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In the Heart of the Sea Movie Review

In the Heart of the Sea (2015) movie poster In the Heart of the Sea

Theatrical Release: December 11, 2015 / Running Time: 122 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: Ron Howard / Writers: Charles Leavitt (screenplay & story); Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver (story); Nathaniel Philbrick (book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex)

Cast: Chris Hemsworth (Owen Chase), Benjamin Walker (George Pollard), Cillian Murphy (Matthew Joy), Brendan Gleeson (Tom Nickerson), Ben Whishaw (Herman Melville), Michelle Fairley (Mrs. Nickerson), Tom Holland (Thomas Nickerson), Paul Anderson (Caleb Chappel), Frank Dillane (Henry Coffin), Joseph Mawle (Benjamin Lawrence), Edward Ashley (Barzillai Ray), Sam Keeley (Ramsdell), Osy Ikhile (Richard Peterson), Gary Beadle (William Bond), Jamie Sives (Cole), Morgan Chetcuti (Sheppard), Charlotte Riley (Peggy Chase), Nicholas Jones (Pollard Senior), Donald Sumpter (Paul Mason), Richard Bremmer (Benjamin Fuller)


When Warner Bros. Pictures quietly delayed In the Heart of the Sea from its scheduled March opening until two weeks before Christmas, you assumed they sensed they had a winner on their hands. This is, after all, the studio that lately specializes
in getting eleventh-hour contenders like American Sniper and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close to crash the Oscars' main categories without pundits seeing them coming. On paper at least, this looked like an awards player: a nice-sized epic period drama with a classic literary foundation and A Beautiful Mind double winner Ron Howard at the helm. But Heart isn't crashing any Oscar parties in anything more than technical categories and even those might not happen if the Academy wasn't so short-memoried.

Purportedly telling the true story that inspired Moby Dick, Heart is based on a 2000 nonfiction book by Nathaniel Philbrick. A frame story finds author Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) tracking down the only survivor from a harrowing incident that occurred a few decades earlier. Barely a teenager at the time (Tom Holland, the new Spider-Man), Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) is now a graybeard who is reluctant to detail the experience. Nickerson's wife (Michelle Fairley) gets him some whiskey and encourages him to reveal all to this writer.

Chris Hemsworth, Marvel's Thor, plays first mate and expectant father Owen Chase, ostensibly the protagonist of Ron Howard's "In the Heart of the Sea."

Our principal story takes place in 1820 and finds expectant father Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) reluctantly accepting another first mate position. He's ready to be captain, but such opportunities are reserved for those with legacies, like George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), the inexperienced man under whom he'll serve. Owen is promised a chance to captain after this voyage and he even makes his benefactor put it in writing.

The mission takes these and other men from Nantucket deep within the Atlantic Ocean, where they are to hunt whales. One giant white whale, roughly 100 feet long, is not about to have his life ended by a quickly thrown harpoon. Their weapons no match for him, the whale capsizes the Essex. Those who survive are shipwrecked for months. They are extremely hungry, sunburned, blistered, and gradually losing their minds. They end up on a remote island of no sustainable resources and are driven to desperate measures when they take their ships out in hopes of finding a water rescue.

Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) needs a push to stop tinkering with ships in bottles and start detailing his harrowing shipwreck experience for Herman Melville.

Howard has built a respectable resume as a director, but his films are only as good as the stories they tell. This one, written by Blood Diamond's Charles Leavitt, who shares story credit with Rise/Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Jurassic World couple Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, leaves a lot to be desired. It's hardly a whale of a tale: poorly-defined men are pushed to fight for their survival after an impossibly vast behemoth wreaks havoc on their ship. That part should at least be exciting and full of dynamic visuals, right?

It is not. Howard has made exciting movies before, like Ransom and Backdraft, but he's not an action spectacle filmmaker. And he doesn't come up with a way to prevent us from quickly tiring of the sight of a giant CGI whale hitting into a ship and tossing the humans about. Full of shaky, seaside camera work, the IMAX 3D visuals are not the feast you want or expect, especially not from the third row, where I was seated.

The movie tries to ground these shipwreck survival bits, which are rendered routine for those who have seen Cast Away, All Is Lost, and Kon-Tiki, with a frame story that is far too closely modeled after Life of Pi. In that multiple Oscar-winning Ang Lee film, the frame story added value in the form of complexity and soulfulness. This one exists simply for the occasional change of scenery, but it produces chuckles with its on-the-nose soul-baring.

It's tough to see how the film is any better suited to the crowded and competitive holiday moviegoing season, given just one week's head start on the new Star Wars, than it was to spring. If anything, this time of year heightens expectations and forces critics and audiences to compare new releases to the genuinely rewarding year-end fare strategically timed to the award season. This movie's dramatic failings make it look like the crowd-pleasing Creed, the unlikely revival of an old Sylvester Stallone franchise, may be the most productive major studio's most likely ticket to the Best Picture and acting category races that have consistently featured its output.

Related Reviews:
Directed by Ron Howard: Ransom Angels & Demons Eat My Dust
Now in Theaters: Creed The Big Short The Good Dinosaur The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2 Spectre
Chris Hemsworth: Thor Thor: The Dark World Avengers: Age of Ultron Red Dawn (2012) The Cabin in the Woods
Cillian Murphy: Sunshine Broken Red Lights In Time Transcendence
Brendan Gleeson: The Guard The Raven Stonehearst Asylum Edge of Tomorrow Albert Nobbs
Tom Holland: The Impossible | Ben Whishaw: Brideshead Revisited Paddington
Written by Jaffa and Silver: Jurassic World Rise of the Planet of the Apes Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Shipwreck! Kon-Tiki Noah Titanic Life of Pi

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Reviewed December 11, 2015.

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