“In the Heart of the Sea” is a beautiful trainwreck, or perhaps its better to call it a beautiful shipwreck. Visually stunning and painfully boring, the latest from director Ron Howard (“Rush”) is a film adaptation of the true story that inspired Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” It’s not a “Moby Dick” movie but it’s also not not a “Moby Dick” movie.
The film begins with a young Melville, played by Ben Whishaw (“Spectre”) approaching Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson, “In Bruges”), the lone survivor of the whaling ship Essex, in the hopes of uncovering the secrets of the ship’s final voyage. Told mostly in flashbacks, Thomas’s story revolves around the ship’s first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth, “The Avengers”), a shift in main characters that can be confusing if you, like me, can’t understand every word of Gleeson’s scruffy accent. I spent the entire film thinking that Owen Chase was narrating the story to Melville — oops.
The facts of the story are pretty incredible. A mythic whale singlehandedly taking down a ship full of men should be cinematic gold, but “In the Heart of the Sea” manages to make the extraordinary painfully ordinary. It could be the only film to ever make an audience think, “Cannibalism? Mass destruction? So what.” The characters are underdeveloped and difficult to care about — to the point that you might find yourself rooting for the whale to end things as soon as possible.
Literary snobs in coffee shops across America (myself included) breathed a collective sigh of relief upon discovering that “In the Heart of the Sea” isn’t really a “Moby Dick” movie. But making a movie about the true story that inspired a book is not only confusing, it’s limiting. Therefore, the film is defined not only by what it is, but also by what it isn’t. It isn’t a literary epic. It isn’t a known story. Then, what is it? Because ultimately it is as much about “Moby Dick“ as it isn’t. The captain isn’t named Ahab but that doesn’t really matter because the audience knows it’s the same person, only a simpler, less compelling version. “In the Heart of the Sea” is an origin story that desperately does not want to be an origin story.
The only thing keeping the film afloat is its cinematography. In shots that resemble Turner paintings, the sea is a powerful beast, churning with color and life. Storms sweep violently across the water and sunsets burn against the massive sky. In that sense, the sea is the best character in the film, more complicated and compelling than any of the humans. The camera moves vertiginously, allowing the audience to empathize with the character’s seasickness — the closest thing to an emotional tie in the film. During a particularly nasty storm, the camera alternates between sweeping aerial shots and underwater shots at deck level, spinning and cutting at nauseating speeds. Similarly, the whale is a masterwork of CGI. A while speckled monster covered in scratches and barnacles, the whale is as beautiful and is it terrible. It’s complicated and mysterious in ways that none of its human counterparts are. Nature brutally defeats man in “In the Heart of the Sea,” but the audience is glad that it does.
Ultimately, visual aesthetics can’t save “In the Heart of the Sea” from being a dull and emotionless attempt at telling (or sort of telling) one of the greatest stories in history.