On paper, this must have seemed like a sure-fire idea: a dramatization of the real-life encounter between a whaling ship and a ferocious (even vindictive) whale that inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick. But despite a lavish production and a proven director, it doesn’t work.
Several screenwriters toiled on the adaptation of Nathaniel Philbrick’s National Book Award-winner about the 1820 voyage of the whaleship Essex. Director Ron Howard has as good an eye for casting as anyone, and his leading roles are well filled by Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Tom Holland, and Brendan Gleeson, with Ben Whishaw as Melville. Modern visual effects make it possible to take us back in time to 19th century New England and show us, in detail, the destructive force of a killer whale on a wooden sailing vessel. (Yet curiously, Howard lingers on obvious matte paintings that establish the setting of Nantucket at the beginning of the film, which only exposes their artificiality.)
When all is said and done, it’s difficult to connect to the people onscreen and their plight. Perhaps it’s because we know their fate before the movie begins—but that can be said of many historic tales.
The story unfolds in a series of flashbacks as author Melville persuades the last surviving member of the Essex crew—an aging and recalcitrant Gleeson—to tell what he knows, after thirty years of silence. This involves an able seaman (Hemsworth) being passed over for the job of captain in favor of an inexperienced man (Walker) who’s the son of the ship’s owner. It doesn’t take long to realize that Walker is in over his head when things don’t go as planned.
Ultimately a bleak tale of survival, In the Heart of the Sea seems to make all the right moves in spinning this yarn but never touches the heart of the viewer. A good cast and a formidable white whale can’t overcome that.