-pocketed family connections for his position; Chase is a rugged loner, a farmer when not a sailor, hard-working and true. (I can't have been the only one to sense a whiff of anti-semitic fantasy in that dialectic.)
The boys are after whales and the barrels of oil within their heads, which, we are reminded time and again, bring light into American homes; Chase is made to promise the ship's financiers that he will bring in 2,000 barrels of illuminatory oil. (A biggish whale brings 50.) Pollard's incompetent arrogance nearly leads the vessel into disaster a few weeks into the voyage, but a tense peace with Chase leads them onward—though not to much oil. A brief stopover in a paradisiacal Ecuador introduces us to Capitán Pelaez, a one-armed Andalusian who warns the boys of a huge white whale—"that demon"—that roams among an unimaginable bounty of whales some 2,000 miles off-coast. Pollard and Chase, ignoring commandment #47 of terrible movies (always pay attention to the crippled brown guy's warning), sail off in pursuit of the easy catch, though of course they end up facing the demon instead.
With a movie like this one, where even the moderately-literate movie-goer can figure out the pablum-and-blubber-soaked ending within the first few minutes of screentime, filmmakers need something else to carry the film, be it snappy dialogue, smart acting, or daring photography. In the Heart of the Sea manages to fail on all counts, a remarkable feat given its A-list cast, crew, subject matter and budget.
In The Heart of the Sea
Directed by Ron Howard With Hemsworth,
Holland, Murphy, Walker
Regal Santa Fe Stadium 14