Watching In the Heart of the Sea, the terrible new film from Ron Howard, one gets the sense that the child actor-turned-director couldn’t quite decide which baseball cap he wanted to wear. Is it the one belonging to the crowd-pleasing filmmaker behind feel-good entertainments like Night Shift (1982), Splash (1984) and Parenthood (1989)? Or the Oscar-baiting journeyman behind based-on-true-story period pieces like Cinderella Man (2005), Frost/Nixon (2008) and A Beautiful Mind (2001), the film that finally netted him a Best Director and a Best Picture statue?
Well, from this seafaring drama’s opening credits, it’s obvious that Howard is more interested in donning Steven Spielberg’s cap, since we’re immediately immersed in Jaws territory. Howard is working on a bigger canvas than Spielberg’s 1975 proto-blockbuster here, though. It’s Moby Dick big.
In fact, Herman Melville is a key character in the film, which opens in 1850 with the bearded author (played by Ben Whishaw, Q in the Daniel Craig Bond films) arriving in Nantucket, determined to talk to Thomas Nickerson (Calvary’s Brendan Gleeson), the last surviving crew member of the Essex, a whaling ship that met an unfortunate end during its maiden voyage in 1820. Salty old Nickerson doesn’t want to dredge up the past, but his wife (Michelle Fairley of HBO’s Game of Thrones) insists, telling Melville in a modern-day Masshole patois that her husband’s “soul is in torment, and in need of confession.”
Cue the film’s flashback structure, which finds Nickerson recounting not his story, but the story of Owen Chase (The Avengers’ Chris Hemsworth), the Essex’s first mate, because why not?
Chase has been tasked with bringing 200 barrels of whale oil back from the Essex’s first expedition, but he finds himself “babysitting a chinless greenhorn.” That’s landlubber George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), the son of the Essex’s patron. He’s quite literally been grandfathered in as the vessel’s first-time captain (a position Chase had been promised) because his grandfather and great-grandfather are credited with creating the whaling industry.
During the first night at sea, Pollard, Chase and shipmate Matthew Joy (Cillian Murphy) enjoy an extravagant dinner in the captain’s quarters, where Pollard asserts himself by trying to embarrass Chase, telling Joy that Chase was “essentially orphaned” when the first mate’s peasant father was sent to prison. Excusing himself, Chase joins the crew on the deck below as they’re served their slop.
One young man is having trouble finding his sea legs, and soon this teenager is barfing all over Chase’s boots. This queasy lad is the younger version of Gleeson’s Thomas Nickerson; he’s played by Tom Holland, and although you may not know the name now, you surely will when he makes his bow in next May’s Captain America: Civil War as the new face of web-spinning Peter Parker.
Nickerson is also an orphan, and while the two don’t become father and son surrogates, they do weather many storms together, including the massive squall that their captain steers them into on their second day at sea in a foolhardy attempt to see what his men are made of. During an ensuing battle of egos, Pollard demands the resignation of his first mate, whom he tries to publicly shame, referring to him as “the son of a farmer who bullied his way into an officer’s uniform.”
Ah, but this film is no Mutiny on the Bounty. In fact, the film’s script—written by Charles Leavitt and based on a story treatment Leavitt, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver adapted from Nathaniel Philbrick’s 2000 book—has no idea what it wants to be.
Sure, the movie is being marketed as “the true encounter that inspired the myth of Moby Dick,” but by the time the massive white whale that supposedly swims at the heart of this film’s sea shows up—a full year into the Essex’s voyage—Howard and his writers don’t have any idea of what to do with it. Neither do his army of visual effects artists, who have put together a picture that looks less realistic than John Huston’s 1956 adaptation of Moby Dick. Not only does this film’s “demon” look like the digital creation it is, but almost everything on land and sea looks like it was shot against a blue screen nearly 60 years ago. Like Huston, Howard shot in Spain’s Canary Islands, but he might as well have shot in his bathtub.
This is the worst-looking studio picture in memory, which is truly shocking, since it’s been lensed by Anthony Dod Mantle, Oscar-winning cinematographer of Slumdog Millionaire. Alas, he’s employing the same horrific digital color correction that your aunt might use on Instagram photos of her food—and it’s even less appetizing.
Howard just came off directing one of the sexiest films of his career, Rush, which also starred Chris Hemsworth as a Formula One driver who screwed anything that moved. The only ones getting screwed in this new film are the audience, who’ve paid to sit through one of Howard’s limpest efforts.
In the Heart of the Sea *
Starring Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Ben Whishaw, Cillian Murphy, Tom Holland, Charlotte Riley, Michelle Fairley, Frank Dillane, Paul Anderson, Joseph Mawle, Jordi Mollà, Donald Sumpter, Jamie Sives and Brendan Gleeson. Written by Charles Leavitt, based on a story by Leavitt, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, adapted from the book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick. Directed by Ron Howard. At Assembly Row, Boston Common, Fenway and in the suburbs.