By Adam Cutrone
Ron Howards’, “In the Heart of the Sea”, is a visually striking and gripping seafaring epic that succumbs to a sobering wave of ambivalence that muddies the grand spectacle of its 3D IMAX fanfare.
“In the Heart of the Sea” chronicles the apparent truth behind one of America’s earliest epics, Moby Dick. A young Herman Melville, played by the soft-spoken Ben Whishaw, seeks the council of Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), the sole survivor of the shipwrecked Essex. Completely transfixed on the tale from his first time hearing it, Melville hopes to coax the events that will ultimately lay the foundation for his great American classic from Nickerson. From there, much of the film focuses on the combative relationship between first mate, Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) and Captain Pollard (Benjamin Walker) through the eyes of a much younger Nickerson played by the soon-to-be Spiderman, Tom Holland.
It’s difficult to resist the textural and visual mastery of a Ron Howard period piece, especially one that can convey a wealth of history within a single frame. 18th Century Turner paintings come to life with explosively warm sunsets flirting beautifully with the deepest blues and greens of ocean surf. Sensational landscape panoramas are masterfully juxtaposed with anxiously tight and shallowly focused imagery to ensure that the audience is not only aware of how beautiful this world can be, but confronted with a uniquely tactile sense of how brutal, laborious and unforgiving a life at sea truly is.
With a period piece with one of America’s most competent and beloved directors behind the camera, and a star studded cast with stunning visual effects in front of it, one asks, ‘What could go wrong?’ “The film seems to suffer from a shallow depth of character that is not unlike many of the big blockbuster tent poles it’s competing with. The biggest difference would seem to come from the fact that the source material is rooted in classical fiction and doesn’t provide contemporary audiences with the nostalgia that reboots and comic book adaptations often rely upon.
The films biggest setback is a wavering narrative focus that rarely seemed to center on any one person’s journey long enough to give viewers a sense of real progression or evolution of character. It would be easier to overlook this glaring lack of character development had the film focused on the voyage itself over any one of its characters, whale included. But much like the famed ship The Essex, the film often bobbed and drifted somewhere in between, never fully committing to any one idea over the other.
Is “In the Heart of the Sea” a bad movie? Absolutely not. Much like Spielberg, Ron Howard’s penchant for romantic interpretations of American history rarely disappoint. If nothing else, this film stands as a stunningly beautiful companion piece to the novels and rich history that inspired it. Its shallow narrative may prove unsatisfying to those with a greater familiarity with the source material, but it’s sheer visual integrity and kinetic action sequences will excite and entertain even the most discerning of audiences.