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Review: 'In the Heart of the Sea' needs less tech, more humanity

Michael Phillips
Chicago Tribune (TNS)

"In the Heart of the Sea" isn't a disaster, so we'll have none of those "Thar she blows!" wisecracks in this review, thank you.
Nor is it an actual success. Director Ron Howard goes at this dutiful adaptation of the Nathaniel Philbrick nonfiction bestseller like a filmmaker assigned, not obsessed. The results tell us more about the state of digital effects and the price we're paying as moviegoers for an overreliance on this technology, than they do about levitathans or the fear and wonder in desperate men's souls, brought about by a blubber-based economy.
I mean, look: Of course a big-budget 21st century movie about high-seas whaling and a scarily large alabaster adversary brings with it a load of computer-generated imagery. In 1820, the Nantucket whaling ship Essex set off on a two-and-a-half-year voyage, manned by a crew of 21, under the command of an insecure, overbearing greenhorn of a captain. Storm damage hobbles the Essex but the crew presses on, in search of the lucrative whale oil they'll bring back to Nantucket.
Quicker than you can think of the dirty-limmerick rhyme for "Nantucket," the Essex runs afoul of a strange sight far off the coast of South America. It's a sperm whale waging a one-whale protest against whaling. Depending on the shot, the key selling point of "In the Heart of the Sea" looks to be either 80 feet in length, nearly as long as the ship itself, or quite a bit larger.
What happened next was grim: a ship, smashed by its prey; survivors, in separate smaller boats; cannibalism; death for many; survival for a handful, including young Tom Nickerson (Tom Holland), who grows up haunted by the tragedy and turns into Brendan Gleeson (every young actor's dream, if the young actor knows anything about anything). The framework of "In the Heart of the Sea," as scripted by Charles Leavitt, finds the older, sodden Nickerson visited by novelist Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw), intent on learning the truth behind the Essex saga for the book he's writing.
How's this for perversity? The ordinary scenes between Whishaw and Gleeson have more going on than everything the movie's actually about. Chris Hemsworth's top-billed as the hardy first mate Owen Chase, who must put up with the deadly decision-making of Capt. George Pollard (a dull and miscast Benjamin Walker). The ocean-going sequences rely on what we've come to expect, or endure, in so many modern epics: digital effects that never quit, plus a frantic, lurching editing rhythm that never establishes a pleasing pace. It's fair to say this of Howard's film: You won't believe your eyes. That's the problem. It's halfway to the realm of being a digitally animated feature. You see so many amazing sights, yet you don't quite believe them; they look too good, too clinically pristine, too fraudulently pretty. Howard has Anthony Dod Mantle at his side, one of the best cinematographers alive, yet the light in the movie never really approximates either real life or old Hollywood. (The film was shot primarily in England on soundstages, and off the coast of La Gomera, in the Canary Islands.)
"No right-minded sailor discards what might yet save him," Hemsworth intones wisely, interrupting an impromptu burial at sea in the name of the survivors' next meal. As the men's fates are determined, one by one, and the days spent stranded at sea grind on, the film grinds on as well. Even so, "In the Heart of the Sea" is a strangely jumpy entity, nervous about boring its audience for even a second. We never get a full, eerie sense of the isolation or the slowly accumulating dread of the situation. Melville finished his novel, of course, to widespread critical and public indifference. Then "Moby-Dick" found and made its deserved reputation, long after Melville's death. I wish Howard's film had more of a distinct personality and drive behind it; Howard's made some supremely enjoyable films, in various keys, but this waterlogged, effects-crazed picture isn't one of them.
2 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of action and peril, brief startling violence, and thematic material)
Running time: 2:02

Cillian Murphy and Chris Hemsworth in "In the Heart of the Sea." (Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)