Movie Review: ‘IN THE HEART OF THE SEA’ suffers from a watered-down script

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Preston Barta // Features Editor

IN THE HEART OF THE SEA | 121 min | PG-13
Director: Ron Howard
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Brendan Gleeson, Ben Whishaw and Tom Holland

Water may make our world a blue marble in the cosmos instead of green, yet we’re told we know more about what’s beyond our reaches than what lies beneath the surface. Though difficult to believe, there’s no denying both the ocean and space are ideal settings for great silver screen adventures. Whether trapped on a lifeless planet or lost at sea, there’s a classic and romantic feel about venturing into the deep.

Ron Howard’s latest splash, IN THE HEART OF THE SEA, may occasionally steer into familiar waves, but when it detours and goes to uncharted territory, it cuts through the waves under full sail.

Based on a true story, the film is a surface-level retelling of the ordeal of the whaling ship Essex and the events that later inspired the novel “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw). Set in 1819, a whaling ship is preyed upon by a mammoth-sized sperm whale, leaving crew members stranded at sea for 90 days and many miles from their homes.

The voyage itself consists of two leads, Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) and George Pollard (Benjamin Walker). Owen is a veteran sailor who is promised a captain’s seat, but ultimately is denied the command due to the nepotism of George.

At sea, the duo clash frequently, often putting their vessel and its inhabitants in harm’s way. It’s the time-honored story of men trying to prove their worth, and it’s far less compulsive than the rivalry between Hemsworth’s James Hunt and Daniel Brühl’s Niki Lauda in Howard’s previous film, RUSH.

Even Hemsworth’s performance lacks the signature charisma he’s displayed in past roles. Over the years, he has demonstrated his value as an actor, someone more than a set of abs and a pretty face. Whether it’s his smirks and wit in THE AVENGERS or emotional drive in RUSH, Hemsworth has imposing strength as a performer. It’s a shame that IN THE HEART OF THE SEA didn’t hand him a more intact script.

Hemsworth manfully mans in up as a man in IN THE HEART OF THE SEA. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

Hemsworth manfully mans in up as a man in IN THE HEART OF THE SEA. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

While the dialogue may ring true of the era, slim characterization leaves the actors in the doldrums. The absence of more compelling character-drama keeps the film adrift on an old-fashioned current, which is surprising given the consummate storyteller Howard normally is.

There are times when the film attempts to tug at your heartstrings, chiefly during one scene between Chase and his longtime best friend, Matthew Joy (Cillian Murphy). Then, there are other sequences that show these men pitted against their own moral fiber. Regrettably, these scenes lack any power of persuasion, as Howard holds back and fails to define the men themselves.

To no one’s surprise in this age of movies, where the film does excel is in its visual department. Working from a blue and green palette, the digital storms and whales are well-rendered and picturesque. Even the overdone concept of 3D is tastefully used, where harpoons and broken lines whip and fly right in your face.

Through all its visual splendor, ironically, IN THE HEART OF THE SEA could have done with some more heart. Howard wants his film to be so much more than a mere battle between men and a giant fish, and at times you can feel him getting that across. Unfortunately, the characters and sense of danger are too watered down.

Grade: C

IN THE HEART OF THE SEA opens tonight at 7 p.m.

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.