Herman Melville's novel Moby-Dick is one of literature's greatest doorstops, nearly 900 pages of everything anyone needs to know about the whaling industry.
Being an excellent writer, Melville still knew what to leave out. As a grasping filmmaker, Ron Howard will have none of that.
Howard's In the Heart of the Sea goes directly to Melville's source of inspiration for Moby-Dick, the 1820 sinking of the Essex whaling ship by a mammoth sea mammal. The movie has all the propulsion of a trolling motor, traversing long-charted dramatic waters.
There is no Ahab, although Chris Hemsworth tosses a harpoon or two, furrowing his sculpted eyebrows a little deeper each time. Hemsworth plays Essex first mate Owen Chase, who'd make a better captain than the nepotist prig George Pollard (Benjamin Walker). That guy wouldn't know his jib from a blowhole.
There is an Ishmael of sorts, Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) who survived the Essex sinking and 90 days stranded at sea. Howard's framing device is Melville (Ben Whishaw) researching Moby-Dick with the old man from Nantucket, whose reluctance to share suggests something really bad happened out there.
Melville left out the part about everyone going Anthony Bourdain on each other, plus a few other distractions from what we're here for, which is some good old whale-on-ship action. In that regard Howard and his CGI team succeed but not often enough. In the Heart of the Sea is a reminder that whales aren't always there when you want to see them. Sometimes you just see the tail.
Charles Leavitt's screenplay doesn't invest this gigantic sperm whale with the sense of purpose the character needs. Obviously it attacks to protect its own but make its vengeance/conservation angle clearer, and easily through the crew's conversation. Owen's retaliations would mean more than simply a hero's obligation.
In the Heart of the Sea is action anemic, without even a mutiny threat on the Essex, or shark scare over 90 days adrift. The movie's lone swashbuckling occurs early when a top sail jams, sending Owen racing up the mast, slicing one rope and saving, well, not the day, but they do get to leave port faster.
Rather than rousing action, Howard's best work here depicts the process of whaling; the danger of longboat crews tiring a harpooned whale, the nauseating method of extracting its valuable oil. Nothing that Discovery or NatGeo haven't shown but admirably faked.
Over time and term papers, Melville's Moby-Dick legend has become cultural fact. The late John Ford, a better director than Howard, said a half-century ago when that happens, you print the legend. In the Heart of the Sea is a doorstop movie that should've listened.
Call me unimpressed.
Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.