Two years after capturing the adrenaline-fueled world of Formula One racing with thrilling panache in "Rush," director Ron Howard attempts to do the same for the 19th-century whaling industry with "In the Heart of the Sea." Reteaming with his "Rush" leading man, Chris Hemsworth, as well as a number of the major behind-the-scenes crew -- including director of photography Anthony Dod Mantle and editing team Mike Hill and Dan Hanley -- Howard succeeds in capturing some good performances and a few exciting moments, but ultimately there's not much we haven't seen before.
An old-fashioned seafaring adventure tale, "In the Heart of the Sea" tells the true story of the Essex, a Nantucket whaling ship that set sail in 1820 on a two-and-half-year voyage around the coast of South America, but while en route, suffered a catastrophic attack by a monstrous sperm whale. The story served as one of the major influences on Herman Melville's classic "Moby Dick." Working from Nathaniel Philbrick's award-winning 2000 book, the script by Charles Leavitt ("Blood Diamond") incorporates a framing story set 30 years later, in which Melville (Ben Whishaw) interviews one of the last remaining survivors of the Essex, Tom Nickerson (played by Brendan Gleeson). The sad-eyed Nickerson has refused to tell his story to anyone, resorting to a life of hard drinking in an effort to assuage his long-held guilt over the extreme measures he and his fellow seamen had to take in order to survive their ordeal. When Melville offers money in exchange for a chance to interview him, Nickerson is reluctant until his wife (Michelle Fairley, "Game of Thrones") convinces him to accept -- both for the money and the catharsis that it will provide her husband.
As Nickerson recounts his story, we see it unfold in flashback when he was a greenhorn cabin boy (played by Tom Holland) aboard the Essex. Much of the character drama aboard the ship revolves around the rivalry between the ship's captain, George Pollard Jr. (Benjamin Walker), and his more experienced first mate, Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth). Chase's anger at being passed over for command of the vessel in favor of the owner's son touches on the period's class divisions; as one character puts it, one man was born to be a captain, the other was simply born into it. Captain and first mate butt heads throughout the voyage, but their squabbles take a backseat once a whale-sized problem swims their way. Their encounter with the massive mammal leaves the Essex a fiery wreckage, leaving the surviving crew lost at sea.
Howard and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle give the film a distinctive look, and one of the most interesting aspects of the film is the obvious influence of Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel's 2012 experimental documentary, "Leviathan." The camerawork of "In the Heart of the Sea" often calls that earlier film to mind in the way it incorporates fisheye lens and POV shots into its action sequences. It is characteristic of the way films can feed off one another, but it succeeds in adding an immersive energy to the nautical adventure.
The screening I attended was in 2D, and while I imagine those POV shots work like gangbusters in 3D, I suspect the film's palette -- filled with impressionistic dark blues and greens and fiery oranges -- will be too murky to survive the dimming effect of the format. The effects are impressive throughout, and that behemoth of a whale is convincingly deadly, but the film suffers from a dearth of character development. Each actor is only given one or two characteristics to play, leaving little to latch onto. Hemsworth delivers a rugged yet uncharacteristically bland star turn, but for most of the performers the emphasis is on the physical -- displaying brute strength in their prime, then alarming gauntness once things turn dire.
The enduring power of "Moby Dick" lies in Melville's ability to wring layers of meaning from his story of obsession, greed, and consequence. Far less existential, "In the Heart of the Sea" aims for a simple tale of survival, and there' only so much compelling cinema to be found in watching miserable sailors waste away, drifting through the ocean, and waiting for death to claim them. The film attempts to add its own layers, getting rather heavy-handed in portraying the hubris of men underestimating nature in their all-consuming quest for oil -- in this case, whale oil, but by the final scenes, a pretty clear connection has been made to our modern day addiction. The story it tells may have served as inspiration for a complex and timeless classic, but "In the Heart of the Sea" is content to stick to much shallower waters.