Warning: This review discusses the plot.
Potentially it’s an epic myth making spectacular – the story that inspired Moby Dick! Clad in waterproofs, harpoon in hand, we dive into Ron Howard’s movie hoping for tale of oceanic violence, derring-do, salt, spray and sickness. If Herman Melville was beguiled by the tale of the doomed whaleship Essex and her crew, and its themes of untameable nature splashing back and diluting the arrogance of man, then so should we. But anyone hoping for a Master and Commander style voyage into nautical history, with decks you can feel beneath your feet and rotting fish overwhelming the sinuses, will be disappointed. In the Heart of the Sea is as dramatically weak as its title; a flat sea shanty. If you want a movie that hits its beats in a utilitarian way, going from scene to scene with functional clarity, then this is for you. But if Howard’s film had been Melville’s source material, one feels he’d have lost enthusiasm early and written Jaws instead.
Indeed, maybe Spielberg’s Jaws should have been Howard’s inspiration. The classic thriller has a nigh on unbeatable Moby Dick-like third act, complete with an Ahab, reluctant crew member and rich oceanographer. Like Sea, it pivots on class conflict and the psychological spectre of the submerged beast, but whereas the classic blockbuster had the good sense to focus on ship-board dynamics and painting a picture in the audience’s mind through suggestion and dialogue, Howard underdramatises the human component of his story while giving his land lubbers rather too much CG whale. It’s very difficult to care about the relationship between hereditary Captain George Pollard and experienced grunt Chris Hemsworth, when their characters are so thinly drawn. This, combined with some ropey rendering at sea, with undercooked effects that make for a shallow spectacle, rips the eponymous heart out of the proceedings.
In fact, there’s more intrigue, dread and disturbance in Robert Shaw’s glorious Indianapolis monologue than in the any of the similar events Sea depicts. The plight of the Essex crew, stranded at sea following a whale attack, and exposed to both the elements and aquatic predators, is one that should have rooted us to our seat. But instead of the tension of Hitchcock’s Lifeboat we get a group of characters we barely know suffering indignities on the water. We’d like to care, and feel their horror when confronted with the choice of cannibalism or death, but Howard’s window to make us give a fish has long passed. Tighter direction, better character work and less whale would have made the movie work. Instead it’s merely diverting. Better, perhaps, to read Melville’s great novel instead.