Throughout his long career director Ron Howard has never been afraid to tackle any number of genres, even if some of the resulting films have been mixed. This is a filmmaker who leapt immediately from a frenzied, headache-inducing Christmas yarn (How the Grinch Stole Christmas) to a multiple award-winning prestige picture (A Beautiful Mind) without breaking a sweat. Wedged between his terrific, on-form racing biopic Rush and Inferno – the final instalment of his stodgy Dan Brown adaptations – In the Heart of the Sea is a very decent nautical adventure. And yet it failed to set box office alight back in 2015, where it grossed a disappointing $25 million domestically against a $100 production budget.
It follows the real-life exploits of an early 19th century whaling ship that got into a ruckus with a colossal bull sperm whale. The events inspired Herman Melville to write Moby-Dick. The film opens with Melville (Ben Whishaw) tracking down a surviving member of the whaling expedition. Thomas Nickerson (played by Brendan Gleeson, before current Spidey Tom Holland assumes the role in flashback) reluctantly recounts his time on the doomed voyage of the Essex, which takes a turn for the worse almost immediately when the captain (Benjamin Walker) – against the advice of his seasoned first officer (Chris Hemsworth) – insists the ship does battle with a fierce storm. However, the ultimate endurance test arrives in the gigantic form of the mammal they are hunting for.
Roping in two key figures from Rush (Hemsworth and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle), Howard manages to navigate a route towards the classic American folklore he’s delved into before, and it’s to his credit that he’s willing to let Dod Mantle fully unleash his dynamic and offbeat visual style on the material. The viewer is placed right in the midst of the action in revealing, sometimes surreal close-up – a device Howard has been pushing for almost a quarter century now since his underrated 1991 thriller Backdraft – and the film’s visual palette works surprisingly well within that period settling. The whale attack on the besieged Essex is particularly awe-inspiring, and the flip from robust seagoing adventure to harrowing survivalist tale is handled well.
It’s unfortunate that the film never quite reaches greatness. We seldom get a sense of comradery between the crew, save for the tension between Pollard and Chase, and some supporting characters feel a little sketchy and underdeveloped. Yet Howard’s skills as a storyteller means the story never sags, and his attempts at weaving an old-fashioned adventure in an era where destruction porn and armies of superheroes clog up the multiplexes is admirable. While In the Heart of the Sea may be a few knots away from being the transformative film experience intended, it remains a mostly rousing, expertly-made piece of escapism. It has a Saturday matinee-type vibe, perfect for viewing from the comfort of the sofa on a lazy weekend afternoon. In that respect it’s not too dissimilar to Solo – the director’s recent, equally underrated jaunt into the Star Wars universe.