[Screen It]


(2015) (Chris Hemsworth, Brendan Gleeson) (PG-13)

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Drama/Action: A man recounts his tale of serving on a whaling ship when he was just a teenager and their crew endured repeated attacks by a huge and apparently vindictive whale.
It's 1850, and author Herman Melville (BEN WHISHAW) has arrived at the Nantucket home of Tom Nickerson (BRENDAN GLEESON) in hopes that the older man will tell him about what happened onboard the whaling ship Essex three decades earlier. Tom has spoken to no one about that experience, not even his wife, but reluctantly agrees due to pressure from his spouse. The tale then rewinds to 1820 when Thomas (TOM HOLLAND) was a 14-year-old green hand onboard that whaler where tensions were high even before setting sail. And that's because married man and father-to-be Owen Chase (CHRIS HEMSWORTH) was promised to be named captain for the next whale expedition funded by the Pollard family, only to learn that the inexperienced George Pollard (BENJAMIN WALKER) was awarded that position.

With that uneasy working arrangement in place, the crew -- that consists of various men including Owen's best friend from childhood, Matthew Joy (CILLIAN MURPHY), and Pollard's cousin, Henry Coffin (FRANK DILLANE) -- sets sail to the South Atlantic sea. But with little to show for their efforts, they decide to head further out into the ocean -- thousands of miles offshore -- in hopes of finding a reported pack of whales, despite the warnings of a Spanish captain who lost his boat and much of his crew to a monstrous whale that was seemingly intent on destroying them.

Pollard and his crew indeed find that whale pack, but must then contend with the ramifications of the vindictive whale repeatedly attacking them.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
There are plenty of memorable scenes in the film that shot director Steven Spielberg into Hollywood's stratosphere, but there's one in particular for me that's the most mesmerizing and unsettling. It's when Quint, Brody and Hooper are down below deck comparing scars. When the new police chief spots a particular one on the grizzled sea captain, that begins a several minute monologue by the late, great Robert Shaw where he details the aftermath of the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis near the end of WWII.

That's followed by a brief moment of reflection, the sound of a whale, and then the men breaking into song ("Show Me the Way to Go Home") and then another attack by the shark on their vessel. It's a brilliantly written, directed and acted sequence that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about Quint and why he's desirous of hunting down and killing the shark. And it's somewhat akin to that of Captain Ahab wanting to do the same to the titular white whale in Herman Melville's seminal novel "Moby Dick."

While watching "In the Heart of the Sea," I kept waiting for something similar to transpire, something to explain or bolster character motivations and give us a reason to root for any of them to defeat the "monster" whale after them. Alas, that never happens in this look back at what inspired Melville to write that work.

The film -- directed by Ron Howard from a script by Charles Leavitt -- begins in the "present day" of 1850 when said young author (played by Ben Whishaw) shows up at the home of an older, emotionally pent-up man (Brendan Gleeson) who served, at the age of 14, on the whaling ship Essex that came under attack by a white whale decades ago, resulting in the loss of both ship and many lives.

That's the first strike against the film as I've never been a huge fan of any plot structure where a character tells a story to a stranger and we then see flashbacks to that, followed by a return to the present and then back and forth and back and forth. There's rarely a need for the contemporary setting, and at minimum we know -- especially in a film like this filled with lots of peril -- that the speaker is going to make it.

The second strike for me was the portrayal of the overall whaling industry. Yes, other films portray characters involved in bad things, corrupt or ruinous industries and so on, but something rubbed me the wrong way about this particular setup where the humans are the good guys and the whales -- and in particular the one seemingly intent on destroying them -- are the bad guys. Due to the nature of what they're doing, I didn't feel remotely bad for what transpires (and yes, I understand it was politically correct at the time and that the point of the story is in pointing out the horrors of such behavior and the attached comeuppance).

Another pitfall are the special effects that, sadly, aren't that special. Yes, it's hard to create convincing sea life in a convincing sea, but something looks off here. Perhaps it's all of the close-ups and jerky, swaying camera movement (certain to induce sea sickness in some viewers) that doesn't give us a good look at the work, although that could be covering up said non-photo realistic effects.

The biggest strike, however, is that the overall story and execution up on the screen simply isn't that interesting or thrilling. Sure, there's tension between the captain (Benjamin Walker) and his first-mate (Chris Hemsworth) who thinks he should have been put in the role instead.

Yes, there are whale attacks on both smaller rowboats and the main whaling vessel that end up leaving the survivors stranded at sea for a long time. I just didn't care. In fact, I felt like a nap during much of the film's two-hour runtime, a sentiment shared after the flick with other reviewers. Maybe we were all wiped out a bit by the motion in the ocean scenes as presented in 3D IMAX.

Whatever the case, I just didn't get into the flick that never worked for me as an action offering, or a character study along the lines of what Spielberg and company managed to pull off in their "Moby Dick" inspired sea thriller. Long before the end credits rolled, somewhere I could hear the refrain "Show me the way to go home. I'm tired and I want to go to bed." You might feel the same way if you find yourself "In the Heart of the Sea." The pic rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed December 7, 2015 / Posted December 11, 2015

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