Herman Melville’s Moby Dick was the stuff of nightmares for children and inspiration for students of literature. Making a film around the subject required careful deliberation. Ron Howard, with his eclectic directorial flair manifested in films like A Beautiful Mind and Rush did seem like just the right choice to steer the project. Add to that the decision of leaving alone Moby Dick to delve into the legend behind it.
Taking off from Nathaniel Philbrick’s nonfictional, In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, the film follows the narrations of Tom Nickerson, who had survived the wreckage of whaling ship Essex after being attacked by a sperm whale.
The film tries hard to breathe reality into the account of a nearly mythical sea monster. The visual treatment of the sperm whale is reminiscent of how the audience were given thrilling but brief glimpses of Godzilla in the eponymous 2014 film. The whale menacingly glides under the transparent sea surface. But this self-seriousness sans imagination leaves the film as a visually arresting but manufactured Christmas blockbuster.
The cinematic scope of a white whale is not fully gauged as the film’s focus keeps veering back to Owen Chase, Essex’s first mate. Putting in an earnest effort to make the character look harrowed yet undaunted, Chris Hemsworth only manages to deliver a stiff performance. Hence, the ornate computer graphics trying to capture minute human emotions instead of the spectacular possibilities of a film with ‘Titanicesque’ potential, clearly miss the boat.
To this misplaced pastiche of cinematic influences, Howard adds a last discordant note. He tries to turn the film into a conversation on the perils of tampering with the environment. This strain of an ecological warning ala Avatar is fine. But trying to manage its wide canvas from the wrong end, In the Heart of the sea seems to lose the ecological angle in the middle of the film. By the end of it, the audience is not certain whether they just watched a film on nature-versus-humans, a monster film or one on the sea expedition of an intrepid man.