Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson, Michelle Fairley, Tom Holland, Cillian Murphy, Charlotte Riley
Rated PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Action and Peril, Brief Startling Violence, and Thematic Material
There's nothing worse than the feeling of being helpless when the world seems to be against you. It's especially horrible when you're on a whaling vessel in the 1850's and stranded in the middle of the ocean. And you have a monstrous whale nearby who is intent on killing you. Not only does death seem like an inevitability, but it would be a long, torturous one.
Ron Howard is one of the rare filmmakers who can make arthouse films appeal to the multiplex crowd. He is a master craftsmen and, perhaps being an actor himself, knows how to mold his actors into giving compelling performances. Chris Hemsworth, for example, does not have great range, but in the hands of Ron Howard (who directed him in the underrated "Rush"), he can be an excellent actor.
Howard also has a flair for spectacle, which he has never been given the chance to show. Sure, movies like "Backdraft," "Apollo 13" and "Rush" showed that he had visual flair, but nothing in those movies compares to what he does with the inspiration for "Moby Dick." The action scenes are awe-inspiring, and at times, just as intense as those in "The Perfect Storm."
The story is told mostly in flashback. Author Herman Mehlville (Whishaw) is interviewing Tom Nickerson (Gleeson) about the tragedy of the Essex. Initially reluctant, Tom agrees with the promise of a considerable amount of money and the encouragement of his wife (Fairley).
Whaler Owen Chase (Hemsworth) is assigned to be the first mate of the refitted ship Essex. He is furious at the appointment, having been promised his own ship by the bosses. The fact that the captain is George Pollard (Walker), a sailor with little experience who is appointed because he comes from a powerful whaling family only deepens the wound. Nevertheless, he agrees to go. The film runs into trouble almost immediately. The ship runs into a violent squall, which Chase advises avoiding but Pollard wants to skirt to show his mettle. And they only find one whale, which is about a quarter of their expected haul. Not wanting to come back empty handed, they venture out to a place almost off the map. There, their ship is destroyed by a huge whale. And that's just the start.
The genre that best describes "In the Heart of the Sea" is "epic." It is filled with rousing adventure, larger than life characters, and heart-pounding excitement. There are a number of scenes that took my breath away. Literally.
This isn't an actor's show, but the performances are solid. Chris Hemsworth is steady and talented enough to build a big budget film around, but this isn't one of his best performances. Benjamin Walker isn't as impressive. He's solid as the inexperienced captain, but he can't match Hemsworth screen presence or charisma. What should be a tense tete-a-tete feels one sided. Fortunately, that's only a minor aspect of the story and easily overlooked.
The flashback structure of the narrative is arguably not necessary, but it provides an acceptable emotional payoff and both Ben Whishaw and Brendan Gleeson are in top form (Gleeson has never been better). If anything, it gives us a moment to catch our breath between the horrors that the Essex crew faces, something that "The Perfect Storm" elected not to do. Not that that's a criticism...
Speaking of horrors, that's the best way to describe the crew's encounters with the whale that would serve as inspiration for "Moby Dick." He appears multiple times, and he grows more terrifying with each successive appearance. While that aspect of the plot doesn't have the closure you'd expect, it has something that ties it up in a perfectly satisfying way. What happens is clear, but it goes unsaid because dialogue is simply not necessary.
In what appears to be a complete lack of confidence in the film, Warner Bros. has elected to release "In the Heart of the Sea" a week before the new "Star Wars" movie opens. I'm not sure why. This film can stand on its own two legs, and is best seen on as big of a screen as possible (the 3-D is hit and miss...little eye strain but not very noticeable). That leaves the film one week in IMAX theaters.
Do yourself a favor. Take some time, either this weekend or sometime during the week, to see this film in IMAX 3D. You will not regret it.