Almost defiantly rudderless, Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea is a Moby-Dick origin story that’s bound to frustrate anyone who’s ever read the book. Based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s nonfiction account of the 1820 sinking of the Essex whaleship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Howard’s film relates the incident that ostensibly drove Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) toward his masterpiece of taxonomic and psychological obsession: an 1850 visit to the Nantucket home of Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), an alcoholic, PTSD-addled sailor who once encountered a great white whale.
“How does one come to know the unknowable?” Melville asks, via narration, at the outset of the film, but with this hokey framing device, screenwriter Charles Leavitt assures us that very little of the story’s mild emotional underpinnings will go untilled. Nickerson’s wife (Michelle Fairley) pleads for Melville to unburden her husband from 30 years of depression and secrecy. Melville, desperate to realize himself as a great writer, offers Nickerson the equivalent of three months’ lodging to solicit his confession.
Nickerson was one of the youngest crewmen on the Essex, so his flashback recollections are made to tell the story from the perspective of the ship’s first mate, Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth). Chase is a cocksure and talented seaman with an axe to grind: Expecting to helm the Essex, the “landsman” (not bred from seafaring stock) is passed over in favor of George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), a green captain from a prestigious nautical family.
You may think you know where this is going: The brash upstart upstages the tweedy, cerebral elitist, before the pair team up to hunt down a massive sperm whale. You would, inexplicably, be wrong. With every impending storm front, In the Heart of the Sea seems to switch subjects. This is a story about a clash of personalities and social classes, only to become one of base survival and, then, an economic parable. Even before the film arrives to a languishing crew stranded in the titular void, the narrative is helplessly adrift, a yarn that extols vague grit and determination with no discernible through line.
Howard, attempting to weld the historical drama to the self-consciously “edgy” mode that led some to perceive his racing drama Rush as an artistic becoming, takes a few cues (and a few shots) from the documentary Leviathan, which also followed a Massachusetts fishing vessel. Amid the film’s fitfully thrilling storm surges and hunting missions, quick and disorienting shots find the camera attached to the ship’s booms and jibs. These are refreshing cutaways from the film’s inert human drama, but they’re discordant with repeated low-angle shots of Hemsworth, looking like the sole preparation for his role was a long ride in a convertible, gallantly scrambling up masts or preparing to hurl a spear at the film’s 88-foot villain.
The whale, a lumpy blue hulk whose back has a lovely peeled-wallpaper texture, is well-designed, and there other moments of beauty to be found in DP Anthony Dod Mantle’s images. His shots of coastal Massachusetts have a Turneresque color palette, but much of In the Heart of the Sea is heinously green-screened, and its lurches from the painterly to the GoPro are tiresome. (I wasn’t afforded the opportunity to see the film in 3D, and I suspect that scope would subsume some of this tonal whiplash.)
This aesthetic inconsistency is, sadly, of a piece with the whole project, which eventually finds its way back to shore and culminates in a random invective against commodity capitalism. “Maybe it wasn’t the plot I was after,” Melville sagely reflects at the end of his meeting with Nickerson, as if apologizing for the utterly tendentious connection In the Heart of the Sea has with what the author eventually wrote. Melville, at least, got a white whale out of the interview. Howard’s film gets so little from Melville that it can’t be bothered to remember that Moby-Dick has a hyphen in its title.