Fuse Film Review: “In the Heart of the Sea”—”Moby Dick,” Beached

Don’t you just love the holiday season? It’s the time for the release of big-budget flops and Oscar wannabes.

In the Heart of the Sea, directed by Ron Howard. Screening at Somerville Theater and other cinemas around New England.

Hunting the wild while in "In the Heart of the Sea."

Hunting the wild white whale in “In the Heart of the Sea.”

By Paul Dervis

There once was a man from Nantucket….

Wait a minute, wrong classic.

Ron Howard, the director of In the Heart of the Sea, attempts to put his distinctive stamp on Herman Melville’s visionary novel Moby Dick, and he heads right to the bottom the techno-special effects barrel. He loses us early on, right about the time he sends out a couple of dozen cardboard cutouts of ‘human beings’ to bring back whale oil to placate the coffers of the Scrooges (insert Christmas connection here) on the Massachusetts mainland.

Howard forgot, no, maybe he didn’t even care, to develop anything hinting at three-dimensional characters in this storyline. Instead of human drama, we get self-congratulatory images of the great white whale getting larger and larger and the gob-smacked sailors becoming increasingly bug-eyed at the sight of it.

And his actors don’t him any favors, either. To say the performances are uniformly overblown is an understatement. Chris Hemsworth (Thor, Snow White and the Huntsman, and a plethora of other silly films) is our lead, the stalwart Owen Chase. He attempts an imitation of Mel Gibson in Braveheart—the rest of the cast is no better.

Howard wraps the story around the old sea dog Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson—Calvary, as well as a Braveheart alumnus), a sailor who tells Melville the fantastic story of that fateful voyage, one that he had been on as a young boy decades earlier. To be fair, Gleeson is the one actor in the film that didn’t chew everything but the seaweed.

So, Chase had been promised by the scheming whaling magnates to helm the next sailing. But they reneged, relegating him once more to first mate. Not being a member of the union, he had to take what he was offered or, apparently, starve to death. The captain of the vessel turns out to be arrogant newbee George Pollard, an apparent idiot from a prominent family. Chase, an unbelievably erudite sailor as well as a leader of men, comes from a humble background—his father spent countless years in prison. You get it? Pollard, the evil preppie, Owen, the put-upon scholarship kid. Where have we seen this before?

Anyway, so they set out from Nantucket and every time Owen attempts to complete the task at hand, Pollard blocks him. While the crew eats gruel, the cruel captain feasts on pheasant under glass.  When the small boats launch in a race with a school of whales, they spear one that is mighty meaty. Other crew members want to cut it loose before the big fish takes their boat under, but Chase, with the uncanny sense of just how much rope is needed before they face their doom, won’t let them….and he is right. They bring in the grand haul as the sailors gaze in awe at this great, good man.

The ship ends up in Ecuador months later, behind in its quest to fill its tanks with whale oil. There, Chase and his shipmates meet a broken and battered crew of Spaniards who tell tales of a giant whale swimming a thousand miles offshore. Pollard cannot resist the trophy and sets out to spear it. Of course, the ship is no match for this King Kong of the ocean, and the crew, what’s left of them, are cast adrift. Hundreds of leagues away from land.

What follows next is 90 days of torture for the survivors…and an hour of slightly less severe pain for the viewer.

Ron Howard. The man has won two Oscars. And when he’s ‘on,’ his films work as more-than-capable Hollywood entertainment. I loved Frost/Nixon, and Apollo 13 was riveting. But when he gets all maudlin on us, he dunks us in vats of saccharine goo. Consider Cinderella Man or Cocoon. It’s as if there is nobody willing to tell him he’s gone way too far ladling out the glucose. And he’s on a sugar high here.

Don’t you just love the holiday season? It’s the time for the release of big budget flops and Oscar wannabes.

I’m sure this film will be nominated for some Academy Award. That’s how the industry works. But that doesn’t make In the Heart of the Sea a good film. Look at the career of James Cameron.

Where the heck is Gregory Peck’s Ahab when you need him?

Paul Dervis has been teaching drama in Canada at Algonquin College as well as the theatre conservatory Ottawa School of Speech & Drama for the past 15 years. Previously he ran theatre companies in Boston, New York, and Montreal. He has directed over 150 stage productions, receiving two dozen awards for his work. Paul has also directed six films, the most recent being 2011’s The Righteous Tithe.

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