“Moby-Dick,” one of the three greatest American novels of the 19th century, is about fate, obsession, God’s indifference, man’s place in the natural universe, exploitation of the poor, racial harmony and other hefty themes.
“In the Heart of the Sea,” a film depicting an 1821 incident that supposedly inspired Herman Melville to write his book, is merely about whale hunts. To say the story told here led Melville to glory is like saying “Le Sacre du Printemps” came from Igor Stravinsky’s attendance at a Maypole dance.
Director Ron Howard and writer Charles Leavitt (who adapted Nathaniel Philbrick’s book) don’t plumb the psychology of their characters. They don’t explore the idea of a malevolent Nature, except for a Spanish captain’s belief that the white whale is “a demon.” After a brief preliminary on land, they sail into the Sea of Tedium and stay there.
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There’s a stale whiff of “Mutiny on the Bounty” in the arguments between a capable first mate (Chris Hemsworth) and a high-born captain who doesn’t know his job (Benjamin Walker). Neither has the acting skills of Ben Whishaw and Brendan Gleeson, who play Melville and the survivor reluctantly telling him the story in 1850. (Gleeson, a worn-looking 60 in life, plays a man aged 43.)
The conversion to 3-D has left the movie looking grim and dim. Almost every scene, whether indoors by candlelight or upon the open ocean, seems awkwardly dark; competent 3-D effects don’t compensate for this distraction. Equally drab are the performances, except for Gleeson and Whishaw.
The film does offer a few moments of wonder. Drowned men float with looks of surprise on their faces, as leviathans swim under and around them. A young sailor descends head-first into a disgusting hole in the skull of a dead sperm whale to carve out precious spermaceti.
But the filmmakers mostly aim for adventure, not atmosphere. The Essex teeters and founders, as its decks stream with brine and blood. The whale’s tail rises and descends terrifyingly, sending a cataclysm of water over struggling whaleboats. We’re meant not to ponder life’s mysteries but to shrink from a malevolent brute.
Perhaps that’s the greatest difference between Melville’s tale and Howard’s. Mad Ahab brings on his own destruction by chasing Moby-Dick across the ocean; Howard’s unnamed whale pursues his hunters across hundreds of miles. In a Hollywood fascinated by serial killers, we finally get one with flukes and a blowhole.
In the Heart of the Sea
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Brendan Gleeson, Ben Whishaw.
Director: Ron Howard.
Length: 121 minutes.
Rating: PG-13 (intense sequences of action and peril, brief startling violence, and thematic material).