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17 Dec 2015

A Whale of a Bomb: Ron Howard's Take on the 'Moby-Dick' Origin Story Is Worthless and Stupid

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Chris Hemsworth in In the Heart of the Sea. Chris Hemsworth in In the Heart of the Sea.

There have been a lot of Moby-Dick adaptations over the years, the best one being the bizarre John Huston version with Gregory Peck going bonkers as Ahab.

There is just no need for another take on the Herman Melville classic right now. Strange, then, that somebody with a lot of money thought there was the need for a movie about the actual events upon which the classic novel was based.

In the Heart of the Sea tells the story of the Essex, an actual whale ship out of Nantucket, Mass., that was sunk by a whale in 1820. The alleged culprit of the sinking was a sperm whale (like Moby), and the sinking resulted in many days on lifeboats for the surviving crew—as well as some cannibalism.

Chris Hemsworth plays Owen Chase, first mate of the Essex. The crew includes Tom Holland as Thomas Nickerson (Hey, it’s Thor and Spider-Man together!), Cillian Murphy (Scarecrow!) as the resident recovering alcoholic, and Benjamin Walker (Abraham Lincoln!) as Captain Pollard—all people who actually existed. However, the story in the film goes way off the real-life script.

In Ron Howard’s film, the whale that did the sinking pulls a sort of Jaws: The Revenge thing and follows the survivors as they float aimlessly in the sea. Chase, who published a true account of the tragedy back in 1821, goes a little crazy here, believing a sperm whale, spotted with white blotches, is out to get him.

That never happened, of course. Yes, a whale sank the ship, and yes, some crewmembers became lunch. No, the whale didn’t follow the survivors and taunt them. It busted up the Essex and then disappeared into the sea for some plankton and leisurely swimming. That’s too boring, so the second half of the movie involves starving men trying to evade a vengeful whale. A whale movie hasn’t been this stupid since Richard Harris pissed off a killer whale in Orca.

This film has the odd framing device of Moby-Dick novelist Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) interviewing an older Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), who is telling the story of the Essex as if it had never been told previously. In reality, the story had gotten out long before—such as in Chase’s aforementioned published account. The whole revelatory framing device rings false.

“Stupid” and “nonsensical” (read: whales with vendettas) can be forgiven in an action movie as long as the effects are up to snuff. Such is not the case with Sea. The whale that eventually attacks the Essex is not a convincing entity. It looks like Hemsworth is battling the product of many artists who just couldn’t get things quite right. The blend of live and animated performers is just awful, as are the 3-D effects, if you should be so unfortunate as to have laid out the extra dollars for 3-D.

Hemsworth fares better than he did in the awful Blackhat, but I have no idea what accent he’s trying to use. Is it a Massachusetts accent? Or Hungarian? Klingon?

Holland, a fine actor who was excellent in The Impossible, is tasked with looking scared and hungry, which he does admirably. He essentially has the Jamie Bell role from King Kong, that of the young “golly gosh” novice who has gotten himself into a harrowing nautical situation. They look very much alike.

Howard has made a lot of movies, and this is one of his worst, on the bottom of the pile along with The Dilemma and The Da Vinci Code. Regrettably, his next effort will be a second sequel to Code—dimming his chances of rebounding from this waterlogged dreck.

In the Heart of the Sea is playing at theaters across the valley.

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