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How Moby Dick Winds Up Stranded In the Heart of the Sea

Give Herman Melville credit for spicing things up more than this seafaring adventure from director Ron Howard that's mostly an exercise in style over substance.

Sometimes maybe fiction is better than fact, as demonstrated by In the Heart of the Sea, which claims to be based on the true-life tale that inspired Moby Dick.

In that case, give Herman Melville credit for spicing things up more than this seafaring adventure from director Ron Howard that’s mostly an exercise in style over substance.

The flashback framing device involves Melville (Ben Whishaw) researching the book by talking to a reclusive seaman (Brendan Gleeson) who was a cabin boy (played by Tom Holland) during the tragic voyage of the Essex, a ship that left the Nantucket harbor in 1820.

The goal was to bring back barrels of whale oil, which was routine in those days. But the fledgling mission was compromised by bad weather, a sparse whale population, and the constant bickering of the ill-prepared young captain (Benjamin Walker) and his headstrong first officer (Chris Hemsworth). The resulting desperation prompts the crew to veer off course once they hear rumors of a large school of sperm whales in the South Pacific, along with the legend of a massive intimidating relative of theirs that doesn’t want to be disturbed.

The visuals might be enough to make some viewers seasick, which in this case is a compliment. Howard keeps his camera bobbing at sea level with the chop of the ocean, and mixes in some 3D effects that turn the abundant sequences on the water into an immersive experience, complete with drops splashing on the lens.

The film certainly knows its way around schooners and other maritime vessels, both in terminology and procedure. There are numerous close-ups of ropes, sails, oars, and spears to make viewers feel a part of the action. Unfortunately, in the latter half, there’s not much action in which to take part, and it starts to feel pretty routine coming on the heels of other lost-at-sea movies in recent years.

Perhaps it’s not entirely fair in this case to compare the film to Melville’s book, since this isn’t technically an adaptation. Yet some of the weightier themes in Moby Dick aren’t really explored in the screenplay by Charles Leavitt (Blood Diamond), although it touches on notions of sacrifice, honor, and even animal rights.

Hemsworth and the supporting cast offer committed and charismatic performances, but despite some harrowing encounters with storms and creatures alike, In the Heart of the Sea ultimately feels waterlogged.