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Chris Hemsworth, right, plays First Mate Owen Chase in In the Heart of the Sea, directed by Ron Howard.

Jonathan Prime/AP

2 out of 4 stars

Title
In the Heart of the Sea
Written by
Charles Leavitt
Directed by
Ron Howard
Starring
Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker and Ben Whishaw
Genre
Action
Classification
PG
Country
USA
Language
English

"The sea was angry that day, my friends …" – George Costanza

Early in Ron Howard's wishfully epic In the Heart of the Sea, a doleful wife pleads with Herman Melville, begging the writer to pry the hellish story from her husband that has long traumatized him. "There's an agony about him," she says. "His soul is in need of confession."

As is this reviewer's. For In the Heart of the Sea is a grand disappointment and an underwhelming voyage – saltwater gargles have been more adventurous. The film is based on Nathaniel Philbrick's 2000 non-fiction book of the same name, about the ill-fated whaling expedition in 1820 that inspired Melville's Moby-Dick. Over and over again, other great seafaring movies popped into my head while watching Howard's folly, a film that treads water and fails to catch wind. Thar, she blows, one might say.

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Howard does capture the whaling age well, mind you. The blubber business was essentially the first oil industry, and the early 19th-century Nantucket we see (and almost smell) has the bustle, greed and grime of any boom town. "Without you, the world plunges into darkness," a whaling-ship captain is told, because the oil "fuels the machines of industry forward, as our noble species evolves."

Of course, some members of the species are more noble and evolved than others. Benjamin Walker is Captain George Pollard Jr., an inexperienced ship leader promoted on nepotism alone. You just know he's going to get his fishing lines tangled with the hunky, more capable but working-class Chris Hemsworth as First Mate Owen Chase. (First Mate, I'll say – am I right, ladies?)

The snag with Walker and Hemsworth (an Aussie who seemingly sought out one of the Wahlbergs for close-enough East Boston-accent advice) is that they don't really hit it off as a duo not hitting it off. Charles Laughton and Clark Gable, they ain't.

Also troubling is the storytelling format. We have watchable Ben Whishaw as Melville tracking down and interviewing good old Brendan Gleeson as hard-drinking Thomas Nickerson, the haunted survivor of the sunken whale ship Essex and the only one still alive to tell the harrowing tale, which we observe in flashback. The thing is, the young Nickerson was a cabin boy not central to the story. A bit awkward, that.

We do get the story though. (And, yes, one supposes it's a whale of one.) The ship heads out, a storm happens, the captain misjudges it, a sperm whale goes all Jaws-like, the Essex sinks and the unspeakable things that happen aboard the lifeboats account for the horror the cabin boy has carried with him all these years.

At the heart of the problem with this period piece is an absence of a riveting scene or a memorable slice of dialogue. Give us a Robert Shaw shark-hunter-Quint speech, give us some Sperm Whale Dundee ("You call that a harpoon? This is a harpoon!") – heck, give us a Seinfeld marine biologist soliloquy.

What we are given is a topical, wonderfully shot metaphor for man's willfulness, hubris and exploitative nature. A whale fights heroically, but falls to his hunters, blood spouting from its blowhole like oil from a strike in the ground. But Howard fumbles this as well, not letting that scene alone suggest the oil-based allegory. Later the parallel is spelled out obviously, and Melville weeps at the humdrumness of it all.

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