Ron Howard’s Latest Is A Whale Of A Fail
DIRECTOR: RON HOWARD/2015
It’s nearly the year 1850, and Brendan Gleeson sits alone in his home, flanked bynothing but darkness, an assortment of hanging glass bottles (glinting elusive light ever so attractively), and his palpable regret. Regret over the events of a single, terrible whaling incident, long ago.
There’s a knock on the door. It’s Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw), hoping to hear this man’s story of tragedy on the high seas, heretofore untold.
If only Ron Howard had left it that way…
Melville, looking for inspiration in writing what would eventually become Moby-Dick, offers up an envelope full of cash (his life’s savings, he says), and his sincere interest. The tale Gleeson proceeds to tell is shown to us as the meat and money of In the Heart of the Sea. (Those are two things this fat and glossy production has plenty of.) If the movie Melville saw in his head that night is at all like the film version, it’s a mighty wonder he got anything at all out of it, not to mention a definitive (THE definitive?) American literary classic.
CRRR-ASH!!!, go the boats as the whale tracks them down and plows through them at top speed. KA-THOOOM!!!, goes the masts as he bashes the great ship Essex into next week. SPOOO-LASH!!!, go the pounding waves at every point in the film, as they relentlessly pound away at everything.
In the Heart of the Sea, like Wolfgang Peterson’s The Perfect Storm before it, seeks to utilize the latest and greatest visual effects in the detailing of its waterlogged disaster story. Both films boast top directors, literary source material (Howard’s film is based upon the book “In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex” by Nathaniel Philbrick.) and a talented, of-the-moment cast. Yet both films, so terminally bloated and self-serious, sink straight to the bottom, having placed massive, digitally generated spectacle before heart – even as sentiment is piled on thick, by the shovel-full.
Flashback to circa 1820. Whales, hunted back then for their rare oils, are clustering further and further away from the land. The ambitious captain of the Whaleship Essex (Benjamin Walker) opts to go after them, placing his crew and vessel in immediate peril. The process of high seas whale hunting is played out in detail, as the men break off in their smaller boats, harpoons and rope in tow, to face down their mighty prey.
The first hunt plays out like an action sequence, right up until the moment of actual whale death, when a shocking mist of blowholed blood to the faces of the actors and a sudden, saddened tonal change in the film’s score (by composer Roque Baños) signals a “what have we done???” moment in regard to the pursuit and takedown of the noble beast. It’s unintentionally hammy, unnecessary, and quite frankly, probably wrong. At no point prior does the film aim to overly-sympathize whales. These are professional whalers, after all. They just scored a good chunk of their paychecks, and accomplished what they set out to do.
Of course, the other whales don’t see it that way. One particularly big, scraped-up whale carries a grudge worthy of his size. For the rest of the film, he will pursue the Essex in search of revenge.
CRRR-ASH!!!, go the boats as the whale tracks them down and plows through them at top speed. KA-THOOOM!!!, goes the masts as he bashes the great ship Essex into next week. SPOOO-LASH!!!, go the pounding waves at every point in the film, as they relentlessly pound away at everything. As the death toll quickly rises, In the Heart of the Sea shifts uncomfortably from a would-be old fashioned, historical ocean yarn to a repetitive bodycount movie that isn’t as harrowing as it needs to be.
In the end, there just isn’t that much to say about In the Heart of the Sea. The stories associated with making it are no doubt a lot more interesting than the story it tells.Yes, it’s based upon a true story, and a lot of people died terrible deaths. (Not to be dismissive, but as the film becomes a morbid who-will-die-next outing, it also becomes increasing distant. And to tell the story as a 3D event movie can’t be right.) And sure, cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle is to be commended for his work. And yes, it stars Chris Hemsworth (in his second consecutive Ron Howard film, following the chronically overlooked Rush) and Tom Holland (as the young version of Gleeson’s character; in his second major film about violent waters taking a toll – see 2012’s The Impossible), which will no doubt lead many bored, grasping reviewers to point out that this is some sort of Thor/Spider-Man team up. Whatever. Both are fine in their parts, as they cannot be blamed for the overall non-engaging quality that smothers this project. Yet, two superheroes still cannot save this considerably large beast of a movie from sinking.
In the Heart of the Sea, despite much effort and expense, can only be dismissed as a whale of a fail.