In The Heart Of The Sea 

Once upon a time seafaring yarns, particularly those set in the eighteenth century like Two Years Before The Mast, Mutiny On The Bounty and Captains Courageous, were quite a popular cinema staple and most major stars of the day had at least one on their resume. Nowadays, while many traditional genres continue to thrive, films of swashbuckling derring-do set aboard four masted sailing ships have, along with the Western, quietly gone the way of the dodo. Well, not quite. In their infinite wisdom, the executives at Warner Bros convinced themselves that the genre that gave the world Moby Dick was worth revisiting and they were prepared to spend a lot of money to prove it. 


Adapted by Charles Leavitt from Nathanial Philbrook's novel of the same name, and directed by Ron Howard, In The Heart Of The Sea recounts the true story of the Essex, a Nantucket whaling ship that was attacked and sunk by a fabled white whale in the southern Pacific Ocean in 1820. Of the 20 crewmembers that made it to the lifeboats, only eight were rescued some three months later. Among them were first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) and cabin boy Thomas Nickerson (Tom Holland).

Ron Howard has spent the last 30 odd years assembling a diverse, occasionally award-winning body of work. Eschewing the auteurist flourishes and stylistic signatures of some of his contempories, he is, at best, a journeyman director specialising in, for the most part, slick, superficially engaging escapism whose literary parallels can be found in the ubiquitious airport novel. As one of those said novels, In The Heart Of The Sea was a real page-turner, but Howard's film version, top heavy in CGI effects, remains stubbornly uninvolving. 

Of particular irritation is the film's awkward flashback/flashforward structure whereby the primary events set in 1820 are interwoven with brief scenes set 30 years hence, wherein the older Nickerson (Brendam Gleeson) is shown somberly sharing his recollections of his ordeal with author Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw). Rather than conflate their content and have these scenes function as bookends, their periodic insertion significantly destabilises the film's pace and rhythm rendering many of the large scale action setpieces with a serious case of coitus interruptus. To add insult to injury, the inordinately lengthy, largely enervating third act chronicling the men's three month ordeal adrift at sea effectively becalms the film in much the same way a similar sequence becalmed Angelina Jolie's Unbroken.

Over the years the story of the Essex and the whale that sank it have become the stuff of legend. With Moby Dick, Herman Melville did his homework: he borrowed the facts then printed the legend. Similarly perhaps the makers of In The Heart Of The Sea should have followed Melville's cue and ditched the Essex tale and simply made yet another version of Moby Dick instead. The classic novel still enjoys a modicum of built-in name recognition and that alone can play a big part in a film's success.