In the Heart of the Sea Is Ron Howard’s Moby-Dick Because Ron Howard Is Basically Our Melville

Courtesy of Warner Bros.

In the Heart of the Sea
Directed by Ron Howard
Opens December 11

Who exactly is Ron Howard, director? He’s productive, to be sure, as well as adventurous (in terms of genre and subject matter) and professional (in terms of technical competence). Early on, he seemed like a director of comedies and dramedies, but he’s amassed a resume of Howard Hawks-like studio-system versatility, without the same consistent snap. He’s come close—maybe the Hawks parallels are why The Paper remains one of his best pictures—when he doesn’t get weighed down by period concerns. He headed in the right direction with his previous film, the racecar sorta-biography Rush; call it his Red Line 7000, except it might actually be a better movie than that. Howard has retained star Chris Hemsworth for his newest foray into historical pulp: In the Heart of the Sea, which purports to tell the true story that inspired Melville’s Moby-Dick, gamely ignoring the implication that probably the story that inspired Melville won’t be as good as what Melville cooked up.

In addition to Hemswoth, Howard has also retained his Rush cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, the frequent Danny Boyle DP (specifically on 127 Hours, among others) who is probably at least partially responsible for the shots where it looks like a tiny camera is strapped to Hemsworth’s chest, or an oar, or other pieces of impressive woodsmanship. It’s an appropriate choice, because while Sea begins as the chronicle of strapping captain-in-waiting Owen Chase (Hemsworth), who reluctantly joins a whaling ship as first mate to the more privileged George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), it eventually takes a turn into the grimmer side of adventuring with a series of survival stories. The ship is attacked by a particularly ornery whale and, eventually, the remaining crew is left to drift through the ocean, their fate uncertain. All of this intense stuff doesn’t look real, exactly, but the whale attacks summon impressive special effects, and the digital hues of Mantle’s cinematography, heavy on blues and yellows and greens and Boyle-like distorted close-ups, build on the heightened style of Rush.

Why, then, does In the Heart of the Sea fall short of its relatively modest ambitions? Why, in other words, is it such a Ron Howard movie? It’s not as if Howard is constantly swinging for the fences; he makes respectable, unpretentious thrillers and dramas and comedies that only occasionally (Cinderella Man) seem to be begging for awards. Yet his whaling movie is only fitfully engaging and technically correct; it gins up few moments of genuine awe, and for that matter doesn’t really have much in the way of memorable characters, despite the participation of Hemsworth, Walker, Cillian Murphy, and a crew of reliable character actors.

It sure doesn’t help that the movie maroons two of those actors in a framing device where Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) approaches the last survivor of this disaster (Brendan Gleeson) for the real, untold story, which becomes confusing in the movie’s final stretch as (unless my math was way off) a character seems to have aged from teenage to Gleeson-age in the space of about twenty years. The references to Melville and Moby-Dick, then, can at least be explicit rather than winking, but the openness doesn’t create much of a dialogue between this and the more familiar classic text; the material feels instead like it’s been rewritten to accommodate anyone and everyone who hasn’t heard of this fancy book stuff (starting with Melville having a title already for his as-yet-unwritten novel; maybe that’s all in the nonfiction book this screenplay is based on, but the movie does its best to make it sound remedial as hell).

Maybe the frame doesn’t fit because the meat of the story doesn’t focus on the young version of Gleeson as much as the best Hemsworth brother. He certainly cuts an impressive figure, but the movie’s hamhanded positioning of Chase as a whaler of the people, who’s made his own way as a murderer of some of nature’s greatest wonders, grows tedious within minutes. Chase does undergo a reformation of sorts (though only when faced with just how fucking dangerous it is to go after Earth’s biggest animals with a wooden ship and some spears), but as Hemsworth wastes away on screen, he never really develops a personality. He is mostly good; the privileged and arrogant captain is mostly bad. Eventually, they’re all starving and emaciated and on the brink of death, and I’m not sure Howard is pointing to nature as a great equalizer. Heart didn’t need to be Titanic to work; someone like Danny Boyle might have driven home the grit and madness of these characters’ peril at sea. Howard is a talented filmmaker, but his version of the real version of Moby-Dick is a damp ersatz epic.

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