Chris Hemsworth Vs. A Whale. Now that’s how you sell a movie. Can the man who plays Thor bring down the biggest creature on the planet? Even though it’s all done through CGI trickery, that’s a battle for the ages. In The Heart Of The Sea delivers on that promise as well. Hemsworth and his gun show take on a whale in some pretty gosh darn amazing 3D imagery that definitely takes advantage of the added dimension and scale of the cinema screen. It’s a rollicking, romp of an action movie. In fact, if it were possible to see only the hour or so of action/spectacle/suspense/ocean tragedy, In The Heart Of The Sea would actually be an easy movie to recommend. Unfortunately, there’s a story involved and it’s not a very good one. Even worse, that story is told by Ron Howard, which means the crap is shoved into the audience’s face with thudding obviousness.
The film is based on a bestseller by Nathaniel Philbrick about The Essex, a whaling vessel taken down in the middle of the ocean that inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick. To ensure no one is confused and understand that Moby Dick is a very important book, Ron Howard actually has Ben Whishaw play Melville in a wrap-around narrative. He talks one of the few remaining Essex survivors (Brendan Gleeson) into telling him the tale, allowing Howard to underscore any and all themes in the story through tedious dialogue inserts between the two men. The proper narrative stars Chris Hemsworth as a humble hunk who should be captaining a whaling ship, but is forced to work under a rich jerk played by Benjamin Walker thanks to nepotism. Their constant feuding leads the ship astray, and desperate to return home with sweet whale oil, they head into uncharted waters. There, a white whale demolishes the ship, leaving the men to struggle their way back to land on tiny boats, forced to do horrible things to survive.
Now, that’s not a bad tale for a big ol’ action movie. In fact, whenever Ron Howard stops spoonfeeding themes and messages to the audience for a few minutes, the flick can even be rather fun. The CGI whaling sequences are an undeniable rush. Shot in 3D with the finest and most expensive special effects available, Howard creates some truly harrowing sequences. It’s pure eye-and-ear-candy. In fact, if one were to chop out those sequences in isolation and sync them up with moving seats, they’d make for a hell of a theme park ride (water splashing optional). The survival horror sequences near the end pack a punch, too, and are well-played by the pained cast, despite their horrendous dialogue. There’s probably about 40 minutes to an hour worth of satisfying blockbusting within In The Heart Of The Sea. Unfortunately, the rest of the running time is utter nonsense.
The wrap-around narrative with Whishaw and Gleeson is a total bust and brings out all of Howard’s worst instincts as a filmmaker. He’s a middlebrow guy, which is fine. The trouble is that he has artistic aspirations and doesn’t trust his audience to pick up on anything that he doesn’t shove down their throats. Even the implied themes of deadly human greed for whale oil being replaced by natural oil in the 20th century is spoken aloud by characters who shouldn’t be able to predict such things. It’s absolutely embarrassing. Likewise, none of the characters have any depth beyond their stock character types. Cillian Murphy is set up as a main character, then essentially forgotten for an hour, Benjamin Walker might be the most boring villain in Hollywood claptrap in recent memory, Tom “Soon To Be Spiderman” Holland does nothing but stare on in horror, and even the dependably strong Ben Whishaw and Brendan Gleeson can’t overcome the garbage shoved into their mouths. Chris Hemsworth likely fares best since he’s a genuine movie star doing movie star things, but even then he is stuck with a distracting Boston accent that he can’t quite pull off. Yep, action scenes aside, the movie is absolutely awful.
However, those big set pieces are undeniably great. As frustratingly dull as Ron Howard’s filmmaking instincts might be, they are always commercial so he was given a massive budget to pull off some stunning sequences. He handles all those so well that they are certainly worth seeing on a big screen. When the movie hits its peaks, it’s a showcase for some of the finest technical showmanship Hollywood has to offer these days. That’s good stuff. Everything else is barrel-scraping crap though. So whether or not you should see it depends on your tolerance for garbage. It’s a shame there’s no way to hit the fast forward button in a theatre. That would make this whole mess worthwhile.