Say what you want about 2015's prestige-movie season, at least the movies haven't lacked individual identities. November and December usually feature a parade of miserabilist historical dramas, shot with tasteful reserve and some guaranteed uplift at the end. Would-be (and in some cases, actual) awards contenders like The King's Speech, J. Edgar, My Week With Marilyn, The Iron Lady, Hyde Park On Hudson, Unbroken, and The Imitation Game all tut over the past in different ways, and with different levels of swoony romanticism or self-important solemnity. But 2015's year-end based-on-a-true-story movies, from Trumbo to The Revenant to Spotlight to Joy, have been refreshingly idiosyncratic, with stronger visual and narrative points of view. Some of those perspectives are suspect, but at least they have one.
And then along comes Ron Howard's In the Heart of the Sea to spoil a good run. The $100 million adaptation of Nathaniel Philbrick's 2000 non-fiction book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex purports to tell the true story of the sailors and ship who inspired Herman Melville's classic novel Moby-Dick. It's meant as a tough, harrowing sea adventure, a thriller where the thrills are more intense because they happened to real people. But there's a programmatic, mechanical process to the story that feels more like a history class recitation than being in the midst of calamity. Howard shows his viewers what happened to these sailors, but he rarely offers any sense of who they were, or what it felt like to face their situation.
The frame story has Melville (Ben Whishaw, on a tear in 2015 with The Lobster, Suffragette, The Danish Girl, and Spectre) trying to talk the last survivor of the Essex into telling the true story of its sinking. Innkeeper Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) doesn't want to talk, but after some cajoling, he flashes back to when he was a 14-year-old greenhorn (played by Tom Holland, Marvel Studios' newest Spider-Man), nervously taking to sea for the first time, on a whaling ship out of Nantucket.
Somehow, young Nickerson is privy to all sorts of trivia about the men on board, though screenwriter Charles Leavitt (K-PAX, Blood Diamond) doesn't get into the whys and hows; he just puts him within earshot of a few conversations, and calls it good. What Nickerson learns is that there's tension aboard the Essex: the captain, George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) is inexperienced but well connected, and his respected whaling family has urged him to feign a kind of distanced arrogance with his crew. First mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) is a seasoned, capable sailor who's been cheated out of his first command, and is constantly defending himself against insinuations that he's no true seaman. And so the scene is set for a Mutiny On The Bounty-style clash of wills, or a Master And Commander-style clash of styles, that will propel the human side of the story.
The film seems to lose interest in its entire human element
But neither clash comes. In the movie's most breathless and well-realized sequence, a disastrous encounter with a storm leads Pollard and Chase to become full-fledged enemies. Then, apart from the occasional stray, halfhearted comment, the movie drops their conflict entirely. It more or less drops all character development from that point on, in fact. Nickerson gets seasick, and at one point, his crewmates force him to climb through a small carved hole in a whale's corpse to help them bail the precious oil out of its head. But these are events, not character traits. He never becomes a person on the voyage, so much as an audience avatar mutely witnessing what we all know is coming: an enormous white whale attacks the Essex, and then stalks the crew with suspiciously malign intelligence.
Past a certain point, In the Heart of the Sea seems to lose interest in its entire human element, not just Pollard and Chase. The film flashes back to Melville and Nickerson, to see how the latter is dealing with telling his story, but those two men reveal virtually nothing about themselves through their behavior; they flatly declare a few factoids about their identities, and then they're done. There's plenty of human suffering after the whale attack — Hemsworth had to lose 33 pounds from his Thor-movie muscular bulk to convincingly play a starving sailor — but nothing meaningful about these men emerges from their suffering. Moby-Dick may be a bane of high school literature classes, but it has some indelible, memorable characters: obsessive Ahab, stoic Starbuck, naïve Ishmael, and fearless Queequeg. In the Heart of the Sea can barely distinguish between the men on board the Essex, apart from Pollard's cousin Henry Coffin (Frank Dillane), who distinguishes himself more in his short screentime than the CGI whale does in its repeated threatening appearances. Even Cillian Murphy, as Chase's close friend Matthew Joy, barely gets enough lines to distinguish himself from Worried Sailor #2.
Howard's filmmaking is conventional to a fault, (aside from a handful of oddball forced-perspective shots, like one inexplicably peering up young Nickerson's pant leg as he licks water from an island's rocks), and that unchallenging prestige tastefulness informs every level of the production, which presents a simple progression of digitally enhanced events, then relies on Roque Baños' frantic, insistent score to provide them with some emotional weight. There is no point in the movie in which the audience will wonder what they're supposed to be feeling; the violins screaming at them tell more of a story than the dialed-down performances. Most of the actors' effort appears to go into maintaining their Nantucket drawls, though Hemsworth in particular has trouble not slipping back into his vaguely British Thor accent.
One problem with this story is that it feels like the last 10 minutes of Jaws, stretched out to feature length. Howard even borrows one of Jaws' signature shots, repeatedly looking down from above to consider the size of a flimsy ship versus the immense creature lurking just below the surface. But Howard lacks Steven Spielberg's urgency and his sense of place, much less his sense of how well-drawn people put stakes into a survival story, by making their survival meaningful.
There's nothing overwhelmingly bad about In the Heart of the Sea; there's just not much of note, even in a purported visual spectacle like this. Anthony Dod Mantle's cinematography has a crispness appropriate to a costume-heavy period piece, though the digital backdrops of Nantucket are shallow and unconvincing. The whaling sequences are reasonably exciting, though they're so obviously reliant on digital effects that they take a back seat to the realism and ambition of John Huston's 1956 Moby Dick.
a missed opportunity
What makes In the Heart of the Sea worse than merely dull is the fact that it feels like a missed opportunity. There's a timeless dread in the idea of a spectral wild creature hunting down human prey, rife with the potential for symbolism. Melville's novel ran with that symbolism, turning the Essex's story into a parable about hubris, madness, and the hand of God. In the Heart of the Sea, by contrast, has one brief philosophical exchange between Chase and Pollard, who might as well be fighting about Melville's book. Pollard says men are "earthly kings" and "supreme beings made in God's own likeness," free to despoil the Earth at will. Chase says humans are nothing, mere dust specks that can expect no quarter from nature. And from there, the conversation is forgotten. It's a rote shot at deeper meaning, with little to no consequence.
"From Hell's heart I stab at thee," Captain Ahab cries in Moby-Dick, brimming with hatred and determination to the last minute of his life. In spite of the arsenal of special effects and dramatic music, nobody in In the Heart of the Sea ever expresses anything so strongly. "From a purgatory of apathy, I grumble at thee" isn't much of a epitaph, but it's about what Howard's film can muster.