In the Heart of the Sea really wants to make its audience feel things about a long, stupid dick-measuring contest. It’s an epic, see. Epics matter. Epics are epic.
Ron Howard’s latest film isn’t epic. It’s not even particularly compelling. That’s not to say that the story, based on the real-life events that inspired Moby Dick, isn’t interesting. It’s a tale of human survival, both on the sea and in the grip of painful memories. Unfortunately, the reverence Howard and screenwriter Charles Leavitt seem to feel for the material ultimately dooms it to—if you’ll pardon the seafaring reference—float along in the doldrums, doomed to a driftless existence enlivened only by the occasional giant whale.
The film begins with a scrappy young novelist named Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) showing up at an inn, desperate to speak with the owner, Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson, terrific in spite of the nonsense). His wife (Michelle Fairley) is desperate for this meeting to happen. So is Melville. Nickerson is not.
As a framing device, it’s not bad. A great actor can do a lot to add weight to even the slightest material, and this story isn’t slight. Gleeson does yeoman’s work, giving the film a much-needed emotional foothold, but every time the camera leaves his face and flits into the past, all that resonance flies right out the porthole.
Nickerson is the last living survivor of the Whaleship Essex, and as he begrudgingly recounts the events that brought the ship to ruin, we drift into the past and right out of anything compelling. The story of the Essex, Nickerson tells us, is the story of two men: Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), and his first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth). The two immediately butt heads, leading each to make some very foolish decisions, several of which ultimately lead to disaster.
The film isn’t interested in basic human foolishness, however. They aren’t flawed, sometimes petty men who let their worst impulses steer them off course. Instead, Howard asks for an immediate investment in the idea that they’re tragic figures with tragic flaws. It’s not earned. It’s just something that In the Heart of the Sea expects, as though the fact that these events inspired Moby Dick removes any responsibility on the part of the filmmakers to actually get an audience to care. And so Chase and Pollard behave like idiots, and the movie demands that its audience be appropriately awed.
No can do. Hemsworth and Walker do their best to achieve the heights they’re expected to reach, but they’re dragged down by all the grandness. Neither does bad work—no one in the cast is bad, per se—but the movie capsizes early, and no amount of sun glinting off waves, squalls forming in the distance, or wind blowing in Hemsworth’s hair can help them to break the surface. Not even the appearance of the literal great white whale manages to stir up much feeling. Each action sequence is exciting, and the effects dazzling, but the whole is so, so much less than the sum of its parts.
Despite the technical prowess on display, there’s one element so distracting that it makes even those accomplishments feel frothy and easily dismissed. While there are moments of 3D that work—a beautiful shot of a vessel on fire, for example, is made both more lovely and more horrifying by the ash that flutters in the foreground—for the most part, it’s an uncomfortable distraction. Nearly every scene includes a shot designed to showcase the effects, as though 3D movies haven’t been readily available for years now and so it’s important to prove what it can do. A dog eats, right in your face. An octopus tentacle is chopped off, right in your face. A person steps on the street, grabs a rope, picks up a bottle, blinks, sweats, and it’s right in your face. It’s almost as if even Howard believes what’s happening on screen simply isn’t that compelling, so he threw a bunch of nonsense into the foreground.
The biggest disappointment, however, comes courtesy of the things that actually work. Here and there, the simplest moments manage to connect: a sailor passes out the rations of hardtack; hands are burned by a fast-moving rope; a young boy is stunned by his first glimpse of a whale, then later has to go spelunking inside its corpse; a man turns down a drink. These brief glimpses of daily life aboard the whaling vessel serve as an entry point, a way to connect with the characters and their plight in a way the rest of the film can’t manage. Hemsworth and Walker have their share of moments like these, when Howard lets them descend from their pedestals and become human, but most come courtesy of the ensemble—and from Cillian Murphy and Tom Holland (who plays Nickerson as a boy) in particular.
This isn’t a film about the little things, though. It’s determined to be more than that, and so any fear, awe, and horror one might feel about that big white whale has nowhere to go. Each sighting may be more stunning (and technically accomplished) than the last, and each encounter might raise the pulse a bit, but it doesn’t go beyond that. It’s happening to people we don’t know, but for whom we’re expected to care. It’s not storytelling, it’s obligation, and it renders even this beautiful, terrible monster irredeemably flat.
In the film, Melville makes an odd connection that might seem funny if there were any hope that Howard and Leavitt were in on the joke. After Nickerson tells him of one particularly horrifying memory—a memory that’s clearly haunted him for decades, straining his marriage and damaging his mental and physical health—the novelist confesses one of his own great fears. He’s not a very good writer, he says, and once he begins to write Moby Dick, there’s a chance he’ll screw it up, and so he, too, knows what it is to be haunted. Nickerson doesn’t immediately roll his eyes, doesn’t point out that as important a novel as Moby Dick might be, fear of writing it doesn’t come close to the horror of watching one’s friends waste away, of knowing your own death is right around the corner, of believing yourself a monster. He simply nods, as if to say, “seems about right.”
It isn’t. It’s not enough to simply say something’s epic. Ambition is all very well and good, but if you’re going to go there, you’d better have the goods to back it up. As the saying goes, don’t talk the talk if you can’t walk the walk. Or perhaps, in the case of Howard’s shipwreck, it should be amended: Don’t sail the sea if you can’t float the boat.