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In the Heart of the Sea

This whale of a tale doesn’t live up to the book

When The Essex leaves port in 1820, first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth: Vacation) tells his pregnant wife he’ll be back soon. The whaler leaves port in search of whale oil to fill 2,000 barrels and keep the lights on in American homes.
    Over-fishing is beginning to take a toll on the theretofore hugely profitable industry of whaling. Over a year out to sea, the Essex is far from reaching its quota. Tensions become near mutinous between Chase, an experienced seaman, and Captain Pollard (Benjamin Walker: Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight), a wealthy seafaring scion captaining his first voyage.
    In Ecuador, a one-armed captain tells them of rich whaling grounds in the middle of the Pacific. He warns them, however, of a demon white whale that killed most of his crew and relieved him of his arm. Pollard and Chase laugh off the mangled captain’s warning.
    As the men of the Essex prepare to lay waste to pod after pod of sperm whales, a white behemoth surges from the sea. This whale is basically a waterlogged Smokey the Bear on steroids. Instead of proclaiming only you can prevent over-fishing, he thrusts through the hull of the Essex, ripping its mast down onto the crew. Forced to abandon ship, the men throw what they can into three small rowboats.
    Adrift in the Pacific, the Essex whalers are hundreds of miles from land. Their fate worsens when Smokey the Whale pops up again.
    Can the crew survive a conservation-minded whale and the unforgiving sea?
    If this story of a demonic white whale reminds you of high school, it’s because the true story of the Essex inspired Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick.
    In the Heart of the Sea offers cracking action, but it lacks the poetry and introspection of Melville’s masterpiece.
    Director Ron Howard (Rush) knows how to create dramatic action. It’s awe-inspiring and terrifying when the whale emerges from the depths of the ocean. The whale stalks the deep, waiting for his moment to strike. The magnitude of the threat — this whale can bash men to bits with a flick of its tail — is beautifully emphasized by overhead shots.
    The crew of the Essex, however, are not as nuanced or interesting as this computer-generated whale. Only Hemsworth, who subjected himself to a startling physical transformation, gets any character development. His Chase is a natural leader with a chip on his shoulder, a cliché, perhaps, but Hemsworth’s commanding presence sells the underwritten role. Walker is relegated to a thankless antagonist, while the crew remains largely nameless.
    Howard also bookends his film with superfluous scenes showing Melville tracking down the last survivor of the Essex for the true story. He’d have done better developing the crew so that we’re on Team Whale for the voyage.
    Beautiful to look at but unsatisfying as a story, In the Heart of the Sea is an epic tale of wasted potential.

Fair Adventure • PG-13 • 121 mins.