So…how about that Ron Howard?
Sorry, that’s a weak opening and I know it, but I just don’t have much of an opinion on Ron Howard as a director. He has some good movies, some bad movies, some mediocre movies, and the end result is that, while he has some good movies, he doesn’t make much of an impression on me. But on the plus side, since I know he’s capable of making good movies, all of his movies have the potential to be good.
And to be honest, I was kind of looking forward to this one. It’s been a long while since we had a good Jaws knockoff, which is especially irritating given that we finally have good enough CGI to realize truly huge sea creatures (I dearly hope The Asylum hasn’t ruined including Megalodon’s in movies). Plus it features a time period (and resulting aesthetic) that I’m extremely fond of seeing on film. So I’m totally willing to give this movie a shot.
In the Heart of the Sea (hereinafter referred to Heart of the Sea, because I want save time) is based on the non-fiction book of the same name, which is the sinking of Whaleship Essex and was, as the movie is at great pains to remind us, the inspiration for Moby Dick. Aside from a framing device about Herman Melville interviewing a survivor of the shipwreck, the movie kicks up in 1820 when the Essex leaves Nantucket to hunt whales.
Aboard the ship is the First Mate, our lead character, Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), the Captain George Pollard Jr. (Benjamin Walker), the Second Mate, Matthew Joy (Cillian Murphy) and…a bunch of other dudes, I dunno. They have trouble finding whales in traditional whaling spots, so they wind up going far off the West coast of South America. But, as you can probably guess from…well the Moby Dick framing device, the entire ad campaign, plus a heft dose of foreshadowing, there’s a record sized whale where they’re going, who’s going to take umbrage to the fact that they’re hunting there.
Of course, what the trailers and ad campaign are at great pains to hide from you, is that the main thrust of the movie isn’t actually devoted to the whale. It shows up at about the midpoint, wrecks the boat, and the just sort of leaves. He hangs around the edge of the plot, occasionally popping back up for an action beat or two, but his screentime probably totals less than 15 minutes. Once he wrecks the Essex, the plot becomes about the crew trying to survive, and that’s where the problems start to come in.
Heart of the Sea is a movie of parts, some of them good, some of them bad, but ultimately the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Not only do the parts never gel cohesively, but they also undercut each other. The whale segments are undercut by their briefness, the survival segments are undercut by the fact that we’re waiting for the whale to return, and all of it is undercut by the films poor screenplay and mediocre acting.
And while the movie as a whole manages to avoid tipping its hands about its issues until after the midpoint (when the pacing begins to grind to a halt), the screenplay begins revealing its weaknesses immediately, when the opening scenes of the actual plot shotgun blast character backstory and exposition into our faces. This might be acceptable if the film was using the overload of information to build a large and interesting cast (as the movie clearly has aspirations of being a disaster movie, which usually need a big cast) but all that information is only used to build two characters, and even they never rise above cliched and one dimensional.
Those two characters are Hemsworth’s Chase, and Walker’s Pollard and neither of them are particularly interesting. It’s clear that these two characters, their conflicting personalities and paralleling growth etc. are intended to be at the heart of In the Hear of the Sea, but without any reason to care, this falls completely flat. Pollard basically states his motivation and backstory immediately upon arriving on the scene (he’s the scion of a well known whaling family who has yet to prove himself) and most of his growth takes place off screen.
Hemsworth’s Chase isn’t all that much better. He’s so stuffed with generic virtue that he winds up something of a non-entity, and the closest he gets to a moment of real darkness comes right at the end, and is far too little too late. Hemsworth isn’t a strong enough actor to make up for this lack of depth in his character, and the film suffers because I didn’t care even a little about him. The rest of the actors, aside from a criminally under-utilized Cillian Murphy (who is lucky enough to get a single character trait, recovering alcoholic) might as well be cardboard cutouts.
Which isn’t to say the movie is without its charms. While the whale might only show up occasionally, the moments where it finally does are truly awesome, and the movie as a whole looks amazing. Howard’s affection for the time period is clear, as the movie spends a lot of time with the beauty of the giant ships and the gorgeous shots of the ocean.
Ultimately, In the Heart of the Sea is a movie in a bit of a Catch 22. It has its charms, but nothing I’d say is really worth the price of a movie ticket. But, since all of its good elements are visual (the CGI, the cinematography, the whale attacks), the experience will be greatly reduced on the small screen. So it’s up to you. It’s not a terrible movie, but it’s certainly not a very good one.
Elessar is a 25 year old Alaskan born cinephile and the number of Avengers cast members who have eaten people in their other movies is starting to get worrying.
– looks really good
– the whale is really cool
– I like Cillian Murphy
– weak screenplay, with poor pacing
– subpar character work
– I think Chris Hemsworth might be a bad actor