The big promotional pitch behind In the Heart of the Sea is that it’s based on the real-life events that inspired Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Watching it, though, one has to wonder: why focus on this story instead of making a modern adaptation of Moby Dick itself? Instead of that, the film adapts the nonfiction book of the same name by Nathaniel Philbrick, and structures it around a fictional story of Melville (Ben Whishaw) meeting with Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), the former cabin boy of the doomed Essex. The result is a film that is visually stunning, but narratively inert and factually wrong.
As Nickerson tells the story, the doomed voyage of the Essex comes down to a testy relationship: first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) was passed over for a promised promotion to captain in favor of George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), the untested son of a prominent investor. As they board the Essex, a few of the other crew members – second mate Matthew Joy (Cillian Murphy), Pollard’s cousin Henry Coffin (Frank Dillane) and the young Nickerson (Tom Holland) – are also prominently introduced.
Early on their voyage, the ship is hit by a storm that damages the ship. The crew presses forward, though, and a year later, they find themselves still short of their projected amount of oil from sperm whales. Desperate, they decide to travel to an unmapped portion of the Pacific, where the ship is ultimately destroyed by a giant whale, with the survivors set adrift at sea for months.
While In the Heart of the Sea touches on a few of the more disturbing elements of the survivors’ methods of staying alive, such as their eventual turn to cannibalism, it avoids many of the more interesting oddities of the Essex story (example: the crew accidentally set an island on fire, which resulted in the extinction of a tortoise species). Instead, the script goes with a more generic display of man’s hubris in thinking he can dominate the ocean. In and of itself, it’s fine, if a bit generic. But the film’s end tacks on a twist involving corporate cover-ups of the Essex story. It’s unusual, out of nowhere, and completely unnecessary.
By taking this approach to the story, it also robs the characters of pretty much any depth. Outside of possibly Chase, the characters in the main story are little more than archetypes. The older Nickerson at least gets some depth as he relays a story he’s kept secret for three decades, though a part of this comes from Gleeson’s committed performance.
Still, director Ron Howard is at least able to make a case for the story visually. The seas represented here are simultaneously gorgeous and haunting. Wide shots are mixed with a slew of tight shots that may disorient viewers, but are effective in context – they’re largely deployed when the ship itself is threatened. Audiences in search for grand spectacle will find plenty to admire here. With a lack of similar attention paid to creating unique characters, though, the film ultimately feels more like elaborate set pieces with minimal connective tissue. The end result is a film that will likely not stay with audiences more than a few minutes after leaving their theaters.