My first encounter with the tale of “Moby Dick” was with the 1996 film “Matilda,” when the title character is questioned by her father about the vaguely sexual nature of the book’s title. Of course, being five and terrified of “Matilda,” this joke went completely above my head until many years later when I got the joke and wasn’t terrified of Rhea Perlman. (It’s a long story in which will be saved for another day.)
But now, at age 19, “Moby Dick” has still yet to be a book in my regimen of “Books Hunter has Read,” even though I know it should. So how lucky that “In the Heart of the Sea” is only the story that inspired “Moby Dick,” not “Moby Dick” itself. This sounds strange off the bat, seeing as you would think they would adapt the world famous story into a blockbuster film, but here we are. Despite its purpose, seeing Ron Howard behind the camera of any film is reason enough to go see it, for even if the film falters like “The Dilemma” or “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” there’s a uniquely endearing look to all of his films, one that really captures the spirit of the wonder of film. “In the Heart of the Sea” captures a darker take to Howard’s big budget work, but easily encompasses his largest film to date. Is Ron Howard the new blockbuster commodity? Is this the film that will put him in the eye of big budget filmmaking?
Yes and no.
Yes, Ron Howard could easily be the new blockbuster commodity, he easily has the drive, eye and talent for it. No, this isn’t the film to do it for him.
Put simply, “In the Heart of the Sea” looks like a blockbuster, but moves like an art-house film. Which sounds like a nice addition to the holiday film schedule, but doesn’t work when there is so much promise of a better blockbuster than that of an art-house film. The visuals of “In the Heart of the Sea” are fantastically beautiful and really provide for a nice viewing experience, but these visuals are only employed in a handful of scenes, with the rest of the scenes focusing on the survival of these men stranded out to sea after having their whaling ship destroyed by a massive whale.
“But Hunter,” you say, “They’re stranded at sea, that’s not always means for visual splendor.” To which I refute for two reasons. 1. “Life of Pi” was a film that focused entirely on a single boy in a lifeboat with a tiger and in turn, is one of the most visually lush films ever made. 2. Yes, that could be true, but they could’ve easily taken 20 minutes off the film, made it leaner and meaner and created a much more biting, visceral filmgoing experience.
There is good here, though.
Chris Hemsworth, known primarily for his outings as Marvel’s Thor, does his best work ever here, which is a shame, given the film behind it. There’s something to be said for an actor willing to go so far physically for a film like Hemsworth did for this one. It reminds me of the grueling look that Anne Hathaway took on in her role in “Les Misérables,” taking weight loss to a level that even the horrendous beauty standards of Hollywood cant argue with in its ferocity. Occasionally, Hemworth’s accent falters, as going from a heavy Australian accent to that of a Massachusetts one can’t be easy, I can ignore that. Another standout is future Spider-Man Tom Holland, who proves why Marvel picked him out of the bunch to be the new Peter Parker (as if we needed another one). His role as a young Thomas Nickerson (shown in later scenes as Brendan Gleeson), is heartbreakingly brutal. Starting as a young boy, full of life and excited for the world ahead of him, we gradually see the light of hope in his eyes drain with each unfortunate event that occurs over the course of the film.
One thing I also can say is that Ron Howard is a consistent director. Howard doesn’t forgo his style simply because he has a bigger budget, he simply accentuates it. “In the Heart of the Sea,” while beautiful, offers up no glossy, stylized aesthetic, as it revels far more in its gritty, visceral shooting style. The cinematography almost always hits it out of the park with a back and forth between large, sweeping shots and close-up, quick cuts, which work depending on the scene. Howard wants to make this an epic story of survival and while the story falls short, the visual story Howard tells is beautifully ugly.
Being beautifully ugly, that makes “In the Heart of the Sea” completely useless to see in 3D. The film is often dimly lit, shaky cam, quick cut and obviously converted (early promotional material only markets the film as a 2D release), making the 3D experience of the film a waste. Being someone who doesn’t get headaches with 3D, “In the Heart of the Sea” did it for me, as its quickly edited action rapidly became a strain on my eyes. I could tell from the opening Warner Bros. logo that I was in for a disappointment. Luckily, probably knowing this, Warner Bros. has set up IMAX 2D screenings simultaneously with the IMAX 3D screenings, which typically never occurs. IMAX 2D really seems like the way to go on this film. Epic, but not made for the third dimension.
“In the Heart of the Sea,” if nothing else, is simply dull. I hate saying that it functioned primarily as a filler between “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” but I’m afraid that it’s become the case. The story is too thin for its two hour runtime and probably would’ve functioned a lot better had it only been 90 minutes long, with films like “Gravity,” “Open Water” and “The Descent” understanding this very well and working with it much better in its shorter presence. Sure, the film is beautiful (in 2D), but with nothing else stretching out to grab any audience member other than gawking at Chris Hemsworth’s weight loss, “In the Heart of the Sea” is a shipwreck.
Directed by: Ron Howard
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Tom Holland, with Ben Whishaw and Brendan Gleeson.
Runtime: 121 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of action and peril, brief startling violence, and thematic material.
Available in RealD 3D, IMAX and IMAX 3D.
Warner Bros. Pictures presents, in association with Village Roadshow Pictures, a Cott Productions – Enelmar Productions, A.I.E. co-production, a Roth Films/Spring Creek/Imagine Entertainment production, in association with Kia Jam, a Ron Howard film, “In the Heart of the Sea”