It’s been a little disheartening to see director Ron Howard struggle to come up with a good project over the last few years. After winning two Oscars for the excellent “A Beautiful Mind,” he gave us a couple more memorable films with “Cinderella Man” and “Frost/Nixon” (the latter of which earned him Oscar nominations for producing and directing), but after this, he started to slip by delivering such forgettable films as “The Dilemma,” “Angels & Demons,” and “Rush.” However, this hasn’t stopped him from soldiering on, bringing us to his latest attempt to get back in the game, “In the Heart of the Sea,” a special effects extravaganza that, at first glance, seems like it could be just what he needs to do so.
The film, based on the novel by Nathaniel Philbrick, recalls the ill-fated voyage of the whaling vessel Essex in 1820. The Captain, George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), is an inexperienced man, who only got the job because of his family name, while the First Mate, Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), is a veteran, who had previously been promised the captaincy by the investors. However, a new bargain is struck, guaranteeing a captaincy if he takes this voyage and comes back with a certain amount of whale oil. Right away, the novice Captain makes a mistake by sailing right into a storm, but despite the beating they take, they manage to nab a whale soon after.
The problem is that they don’t get nearly enough oil, so when they hear of a massive whale that could bring them thousands of barrels, Pollard naturally goes after it, despite any dangers they might face. At first, their endeavor seems worthwhile, finding several whales in the region, but when the rumored massive whale attacks their ship, it sinks, leaving the survivors stranded in three lifeboats with few provisions. From here, it becomes a desperate journey of survival as they attempt to find land before their supplies run out, and before their silent stalker decides to finish the job.
“In the Heart of the Sea” appears to have all of the necessary ingredients to make a thrilling, engrossing, and exciting epic, especially with a narrative that has this much potential, but when it comes to telling this narrative, it leaves a lot to be desired. For starters, much of it is rather repetitive, featuring endless sequences of hunting whales, and later on, getting attacked by a gigantic whale. This is followed by more seemingly endless sequences of the crew trying to survive in their lifeboats (imagine the similarly dull scenes from “Unbroken,” but stretched out even more).
Of course, these are scenes we all expect to be in such a film, but the main reason they end up feeling so lifeless and unengaging is because the characters are rather flat on the screen. We have a First Mate who wants to do well by his wife and child, and a Captain who wants to prove himself worthy of his title, but it’s just not enough to flesh them out or make the audience care about their situations. As for the rest of the crew, they become nothing but background noise for the narrative, similar to the way “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” treats its minor characters.
There’s also the rather unnecessary addition of most of the film being a flashback. The film actually starts off in 1850 with Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) visiting Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), the last survivor of the Essex. Melville wants to hear the story of the whale so that he can write a novel about it, a novel that we all know would go on to become “Moby Dick.” These sections end up becoming a rather big distraction throughout the film, cutting away from the main story, only to have Nickerson brood about what he did and whether he wants to keep telling the tale. We know that he obviously tells Melville the entire story, so these scenes merely end up feeling pretty pointless.
Luckily, “In the Heart of the Sea” isn’t all bad. There’s no denying that it’s a beautifully-made film, with outstanding production design and stunning visual effects (which earned it a nomination from the Visual Effects Society). The whales in particular are exquisitely rendered and help make the story more realistic than it might have been. Unfortunately, these are all surface matters that don’t help mask the more deeply-rooted problems underneath, problems that needed to be tackled at the screenplay level.
In the end, that’s really where the film’s main issues are. Charles Leavitt’s screenplay is rather mundane for a tale that should have us on the edge of our seats in anticipation of what will happen to this crew, but, alas, there just isn’t much in the way of compelling material to be found. Howard does a fine job of directing as always, but even he can’t make the flatly-written narrative any more captivating than it is. What this leaves us with is a rather forgettable film that could have been so much more. This could have been a grand epic that told a fascinating story of disaster and survival at sea. Instead we end up with a beautiful film that will merely go down as another forgotten entry in Ron Howard’s filmography.
“In the Heart of the Sea” comes to Blu-ray in a 1.85:1, 1080p High Definition transfer of outstanding quality. The perfectly sharp picture does great justice to all of the hard work that went into the production design and special effects. Likewise, the 5.1 Dolby Atmos audio does a great job of presenting the dialogue, score, and the multitude of sound effects in excellent quality. Overall, there’s not a single problem to be found in either department, leaving you with a great experience all around.
Ron Howard: Captain’s Log (16 Minutes): A fascinating series of featurettes that takes you behind the scenes of the making of the film.
Chase & Pollard: A Man of Means and a Man of Courage (7 Minutes): An intriguing featurette that explores the two main characters.
The Hard Life of a Whaler (9 Minutes): A featurette that doesn’t contain much information that isn’t already in the film.
Whale Tales: Melville’s Untold Story (9 Minutes): An interesting look at Melville and his novel, “Moby Dick.”
Commanding the Heart of the Sea (10 Minutes): A great look behind the scenes at the film’s amazing special effects.
Lightning Strikes Twice: The Real-Life Sequel to Moby Dick (29 Minutes): A rather unnecessary featurette that discusses sunk whaling ships in an area of ocean near the Hawaiian Islands.
Deleted Scenes (36 Minutes) and Extended Scenes (7 Minutes): 40-ish minutes of deleted material that only goes to show how the already-too-long film could have been longer.
Island Montage (3 Minutes): A pointless inclusion that merely consists of footage from the film, taken from the scenes on the island.
Ron Howard’s “In the Heart of the Sea” is a beautifully-made film that features stunning visual effects, but it’s ultimately let down by a bland screenplay that’s unable to bring out the exciting and epic nature of the story. This is a tale that had such incredible potential, which should have resulted in a thrilling story of survival, but thanks to poor execution and under-developed characters, that potential only continues to go unrealized.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD starting tomorrow.
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