** out of ****
Director Ron Howard and star Chris Hemsworth teamed up for 2013’s excellent Rush. They’re back together in the tepid In the Heart of the Sea, based on the story of the Essex, a ship that was attacked and sunk by a whale.
The incident inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick. That inspiration provides the film with a clunky, unnecessary frame story as Melville (Ben Whishaw) interviews the reluctant Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) about the incident. The story centers around Owen Chase (Hemsworth), an experienced first mate eager to get his first captainship but who is passed over for George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), a man with less experience but more family connections.
The script has plenty of expository dialogue and skims over potentially exciting incidents. There’s a moment when young Nickerson (Tom Holland) has to descend literally into a dead whale to extract more oil. Just when it’s about to become interesting (albeit gross), the film moves on.
Howard’s proved himself to be a capable director of action scenes in previous films, but none of the big set pieces register. There’s more chills in quieter moments like one where the shipwrecked men discover to their horror that the island they’ve washed ashore on will not be their salvation.
More often than not, In the Heart of the Sea reminds you of other, better films like Master and Commander (the examination of day-to-day life at sea) and Alive (starving survivors resort to desperate measures). In the end, it will be crushed by the whale that is Star Wars: the Force Awakens.