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Review: In the Heart of the Sea
Ron Howard's latest is lost at sea




STARS Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker

As much an introspective character study as an exciting racing flick, 2013’s Rush examined the heated rivalry that existed between Formula One superstars Niki Lauda and James Hunt back in the 1970s. Criminally unseen and underappreciated in this country – perhaps no surprise, since it ain’t about NASCAR – the picture was directed by Ron Howard and starred Chris Hemsworth as Hunt. Apparently taking pleasure from their partnership, the helmer and the hunk have reunited for In the Heart of the Sea, adapted from Nathaniel Philbrick’s award-winning book. But don’t expect a comparable rush from this new effort, as this one’s strictly a slog.

Philbrick’s 2000 book told of the 1820 encounter that reportedly prompted Herman Melville to write that classic of American literature, the 1851 novel Moby-Dick. After heading out to sea from Nantucket, Massachusetts, the whaling ship the Essex was attacked and sunk by a rampaging sperm whale. Crew members then found themselves adrift in lifeboats for a span of several months, many eventually perishing from hunger and dehydration. This story is dutifully and dully told in the film version, with the added bonus of seeing Melville (Ben Whishaw) himself interviewing one of the survivors (Brendan Gleeson) decades after the incident. While it’s always nice to see Gleeson no matter the role, these wraparound scenes add precious little to the narrative – instead, they merely serve as tedious interludes breaking up equally tedious flashbacks.

Because the movie’s characters are exceedingly trite, Hemsworth, as first mate Owen Chase, has little to do but glower Fletcher Christian-style at the inexperienced captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) before switching gears to suffer nobly in that lil lifeboat after the creature goes all Titanic-iceberg on the ship. And what about that whale? He merits very little screen time, though he pops up every now and then to remind the survivors that he’s stalking them through the high seas. This notion of an oceanic animal acting like an avenging angel places this picture in the same class with such landmarks of cinema as 1977’s risible Orca, in which a killer whale tracks down the slayer of his pregnant mate, and 1987’s laughable Jaws: The Revenge, about which co-star Michael Caine famously (and honestly) stated, "I have never seen it, but by all accounts, it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific."

The former Opie’s big-screen opuses, even the more static ones, almost always benefit from crisp visuals (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, etc.), but that’s not the case here. The look of Howard’s film is distractingly dim and muddy – although even then not enough to hide the obviousness of the CGI, which looks artificial for great chunks of the grueling running time.

As noted, the real-life events were potent enough to spur Melville to write his novel, and they have to have been more compelling than the snoozy tale presented here. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be blessed with a literary masterpiece, as a bored Melville doubtless would have put down his pen and gone fishing instead.