In the days before Wikipedia, many a student assigned to read “Moby-Dick” did so via CliffsNotes, those truncated little study guides that summarize a novel’s plot and themes at the expense of a real understanding of the text.
Fittingly, “In the Heart of the Sea,” the story behind the story of “Moby-Dick,” feels similarly bereft of depth or meaning. Actions are rushed or glossed over, and the plot suffers from holes bigger than the one in a whale’s head that a greenhorn seaman is forced down — gagging all the way — to scrape out the rest of the prized blubber.
Its most glaring problem, though, is that “In the Heart of the Sea” just doesn’t feel necessary in the wake of other, better maritime disaster movies ranging from “The Perfect Storm” and “Cast Away” to more recent entries like “Life of Pi,” “All Is Lost” and “Unbroken.”
In 1850, novelist Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw, “SPECTRE”) travels to Nantucket to speak with Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), the last surviving member of the crew of the whaling ship Essex. Still haunted by his experiences, Nickerson has never spoken of what happened to him as a boy on the high seas.
Melville, though, has been consumed with the story since first hearing reports of the fateful voyage, and he’s determined to make it his next novel. So he’s offered up his life’s savings for one night of talking with Nickerson about what really happened out there. Knowing how desperate they are for money, Nickerson’s wife (Michelle Fairley) eventually convinces him to open up to the author.
Three decades earlier, he tells Melville, the Essex set sail from Nantucket in search of 2,000 barrels of whale oil, which had begun lighting cities like never before.
Skilled whaler Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) had been promised the ship’s captaincy, but it’s instead handed to George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), the untested scion of a whaling family, so long as Chase agrees to be his first mate. Next time, Chase is promised, he’ll really, really get to be captain. Honest.
Derided as the son of a farmer and a landsman, Chase repeatedly clashes with the entitled Pollard. Or so Nickerson tells Melville and, by extension, us. But we see only a couple of skirmishes, the biggest of which occurs just a few days into their voyage when Pollard sails them straight into a dangerous squall, against the advice of his veteran officers, in an attempt to make up for lost time.
Unfortunately, what should be a chance to pull viewers in with a sense of spectacle falls flat thanks to special effects that simply aren’t that special. Making things worse is the fact that many moviegoers will have just watched Bodhi, Johnny Utah and the gang surf bigger, more menacing waves in the “Point Break” trailer that precedes it.
Months into their journey and disappointed with their haul, the crew of the Essex docks in Ecuador, where Chase and Pollard meet a fellow captain who intrigues them with tales of more whales than anyone could possibly hope to slaughter. Granted, they’re located in uncharted waters described as “the edge of sanity.” And he lost some of his men and part of his arm to a “demon” whale. But greed and arrogance win out, and the crew of the Essex sails into the sort of danger that will either end or forever alter their lives.
Based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s book “In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex,” the script by Charles Leavitt (“Blood Diamond”) doesn’t go especially deep. Oddly, the relationship between Melville and Nickerson is more interesting than any of the recycled hardships the Essex encounters. That’s largely because many of those misfortunes are barely glimpsed in the rush to get to the next one — a little ship sinking here, a little starvation there. And, unlike in “Moby-Dick,” you never get the sense that there’s anything special about the whale that torments the crew throughout.
Ron Howard, who’s found cinematic gold in the water before with “Splash” and “Cocoon,” largely comes up dry here. Collaborating again with Hemsworth, his star in the compelling “Rush,” doesn’t produce anything nearly as special this time out.
The best reason I can offer to see “In the Heart of the Sea” is the chance to watch Hemsworth interact with Tom Holland — his eventual Marvel Cinematic Universe co-star, the Spider-Man to his Thor — as the young Nickerson. But you can do that a few months from now via Redbox.
There are two ways to go with a historical epic like this: acclaimed drama or rousing adventure. “Into the Heart of the Sea” fails at both.
It isn’t a bad movie. It just doesn’t do anything particularly well. Which makes it a whale of a disappointment.
Contact Christopher Lawrence at email@example.com. On Twitter: @life_onthecouch
Movie: “In the Heart of the Sea”
Running time: 122 minutes
Rating: PG-13; intense sequences of action and peril, brief startling violence, and thematic material
Now playing: At multiple locations