Who exactly is Ron Howard as a filmmaker? The obvious answer is that he’s one of Hollywood’s most commercially dependable directors and has been for nearly five decades. But when you really start wrestling with the question, it gets a little thorny. Is he the merry prankster of Night Shift and The Paper? The three-hankie sentimentalist behind Cocoon and Parenthood? The Oscar-courting purveyor of middlebrow prestige pictures like Cinderella Man and A Beautiful Mind? Or is he the four-quadrant populist behind rollicking adventures like Apollo 13 and The Da Vinci Code? Since his debut behind the camera with 1977’s Grand Theft Auto, the former freckle-faced child actor has directed 22 movies. And even if you’ve seen them all – especially if you’ve seen them all – you don’t get any closer to defining what a “Ron Howard movie” is. He’s an artist without a school or discernable style. He would’ve been perfect under contract to a studio in the ‘40s.
That sort of jack-of-all-trades dexterity is as impressive as it is rare. But it can also lead to movies that feel slightly workman-like and bland. Howard’s latest film, In the Heart of the Sea, isn’t quite either of those things, but it is missing some of the urgency and danger of the Nathaniel Philbrick bestseller it’s adapted from. It’s light on personality and spark, which is a bit of a problem for a white-knuckle whaling tale. Some of this, obviously, rests with the director. But it also falls at the feet of his leading man, Chris Hemsworth, who fails to muster the same sort of charisma he displayed in Howard’s last film, Rush. He’s a strapping, seafaring cipher.
In the Heart of the Sea is the (mostly) real-life account of the Essex, a Nantucket ship that was smashed to kindling by an enormous sperm whale that it was hunting in 1820. The sad fate of the Essex’s crewmen, who were stranded at sea for months and forced to resort to cannibalism, was the basis of Herman Melville’s masterpiece Moby-Dick. In other words, it’s a survival story – and one that’s already holding itself to a pretty lofty standard. Howard and screenwriter Charles Leavitt (Blood Diamond) embrace the story’s place in literary history by bookending the adventure with a narrative device that has Melville himself (played by Ben Whishaw) interviewing the Essex’s last living survivor, Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), three decades after the tragedy, allowing him to recount the story in flashback. It’s a smart framing device, especially since Gleeson primes us for a corker of a story with traumatized reluctance to tell it.
But tell it, he does. As the story rewinds to a time when the world ran on the priceless commodity of whale oil (years before we discovered how to sip it directly from the ground), we meet Nickerson’s younger, greener cabin boy self (played by Tom Holland) as well as Hemsworth’s Owen Chase – the Essex’s confident, able first mate whose chowdah-thick accent is sketchy at best and who is also still smarting from being denied the ship’s command. Instead, the rudder was handed to Benjamin Walker’s George Pollard Jr., an untested captain who inherited the job because of his family name rather than experience. That’s all the foreshadowing we need to know that In the Heart of the Sea will be a clash between these two seamen whose heads are harder than a scrimshawed whale bone, at least until the lethal leviathan surfaces.
Right off the bat, Pollard makes rookie mistakes. After steering directly into a storm and allowing his ship to take a beating, Pollard refuses to return to Nantucket for repairs and defiantly heads out to deep waters after hearing improbable stories about a gigantic white whale that will bring in countless barrels of inky, stinky crude. The whale hunting scenes are undeniably thrilling and, at times, unflinchingly brutal. But they also have a slick CGI patina that lessens their visceral impact. You’re always aware of the scenes’ artificiality. After the hulking alabaster beast cripples the Essex beyond repair and the men are forced to abandon ship and flee on smaller life boats, the film becomes a survival story that will be especially impressive for folks who haven’t already seen last year’s Unbroken. Hemsworth, Walker, and, in particular, Cillian Murphy (as Chase’s trusty second mate) waste away in the sun, turning into barely living flesh-and-bone ghosts.
Like Moby-Dick, In the Heart of the Sea is a story that dares to grapple with weighty themes: greed, vengeance, and obsession, for starters. But Howard’s film, for all of its storytelling skill, technical polish, and rousing high-seas sequences, never quite casts the spell it should. It’s too polite to give us a real feeling of life or death. Its sense of danger is watered down. B-