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Movie review: ‘In the Heart of the Sea’

'In the Heart of the Sea' (photo: Warner Bros.)

By Tim Lammers

“In the Heart of the Sea” (PG-13) 3 stars (out of four)

Director Ron Howard skillfully navigates some treacherous waters in “In the Heart of the Sea,” a riveting whale tale that only suffers from its shaky imagery during the film’s most pivotal moments. Realism is a good thing in films, but in this case, the turbulent depiction of the high seas is too much of a good thing.

The film uses the classic literary work of Herman Melville’s (Ben Whishaw) “Moby Dick” as a framing device, as the author convinces Tom Nickerson (the always great Brendan Gleeson) – one of the few survivors of the shipwreck of the Nantucket whaling vessel, the Essex, in 1820 – to open the deep wounds he’s kept tightly sealed for 30 years. Melville is obsessed with the legend of a monstrous, 100-foot-long white whale that purportedly destroyed the Essex, and Nickerson is the only person the writer can locate to validate the tale.

However, there’s more to the story that Melville ever expected, as his confessions reveal Nickerson (played in flashback by Tom Holland), First Mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), his longtime shipmate Matthew Joy (Cillian Murphy), Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) and a handful of others resort to desperate, dark measures to survive. Not only does the whale continue its rampage after he sinks the ship; the survivors are also floating aimlessly 2,000 miles off the western coast of South America with no hope in sight.

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“In the Heart of the Sea” reteams Hemsworth with Howard two years after the woefully underrated Formula One racecar drama “Rush” make a quick and quiet exit from theaters in 2013. Much like that reality-based drama, Howard goes to painstaking efforts to put you aboard the Essex, bringing to life in great detail the inner-workings of a whale ship as it defies the elements of nature to harvest blubber from the benevolent sea beasts for oil. To that end, “In the Heart of the Sea” is a fascinating voyage, as Howard puts you squarely in the shoes of the people who endure, what is still one of the world’s most dangerous professions.

Sadly, the display of danger is where “In the Heart of the Sea” takes a huge plunge, as the scenes of the ship being rocked at sea by storms – and eventually, the whale – simply become too chaotic. Imagine a shaky cam amped up to violent extremes, which really does nothing more than threaten to nauseate the most sensitive of viewers’ stomachs. Fortunately, a weak 3D presentation doesn’t enhance the sea-sickening experience, and only makes the image more distorted. If the 3D would have worked as intended, the film might have been too dizzying for its own good.

While “In the Heart of the Sea” falls short on its overly-ambitious visual effects, it’s hardly a failure. The calmer scenes of the whale will no doubt leave you awestruck in the creature’s presence, especially during its unexpected final confrontation with Owen and his dwindling number of crew members. While still a sight to behold on the big screen, “In the Heart of the Sea” will likely find a friendlier reception in the closed quarters of viewers’ homes. As a film immersed in a screen too big to escape, the experience will likely make you feel more wobbly than wowed.

On the plus side, you have to commend Howard for opting not to make another “Moby Dick” film, and instead examining a fascinating story that inspired the beloved Melville classic. The film feels fresh despite its faults, and another trip with Captain Ahab would have felt waterlogged.