“In the Heart of the Sea” takes the origin story for “Moby-Dick,” a multitudinous cornerstone of American culture, and reduces it to a thin plot. Based upon Nathaniel Philbrick’s 2000 book of the same name, the film finds Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw, who previously writ his name on water as John Keats) paying a visit to ginger-salted old codger Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) to hear firsthand from the only surviving seaman of the Essex, a ship wrecked by a surly sperm whale, and the real-life inspiration for Melville’s 1851 classic.
If you’re looking for whale hunters like Ahab or Ishmael or Queequeg or Starbuck you’ll be disappointed—we get Captain Pollard (Benjamin Walker, making little impression) and First Mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth, at least making the impression that he’s very attractive). The former is a buttoned-up silver spoon sucker and the latter is an open collared, whale bone-accessorized übermensch who shouts heavy rebukes at his master: “it was bad seamanship!” One wishes for an adventurous swap in roles where Hemsworth is Melville and Whishaw is the sea dog, but alas.
In his great 2015 film “Blackhat,” Michael Mann used Hemsworth’s handsome emptiness to great effect by casting him as a cipher, but Ron Howard, a lauded director whose next excellent film will be his first, wants lots of rousing high seas acting from his lead—results are predictably bad. Howard jars the eye by alternating a low-angle, viscera-spritzed camera aboard the ship with bloated long shots of J.M.W. Turner-esque canvases on the open ocean.
In Melville’s book you learn so much about sails and sailors, cetology and dirty sea chanteys, but “In the Heart of the Sea” has few rich details to savor.
When the capital-W whale arrives and the sailors’ bad luck compounds, you’re mostly worried about the increasingly scabrous condition of Chase’s lips and how he could have forgotten to pack his ration of whale oil Chapstick. During one of the many becalmed sequences in the film you’d be better served to forget the dross onscreen and flip open your copy of “Moby-Dick” to the chapter “The Whiteness of the Whale.” There you can feast on one of the great extended metaphors in literature—the words run past your eyes like the scrimshaw of scars engraved on the beast’s back.
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“In the Heart of the Sea” is at the Sonoma 9 Cinemas. Rated PG-13. Running time 2:01. Visit www.cinemawest.com.