Needs a bigger boat

Powerful ocean scenes buoy historical whale tale

Starring Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Tom Holland, Cillian Murphy, Ben Wishaw and Brendan Gleeson. Directed by Ron Howard. Cinemark 14, Feather River Cinemas and Paradise Cinema 7. Rated PG-13.
Rated 3.0

In Melville’s Moby Dick, Captain Ahab and the crew of the Pequod fight an epic, losing battle against a great white whale. Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea, a spectacular dramatization of the historical incident on which Moby Dick is based, fights a losing battle of its own—with history and literature alike.

Howard and screenwriter Charles Leavitt frame their narrative of the actual whale-boating tragedy within an account of Melville’s meeting, several decades later, with the last living survivor of that calamity. Young Tom Nickerson (Tom Holland) was 14 years old at the time of the original incident. He’s a despondent middle-aged man (played by Brendan Gleeson) when Melville (played by Ben Whishaw) comes to interview him.

Nickerson’s cathartic, tell-all narrative is visualized in the main action of the film, with the whaler Essex and its cantankerously diverse crew voyaging from Massachusetts waters to the south Atlantic, and then around the Horn to the South Pacific and the colossal doom that awaits them there. The resulting whale-hunting and shipwreck sequences are rendered with power and verve, but the richest dramatic and emotional substance resides mostly in the intermittent exchanges between Melville and Nickerson, thanks especially to the wounded gravity of Gleeson.

There are dramatic exchanges aboard the Essex as well, but too often they seem merely cosmetic. The contentious relationship between lordly Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) and the ambitious first mate, Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), is little more than a sketchy, unconvincing preachment on class resentments and codes of professional conduct.

Chase’s renewed relationship with a crew member, the ramshackle Matthew Joy (an excellent Cillian Murphy), has a kind of “Secret Sharer” vibe to it, but that’s more the result of Murphy’s performance than of anything in the script. Chase’s brusque “mentoring” of the youthful Nickerson is also noteworthy for the way it resonates with the confession of Nickerson’s older self. But that too seems almost an afterthought within a tale dominated by furious seafaring action.

The screenplay, credited to Leavitt and three others, also gives nods to environmental themes and makes glancing references to evolution and social Darwinism. But the production as a whole gets stranded somewhere between its sub-Melvillean echoes and its effort to give a full report of a piece of history that was mostly suppressed in Melville’s own time.

The kicker here is that cannibalism is part of the Essex story, and while Melville left that out of Moby Dick, Howard and company are more or less obliged to include it here. It’s the deepest and darkest of Nickerson’s secrets, and it can make you wonder if the great white whale is anything more than an oversized sideshow in the tale of his journey into and back out of the heart of darkness.

Postscript: I should add that I watched this film in the 2-D version, which creates lots of three-dimensional effects in the same way that John Ford westerns and Roadrunner cartoons mastered many years ago. And there were several times in the 2-D version when obvious made-for-3-D stunts not only made me want to duck, but also made me glad I had avoided the distracting ordeal of 3-D.