By Jonathon Dornbush
Updated December 11, 2015 at 08:46 PM EST
Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is one of the most famous American novels (so thick you may not have gotten around to finishing it in school), but the true story behind his novel inspired Ron Howard’s latest film, In the Heart of the Sea. Starring Chris Hemsworth, the film itself is culled from Nathaniel Philbrick’s book about the true story of the whaling ship Essex and its crew’s 1820 encounter with a massive sperm whale.

Hemsworth stars as First Mate Owen Chase, a role for which he underwent a dramatic weight change to perform, serving Captain George Pollard Jr. (Benjamin Walker) aboard the Essex, until the horrific encounter with a massive whale leaves the crew fighting for their lives.

But can Ron Howard’s film, which also stars Ben Whishaw, Cillian Murphy, and others, capture the dangerous twists and turns of the Essex‘s journey. According to EW’s Chris Nashawaty in his B- review, Howard’s take on the film is “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.”

Read on for more from Nashawaty’s review and the reviews of other critics from around the country.

“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.”

“The ordinary scenes between Whishaw and [Brendan] Gleeson have more going on than everything the movie’s actually about. Chris Hemsworth’s top-billed as the hardy first mate Owen Chase, who must put up with the deadly decision-making of Capt. George Pollard (a dull and miscast Benjamin Walker). The ocean-going sequences rely on what we’ve come to expect, or endure, in so many modern epics: digital effects that never quit, plus a frantic, lurching editing rhythm that never establishes a pleasing pace. It’s fair to say this of Howard’s film: You won’t believe your eyes. That’s the problem. It’s halfway to the realm of being a digitally animated feature.”

A year after directing Hemsworth through the Formula One racing drama Rush, Howard brings the same kinetic style to the whaling sequences here, which throw the camera into sea-level tussles with whales not easily felled by harpoons. In the Heart of the Sea makes an ordinary hunt looks like such a harrowing, white-knuckle ordeal that Melville’s famed white whale has no trouble achieving its intended God-like stature. Had the film merely been about an expedition gone wrong — the Essex if Melville had never gotten wind of it — Howard might have sailed on fairer seas, avoiding the headwinds of a literary classic.”

“Chris Hemsworth, who was excellent in Howard’s race-car movie Rush and is very likable as the current incarnation of Thor, has been instructed to bring as much strappitude as possible to the role of Owen Chase, first mate of the Essex and the movie’s manly hero. Hemsworth also works hard at a period New England accent that quickly devolves into fisherman’s stew. In fact, all the accents in this movie sound as if the actors had been coached to talk like Red Sox fans magically transported to the 1820s.”

“Mr. Howard goes all out when the ship finally sets sail: The Camera whips around, going wide and eye-jabbingly close as you follow the crew up the masts, across the deck and into the galley. He comes across as keenly interested in the sweat labor it takes to run the whaling ship (the industrial organization evokes that of a major production like this one), but shortly after touring the opeations, the movie loses momentum.”

“In the end, this isn’t anything near the tale that Melville told; it’s merely a story of great personal misfortune and tragedy, rather than one that trades in such lofty matters as the defiance of God, personal will and civilization versus the natural elements, the line between obsession and madness, revenge, the existential meaning of the sea and so many other matters (not to mention its rich cast of characters and status as the most complete account of the mechanics of whaling ever written for mass consumption). By comparison, In the Heart of the Sea comes off more like a long anecdote.”

“So visually busy and creatively confident that you’d hardly believe Ron Howard directed it, the movie churns with color-scape skies and abstracted cuts to strained riggings and whale viscera, while murky waters and old glass make ripples in the foreground of the 3-D frame. Whalers’ faces are flecked by jets of blood after a harpooning, a flintlock sinks into the ocean after a sailor’s suicide, Melville’s pen dips into an inkwell like an anchor ripping into seabed — if In The Heart Of The Sea has its share of clunks and groans, it also looks suspiciously like bona fide big-screen art.”

“But the meat-and-potatoes Howard is uncomfortable in the realm of the spirit, or the metaphysical. He can film objects, and he can film people, but he can’t quite film emptiness. The cosmic vastness of the sea eludes him. As does the horror of what the men have to endure. He wants to rub our faces in it, but he’s not the kind of director to go dark like that.”

“If Melville had lived another three decades, he’d have seen himself become an impressive man, too, credited posthumously with writing the Great American Epic. And if he were alive today, he’d spend a chunk of his $1,200 lifetime earnings from Moby-Dick on a ticket to Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea, a retelling of the Essex‘s doomed voyage. There, he would look up at the screen at Benjamin Walker’s Pollard and wonder, ‘What the hell did they do to my pal?'”

“Apart from one brief stretch on an unoccupied island that will surely spell the men’s doom if they remain too long, the two boats remain adrift for months, and the sense of a movie lost in its own creative doldrums is palpable. There’s nothing cathartic or even particularly stirring about the sight of these whalers slowly wasting away, despite the strenuous plucking of every heartstring by Roque Banos’ score, the actors’ persuasive display of weight loss, the excellent scorched-skin makeup effects, and the anguished cutaways to the older Nickerson, still crazed with guilt over what he had to do to survive.”

Overall Metacritic rating (1-100): 48

Rotten Tomatoes: 48 percent

Rated: PG-13

Length: 135 minutes

Starring Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Tom Holland

Directed by Ron Howard

Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures

In the Heart of the Sea

2015 movie
  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 121 minutes
  • Ron Howard