“Moby Dick” is one of those foundational tales, a man-versus-nature bedrock, which has permeated so many works of fiction that followed.
But the most sensational part of the story, the part with all the boat sinking and angry, giant whales, was based on a very true event.
“In the Heart of the Sea” is the story of the whaling ship Essex and the plight of its crew when it came up against a great white whale in 1820.
This movie was directed by Ron Howard, who does a good job of checking all the boxes of a great adventure with plenty of action, spectacular effects, and some harrowing acts of survival.
Beyond that, though, there is the problem of who or what we are supposed to care about or root for. There’s no emotional impact because we don’t really care about any of the characters. Where “Moby Dick” was about a man’s obsession destroying him, “In the Heart of the Sea” doesn’t get much deeper than “here is some stuff that happened.”
Don’t get me wrong, it’s some cool stuff, but it leaves the movie feeling a little hollow.
The story is told in flashback, as the last surviving member of the Essex, Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) reluctantly relays his story to “Moby Dick” author Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw).
Young Tom (played by the next once-and-future Spider-Man, Tom Holland) is a teenaged orphan on a vessel locked in a classic maritime power struggle.
Captain of the Essex George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) is inexperienced and has been given his post thanks to his wealthy family name. Passed over for the job is his first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), a daring, capable and experienced sailor. They do not get along.
Their job is to hunt whales. Whale oil is what lights the lamps of the early 19th century and it is a highly valued commodity.
Understanding these are men of their age and fully appreciating the insane risks they undertook just to earn a living wage, it’s still kind of a bummer to watch our “heroes” run down and butcher these gargantuan, peaceful creatures.
This is probably why, when the Essex ventures far out into uncharted waters to find non-overfished whales, I found myself on the side of the 100-foot albino sperm whale that shows up to wreak some havoc.
From that point on, the movie becomes your run-of-the-mill tale of survival with lots of drifting and starving and water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.
Once we get past the whale, there’s nothing here you haven’t seen before. The performances are mostly fine; although watching this cast, which is packed to the gills with Brits (and Hemsworth is an Aussie), struggle to pin down a Nantucket accent is kind of brutal.
At any rate, this is a movie that winds up on the positive side of the ledger thanks primarily to the action sequences and the competency behind the camera. But after seeing this moderately interesting “Moby Dick” backstory, I was reminded of the line from “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” that says “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” We were probably better off with just the legend.
“In the Heart of the Sea” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action and peril, brief startling violence, and thematic material.