Directed by Ron Howard, Hollywood’s redoubtable storyteller across so many genres, In the Heart of the Sea is the sort of 3-D CGI epic you want to avoid: hackneyed, unsubtle, visually gorgeous and stuffed with banal good intentions. It edifies with a few severe lessons about the challenges of early 19th-century sailing and whaling, but considering the price of admission, Wikipedia will suffice.
The true story at the root of In the Heart of the Sea happened in 1820, when the Essex, sailing some very rough waters, encountered a vengeful white(ish) whale of mammoth proportions. The leviathan destroyed the ship, and the survivors, who drifted for three months, did what they had to do to reach land alive. A few of them even made it. The published accounts that followed eventually reached the eyes of a young writer — call him Herman — who turned it into a novel in 1851 that’s been the bane of every high school English student since.
It’s told as a flashback, with Melville coaxing the story of what happened from an aging survivor who’s never spoken of the horrors. The action is spectacular, but from The Perfect Storm to Cast Away, we’ve seen it all before. There’s some claptrap about the insignificance of our greedy pathetic God-fearing species compared to the purity of nature, and it ends with the discovery of a new source of energy to replace whale oil: Someone in Pennsylvania, it seems, has found oil in the ground. You know the rest of that story.
And how about a little class struggle? The ship’s dandy captain gets his job only because his daddy owns the company, and his rugged and more qualified working-class first mate naturally resents him. It doesn’t take long for the former to endanger the ship and for the latter to save their asses. Their dialogue, written by Pittsburgh native Charles Leavitt (Blood Diamond), who based his screenplay on former Pittsburgher Nathaniel Philbrick’s nonfiction book, is mannered to the point of being stuffy.
The cast is variably venerable (Brendan Gleeson as the old survivor), distinguished (Ben Whishaw as Melville), interesting (Broadway actor Benjamin Walker as the captain), pretty to look at (Chris Hemsworth, with a smörgåsbord of accents, as the first mate), and overwhelmingly male (the sea is no place for sissies or missies). Unfortunately, their emotions are all as dry as their characters are wet in a movie that’s too formulaic even for its formula.