At the risk of making an inadvertent pun that admittedly sounds very much calculated, "In the Heart of the Sea" is dead in the water. Based on the true story of the maritime tragedy that inspired Herman Melville's 1851 literary classic "Moby Dick" and was more recently documented in Nathaniel Philbrick's 2000 non-fiction book "In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex
," the film somehow finds a way to suck all signs of life, personality and suspense out of its harrowing subject matter. Director Ron Howard (2013's "Rush
") and screenwriter Charles Leavitt (2015's "Seventh Son
") uninspiringly recreate a series of events without capturing the emotional gravity of said ordeal. Impossible to care about the grievously one-note characters or the jarringly choppy narrative, all that is left for the viewer to do is ineffectually sit and wait for the end credits to arrive.
In 1850 Nantucket, an author by the name of Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) arrives to speak to a shipwreck survivor as research for his latest novel, "Moby Dick." As the alcoholic, down-on-his-luck Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) begins to spin his tale, the ensuing flashbacks to thirty years earlier awkwardly place 14-year-old Thomas (Tom Holland) in a peripheral role within what should be his personal experiences. Instead, rugged farmer's son Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) is front and center, leaving behind his pregnant wife (Charlotte Riley) to work as first mate alongside Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) on a two-and-a-half-year whaling expedition to the Pacific. A little more than a year into their voyage, thousands of miles west of South America, their ship The Essex
is accosted by a giant sperm whale and subsequently ripped to shreds. What follows is a fight for survival, the men left stranded without food on small whaleboats, their hopes of rescue dwindling with each passing day. Oh, and youngest crew member Thomas happens to be there, too.
The shipmates in "In the Heart of the Sea" battle choppy waves, violent storms and a monstrous whale's methodic wrath. Through all of this, director Ron Howard displays no discernible understanding of how to build and sustain tension or envelop his audience in a blanket of foreboding. Once the movie segues from disaster movie to survival saga, it continues down a murky, flavorless route, not daring to hold on any scene long enough to burrow inside the minds of its imperiled characters yet depicting the passage of time so hastily it could cause whiplash in the audience. 1993's "Alive," this is not. Or 2000's "Cast Away
." Or 2000's "A Perfect Storm
." Or, even, 2014's "Unbroken."
"I'll come back as quick as a summer's night," Chase reassures wife Peggy just before he sets sail. She, in turn, really ought to call her man out for uttering such an insipid, flowery simile. Woe to the actors of "In the Heart of the Sea," who commit so fully to their roles they appear to very nearly waste away before one's eyes as their characters' starvation threatens to consume them. Were all of this at the service of a much better film, their hard, focused work wouldn't be in vain. Unfortunately, what surrounds these convincing portrayals is ceaselessly rote. The script paints each character with either a single broad stroke or none at all. Chase promises to bring home two thousand barrels of oil in exchange for the promise of being promoted to captain. Pollard is the novice captain prone to tossing around orders to overcompensate for his lack of experience. Matthew Joy (Cillian Murphy) is the second mate. Thomas is the cabin boy vulnerable to sea sickness. There isn't much else learned about them, the thinness of the script matched by a distinct lack of verve and urgency in Howard's delivery. Chris Hemsworth (2015's "Blackhat
"), Tom Holland (2012's "The Impossible
"), Cillian Murphy (2014's "Transcendence
"), Benjamin Walker (2012's "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
")--these are all fine performers who go above and beyond for a rickety period contraption of meager rewards. Melville's "Moby Dick" has endured for well over a century and a half as a defining literary epic. Far from its cinematic equivalent, "In the Heart of the Sea" will be all but forgotten in a matter of months.