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Movie Review: 'In the Heart of the Sea'

In the Heart of the Sea should have stayed in port.

Review by Matt Cummings

In a time when superhero movies and the revisiting of our childhood brains the box office into submission, In the Heart of the Sea was supposed to arrive as a powerful and refreshing period alternative. But much like the rest of 2015's Oscar driftwood, this tale of an intelligent whale beating inferior men feels uninspiring in many parts and leaves the audience knowing exactly why blockbusters are currently ruling the day.

Told from two different perspectives, the story behind Moby Dick is uncovered as an aging survivor (Brendan Gleeson) reveals his harrowing tale to the writer Herman Melville (Ben Wishaw). There, the veteran seaman Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) has braved 19th Century whaling as a quick way to earn a captainship while providing for his growing family. Situated in Nantucket - the home of the industry during that time - the need for whale oil couldn't be higher. Unfortunately, Chase's bosses don't see his potential, saddling him with an inexperienced captain (Benjamin Walker), the smallish Essex, and the brutal means by which whale oil is extracted. As the crew which includes Owen's friend Matthew Joy (Cillian Murphy) comes face to face with the largest whale ever, its destructive force places every crewman on the edge of deprivation, insanity, and even cannibalism.

For all the potential this film has to tell a deep and personal story, In the Heart of the Sea comes across as dull and largely uninventive. Granted, not much can compare to Melville's yarn, but instead of expanding that universe, Director Ron Howard keeps to a decidedly smaller one. It's only a story of terrible luck, perseverance, and fortitude, none of which really matters much in the end, as Murphy and Tom Holland as the youngest crew member Nickerson learns firsthand why you don't mess with killer whales. And that's because the nearly unstoppable force behind the mammal with a higher intelligence that Chase or his captain is frankly unbelievable. Somewhere here is a story that's far better than the one we ultimately get, missing all the elements of man vs nature, obsession, and madness, settling instead on a cannibal storyline to keep our interest as we stumble into act 3.

The ongoing epilogue of Whisaw and Gleeson - both amazing actors - is utterly wasted, settling too early on a pushy Melville and an all-attitude Nickerson that never works for what it's intended. Our screening was hosted in perhaps the worst digital screen in town, shrouding the entire affair in dim lighting and poor colors. I'm not sure a higher-quality experience would have made that much of a difference, because the effort Heart made to win us over feels more like Oscar bait than well-conceived and executed brilliance. Hemsworth, for all his brawny attitude and likeable smile, comes across as a decent man who realizes all too late that he's in way over his head. But the story betrays him late, as he realizes that the whaling guild who sent him have decided to write off the incident as an accident and not an attack. That doesn't play well here, especially when his Australian accent sometimes supercedes his Nantucket drawl. Holland might be the best of the lot, but I also appreciated the unexpected journey which Walker also takes, from threatened captain to patsy to quiet hero.

Heart expects the plug-in dramatic moments to work. But as we've seen so many times this year, audiences have come to expect bigger things, and a smallish film about an intelligent killer whale assaulting 19th Century men just doesn't cut it. This isn't the raw power of Howard's far better Rush, or the instant classic Apollo 13; Heart meanders its way through the first hour, setting up too much story that ultimately doesn't pay off later on - the commercial interests, Charlotte Riley as Chase's wife, or even the background of the men who will ultimately die with little fanfare. Its final 45 minutes does about the same. Heart feels like it could have succeeded had it served up sea survival flick and not some hoity-toity 'don't mess with Mama Nature' message.

Filled with good but not memorable acting and similar-feeling visuals, In the Heart of the Sea is just more Oscar rubble to build upon the truly good films of 2015. It's not bad, but such an admission no longer works as passive acceptance. Much like the period of whaling that died out with oil rigs, Heart's meager earnings make it instantly obsolete fare.

In the Heart of the Sea is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action and peril, brief startling violence, and thematic material.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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