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RUDDERLESS AND ADRIFT: ‘In the Heart of the Sea’ sails into murky ambitions

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I can’t recall a film this year that I was so divided on; I teetered like a boat on the tides.

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When I first saw the trailer for Ron Howard’s new seafaring period epic, I wondered why it wasn’t called “Moby Dick.” It looked like “Moby Dick.” There’s a big-ol’ whale dealing out damage and some desperate men who seem obsessed with its capture. However, instead of just outright adapting Herman Melville’s literary classic, Howard decided to tell the story that inspired “Moby Dick.” It’s a strange, downright confounding creative way to try and make “Moby Dick” while putting his own stamp on the material. Basically, Howard is trying to have his “Dick” and eat it, too.

HALF-BAKED WHALE TALE: Ron Howard tells the origin story of a Herman Melville’s classic ‘Moby Dick.’  Courtesy photo.

HALF-BAKED WHALE TALE: Ron Howard tells the origin story of a Herman Melville’s classic ‘Moby Dick.’ Courtesy photo.

I kind of liked “In the Heart of the Sea” but spent much of the movie incredulously chuckling at the entire concept. There are so many elements in this movie that scream: “You are watching ‘Moby Dick!” Elements from the real-life story that so perfectly mirrors Melville’s novel. In fact, they actually have an actor portraying Herman Melville, who provides narration as a salty old sailor and tells his tale of terror on the high seas. I think the creative pursuit here was to help separate this tale from “Moby Dick,” but it only serves as a reminder of how odd a concept this is.

It reminded me of a bit from Patton Oswalt, who talks about loving “Star Wars” as a kid and hating the idea of the followup films doing nothing more than explaining from where things come:

“Like Darth Vader in ‘Star Wars’? His cool armor, his light saber, his evil force powers? Well, here he is in ‘The Phantom Menace’ as a little kid. No one cares about what Darth Vader was doing when he was 8. This line from that bit sums it up nicely: ‘Do you like Angelina Jolie? Well, here’s Jon Voight’s sweaty ball sack.’”

“In the Heart of the Sea” is a living embodiment of Oswalt’s bit. I kept thinking how hilarious it would be if we applied this logic to other movies in the genre—like a movie where Peter Benchley goes to Nantucket to research the stories of great white shark attacks and calls it “Crimson Waters.”

I understand where this creative impulse comes from. Everything these days is about the origin story. Apparently, Hollywood isn’t interested in another “Moby Dick” adaptation, but the origin story is worth a shot. I’m reminded of “Victor Frankenstein,” another film that accepts the challenge of trying to tell the backstory of a classic piece of literature, “Frankenstein.” Like “Victor Frankenstein,” “In the Heart of the Sea” ends up at best painfully average.

There are things that work about the film.  It is a visual feast. It’s an amazing combination of cinematography and sound design. There are some breathtakingly beautiful sequences. Ron Howard does a fantastic job crafting the action, as well as making the whale a terrifying antagonist. It’s also an incredibly bleak film. Watching this monstrosity tear through ships and drive men to such unfathomable depths is downright terrifying. If anyone’s looking for an uplifting tale of survival, this is the wrong show.

There are also things that don’t work for “In the Heart of the Sea”: namely Chris Hemsworth’s accent. I can’t remember a performance so besieged by an inability to hold on to a single dialect. Hemsworth’s voice swings back and forth like a pendulum. At first I thought he was playing the role with a British accent, which wouldn’t be unheard of in early 1820s America. Then I realized he was actually trying to do a New England accent with limited success. During the moments where he wrestles with anger or frustration, he dips an octave and sounds just like Thor, whom I believe to be Scandinavian. He feels sleight later in the movie when things get desperate and require a high level of drama.

I wanted to like “In the Heart of the Sea,” because we don’t see these kind of lush, powerful, period-adventure movies anymore. I hoped for something along the lines of “Master and Commander,” but ended up with a half-baked whale tale starring a guy who seemed to have two dialects fighting to the death inside his larynx.

I can’t recall a film this year that I was so divided on; I teetered like a boat on the tides. “In the Heart of the Sea” is an interesting failure—a movie that seens rudderless and adrift at the mercy of its own murky ambitions.

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