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The seafaring epic "In the Heart of the Sea" tells the story of the Essex, the Nantucket whaling ship whose destruction inspired Herman Melville to write "Moby-Dick."
Appropriately, director Ron Howard spends the entire movie chasing his own white whale, as he struggles in vain to ascribe deeper meaning to what should be a simple, though boisterously told, drama of survival in the ocean.
Melville factors into the framing device of this film as the young author (played by Ben Whishaw) approaches Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), the last surviving member of the Essex's crew, in 1850. Melville has heard the official story, that The Essex ran aground in rough seas, but senses that Nickerson knows more than he has ever told.
With some prodding, Nickerson tells the tale from 30 years earlier, when the Essex left Nantucket's port with a mission to collect 2,000 barrels of whale oil then the life blood of the Industrial Revolution. The ship's owners set in motion the initial onboard conflict, relegating the more oceanwise Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) to first mate to an untested captain, George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), who got his title because of family connections.
As described by Nickerson, then a lad of 14 (and played by Tom Holland), Chase and Pollard disagree openly about how to run the ship, but bury their dispute as they seek remote whaling grounds in the southern Pacific. That's where The Essex runs into the largest sperm whale any man has ever seen, a 100-foot behemoth who turns the ship's hull into matchsticks. The men take to their rowboats in a desperate fight for survival.
The movie is a visual marvel, as cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle ("Slumdog Millionaire") captures the rugged adventure of 19th-century sailing ships and the vastness of the open ocean. Meanwhile, the special-effects team creates eye-grabbing images of the massive whale and the destruction that it wreaks on the Essex's crew.
Certainly Hemsworth, taking time out from his duties as Marvel's Thor, looks as natural in this setting as a man can be. His chiseled good looks and Aussie joie de vivre translate well to a character who jumps into action, climbing the rigging and cutting loose a sail with hearty enthusiasm.
But Howard and screenwriter Charles Leavitt ("Blood Diamond," "The Express") work unnecessarily hard to wring some deep message from this straightforward story. If Howard wanted to get Melville's obsessions into a movie about whaling, why didn't he just remake "Moby-Dick"?
'In the Heart of the Sea'
Ron Howard serves up a rousing naval adventure, with the true story that inspired "Moby-Dick," but fails at finding a deeper meaning.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens Friday, Dec. 11.
Rating • PG-13 for intense sequences of action and peril, brief startling violence, and thematic material.
Running time • 121 minutes.