Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” might be one of the most boring literary classics ever published, yet that hasn’t stopped Hollywood from going back to the source material time and time again. Though Ron Howard’s “In the Heart of the Sea” technically isn’t an adaptation of “Moby Dick,” it is based on the non-fiction book by Nathaniel Philbrick about the real-life events that inspired Melville’s seafaring adventure. Sadly, that doesn’t make it any less dull. A well-intentioned cross between the nautical drama of “Master and Commander” and the against-all-odds survival elements of “Unbroken,” “In the Heart of the Sea” is an instantly forgettable movie that completely wastes the talents of Howard and his cast.
The year is 1850, and author Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) has traveled to Nantucket to visit Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), the last surviving crew member of the Essex whaling ship, to find out if the rumors that it was capsized by a giant sperm whale 30 years earlier are true. Melville hopes to use the story as inspiration for his next novel, and although Nickerson is hesitant about disclosing any details of the harrowing event, he reluctantly agrees when his wife (an underused Michelle Fairley) reminds him that they desperately need the money Melville has offered in exchange for his time.
Curiously, the focus of Nickerson’s tale isn’t himself, but rather Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), a master whaler assigned to serve as the first mate on the Essex’s upcoming voyage under the leadership of the less experienced Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), who hasn’t earned his position through hard work like Chase, but through family ties to the whaling company that controls most of Nantucket’s economy. Though the two men immediately butt heads, particularly after Pollard’s rash decision to sail directly into a storm nearly gets the entire crew killed, they have much bigger problems to worry about when they find their usual hunting waters devoid of whales. Upon hearing gossip of large herds for the taking off the coast of South America, the Essex crew sails into uncharted waters in search of glory, only to encounter a mammoth, alabaster sperm whale that destroys their vessel, leaving the men stranded at sea in a struggle for survival.
One of the biggest problems plaguing “In the Heart of the Sea” is the matter of whose story it’s supposed to be telling. Though Nickerson is the one recounting the tale of the Essex’s demise, the movie includes moments from Chase and Pollard’s perspectives that Nickerson’s 14-year-old self (played by Tom Holland) simply wouldn’t be privy to, which makes the whole framing device pointless. Unfortunately, it’s also the best part about the film thanks to a pair of solid, understated performances from Whishaw and Gleeson. Listening to the latter’s PTSD-stricken survivor explain the horrors of his experience is more interesting than watching it unfold in the flashbacks, and that shouldn’t be the case. But with the exception of a well-staged whale-hunting sequence and the Essex crew’s first meeting with the great white whale, the movie isn’t terribly exciting.
The actors do the best they can with what little they’re given, but all of the characters are so poorly developed that no one really stands out. Hemsworth still hasn’t found a starring vehicle outside the Marvel universe to showcase his leading man qualities, and he struggles with the New England accent here, while Walker (“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”) delivers yet another bland performance. Holland fares better as the first-time whaler who gets more than he bargained for, proving that “The Impossible” wasn’t a fluke, but it lacks the emotional range of his breakthrough role. Cillian Murphy, on the other hand, has such a small part that it’s a wonder why he bothered showing up at all.
“In the Heart of the Sea” was never going to be the action-packed adventure film that the trailers would lead you to believe (that’s just not Howard’s style), but it’s an incredibly tedious slog that doesn’t have anything interesting to say either, despite the director’s half-hearted attempt to push an eco-friendly agenda. There’s no denying that the whaling industry is a nasty business, but this wasn’t the movie to address the issue, especially when it doesn’t even have time for its own characters.