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New Release Review - IN THE HEART OF THE SEA

The true story that inspired Herman Melville's classic novel Moby Dick.


Review by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)

Directed by: Ron Howard

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Cillian Murphy, Brendan Gleeson, Benjamin Walker, Tom Holland, Ben Whishaw


Working with cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle - one of the first DoP's to adopt digital technology - Howard seems to be aping the style of Michael Mann, with lots of extreme close-ups and in your face action, but it's a poor imitation, more pathetic than kinetic.




Ron Howard's In the Heart of the Sea seems at first glance like a film out of time. Adapted from Nathaniel Philbrick's non-fiction book, it purports to tell the true story that inspired Herman Melville to write his masterpiece, Moby Dick, and sounds like the type of movie that would have better played to the masses a half century ago. Yet when you break it down, In the Heart of the Sea is very much of its era - it's simply yet another origin story we didn't need.
Despite this being a most American tale, the cast is assembled chiefly of actors from every other corner of the English speaking world. The first we meet is England's Ben Whishaw, as Melville, arriving late one night at the home of Thomas Nickerson, played by Ireland's Brendan Gleeson. Nickerson is the last remaining survivor of an infamous ocean tragedy, that of the Essex, a whaling vessel that met its match in the form of a giant white whale, leading to the deaths of most of its crew.
It's then that the first of the script's many problems arises. Nickerson is recounting the tale, yet we cut to the home of Owen Chase (Australia's Chris Hemsworth) for a scene Nickerson couldn't possibly have known about. Chase becomes the focus of the film, despite most of his scenes occurring in the absence of Nickerson, played as a young man by Tom Holland. Just like Jaws' Chief Brody, Chase is an outsider among the island inhabitants of Nantucket, an 'off-islander'. Like Top Gun's Maverick, he's haunted by the legacy of his father, a roguish character who served time in prison. Those are the sort of clich├ęd broad strokes applied here, and the film's central human conflict comes courtesy of that cheapest of narrative shortcuts, pitting a wholesome working class hero (Chase) against a pompous entitled villain, Benjamin Walker's Captain George Pollard, who Chase is forced to serve under as first mate.
Initially it seems we're in for a Mutiny on the Bounty reboot, but the mutiny never materialises, as Chase and Walker are forced to put their squabbles aside to survive. Walker isn't the villain, but neither is the whale, as the movie understands the problematic nature of asking us to cheer on the killing of a now endangered species. This means Howard is telling this story with one arm tied behind his back, and as a result the set-pieces are leaden, and we care little about the characters, be they human or whale.
Howard may be a journeyman, but he's no hack. His previous offering, Rush, showed he knows how to assemble a thrilling, adrenaline pumping sequence, but his direction here is surprisingly amateurish. Working with cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle - one of the first DoP's to adopt digital technology - Howard seems to be aping the style of Michael Mann, with lots of extreme close-ups and in your face action, but it's a poor imitation, more pathetic than kinetic, at times unintentionally hilarious, like when Howard cuts to a half-eaten chicken for some unknown reason. Mantle's low-grade digital sheen, paired with greenscreen backdrops Tommy Wiseau wouldn't settle for, combine to create a movie that resembles like a co-production between the History and SyFy channels, as Hemsworth and co battle a Whale-nado in a sickly green and unconvincing ocean. More Orca: Killer Whale than Moby Dick.
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