Having made his career as a prolific actor/director/producer spanning seven decades, few filmmakers understand or have come to symbolise Hollywood quite like Ron Howard. This is a man who knows how to turn a $100+ million budget into a $100+ million looking picture and in such a way that it appeals to everyone and their mothers. With In the Heart of the Sea, he’s resorted once again to his genetically coded blockbuster-instincts and given us a piece of dashing, appetising entertainment that, despite failing to serve any higher creative purpose, satisfies anyway.
The story is told in flashbacks by old man Thomas Nickerson (Gleeson) at the request of Moby Dick author Herman Melville (Whishaw) in 1850s Massachusetts. Through his account of what happened to the whaling ship Essex when he was a 14-year-old cabin boy, we travel further back in time to meet captain George Pollard (Walker) and his first mate Owen Chase (Hemsworth), who had led their crew on a fateful expedition that would ultimately leave them stranded at sea and faced with the most difficult of choices.
From the authentically weathered production design, the sleek, sprawling camerawork, the sizzlingly fluid editing, to the immersive sound and visual effects, the film’s technical aspects are strong across the board, culminating in several scenes of harrowing intensity or stunning beauty. The centrepiece action sequence that sees the almost mythical white whale bringing down the Essex, for example, is executed with great might and finesse, allowing you to watch the mayhem from every angle while feeling the frightening thud of every blow. It’s the kind of wowing, how-did-they-do-that movie trick that showcases scale, velocity, impact and thoroughly impresses; one that plays up the surround experience of cinema and keeps you riveted like a kid delighting in the glorified perils.
Probably by no accident, the swashbuckling maritime adventure morphs into a gritty survival tale around the film’s halfway mark, affording the action and the drama more or less equal room. While this suggests an ambition to please the adults as well as the youngsters in the audience, the second, supposedly serious-minded half can hardly be described as narratively ambitious. In fact, not only does the theme of surviving open water still feel too familiar from recent explorations in Unbroken or Life of Pi, the dramatic net is also cast a bit too widely between motifs of greed, environmentalism, brotherhood, guilt, man versus nature etc., lessening the urgency of the message.
As mentioned in opening, Howard doesn’t shoot for lofty goals but has a real knack for delivering meaty, welcoming, readily consumable products to the masses. In this latest case, he’s certainly served the mainstream two more hours of enjoyable distraction that feeds few fuels to the mind but fills the time nicely.
In the Heart of the Sea | Directed by Ron Howard (USA 2015) with Chris Hemsworth, Cillian Murphy, Brendan Gleeson, Ben Whishaw, Benjamin Walker. Starts December 3