Director Ron Howard takes on the Moby Dick legend in a different version of the tale that centers around author Herman Melville as he begins to write the famous novel that every high school kid is forced to read. I can’t say I had an easy time getting through the overly dense book, but I did love John Huston’s 1955 film version that starred Gregory Peck in a kind of cinematic precursor to Jaws. 

For most moviegoers, the latter film will likely be the litmus deadline-review-badge-pete-hammondtest for their endurance of this one, which is based on author Nathaniel Philbrick’s 2000 National Book Award winner for Moby-Dick filmNonfiction. The screenplay by Charles Leavitt from a story by him, and Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver, uses Melville’s discovery of the tale as a device to get in and out of the real action. Melville (Ben Whishaw) gets an interview with the reluctant – and only – survivor of the famous maritime disaster some 30 years after it happened. Tom Holland co-stars as the young seaman Tom Nickerson and Brendan Gleeson is the same person who lives to tell the tale that would become legend. The bulk of the movie, of course, are the flashbacks to the winter of 1820 when the whaling ship Essex runs into a problem, a very BIG problem as it is repeatedly stalked and assaulted by a humongous whale that quite frankly towers over any mammal ever encountered.

As I say in my video review above, Howard’s expensive production (reportedly $100 million plus) is certainly competent on a technical basis, but runs adrift once the whale does his thing and the surviving crew tries to stay alive by any means, and that includes cannibalism. It’s tough to stomach at times, but also suffers from less than compelling human interaction as the elements start to get the better of them. The actors aren’t at fault for my indifference here though, with Chris Hemsworth going through the ringer as first mate Owen Chase, the standout in a cast that also includes Benjamin Walker as the not-so-hot Captain and Cillian Murphy as the second mate Matthew Joy.

The movie harkens back to a great kind of movie adventure the major studios rarely try to do anymore, a period piece set on water. It’s easy to see why Howard, one of the best directors we have was attracted to the material, and it is just as easy to see why we don’t get this kind of film often since the production costs can really spiral out of control if the weather, and the whale in this case, don’t cooperate. Nevertheless the CGI effects have come a long way in the 40 years since Jaws  and 60 years since Huston’s Moby Dick. They are fine, but I have to admit I was underwhelmed by the whale itself. Sadly there isn’t a sense of wonder I had with the other classics in this genre. It is certainly a good-looking film, including fine cinematography by Oscar winner Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire) who worked with Howard on the vastly superior, and criminally underrated car racing drama Rush. Music by Roque Banos is also quite effective. Producers are Joe Roth, Paula Weinstein, Will Ward, Brian Grazer and Howard. Warner Bros sets sail on Friday but the movie may find rough going just a week later when a whale of a different sort – Star Wars: The Force Awakens – threatens to blow it out of the water.

Do you plan to see In The Heart Of The Sea?  Let us know what you think.