Herman Melville wouldn't just turn over in his grave if he saw In the Heart of the Sea. He'd probably find some way to launch a zombie attack on screenwriter Charles Leavitt, who depicts the author in his youth (Ben Whishaw) as an insecure dilettante eager to pirate a great story.
When it comes to the genesis of Moby-Dick, the film's sins against truth are many. Yet, if you can look past its corny central narrative and its glaring disregard for historical facts (including those chronicled in the Nathaniel Philbrick book from which it was adapted), In the Heart of the Sea is a thrilling, visually lush adventure.
The film's treatment of Melville the man borders on insulting. Yet Leavitt and director Ron Howard give due respect to a key aspect of his great work: its attention to material detail. This movie never lets us forget that the goal of whaling was the oil that lit the streets of 19th-century America. When a cabin boy (Tom Holland) is forced to crawl inside a whale carcass to retrieve buckets of that precious substance from its head, the hellish scene recalls a different kind of greed-driven oil dig in There Will Be Blood. The images give lurid life to Melville's famously lengthy descriptions of on-ship whale processing and remind us why he included them.
Melville took his inspiration for Moby-Dick from several sources — one of which was the harrowing tale of the Essex, sunk in the Pacific in 1820 by the rampage of a great white whale. In the movie, a cover-up has made the Essex's story so elusive that Melville must seek out grown-up cabin boy Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) and coax him to reveal the truth over the course of a boozy evening.
Surrounded by haunting visual reminders of the sea — model ships, maps scratched on tabletops, whale-oil lamps — this midnight confession is a compellingly hokey frame for the narrative. In reality, though, Melville simply read the published account of Essex first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), whose perspective dominates the film. His story, too, has been fictionalized into Hollywood cliché, complete with a class-driven clash with the ship's prissy captain (Benjamin Walker) and a spunky wife at home. Let's not even mention the actor's grating attempt at a coastal New England accent.
But In the Heart of the Sea becomes a much better film when nobody is talking — or when everybody is yelling at once. As soon as the Essex leaves port, the watercolor vistas of sky and waves engulf the story, just as the sea will eventually engulf the men's petty ambitions. Howard rapidly shifts point of view — offering close-ups of a vital rope, underwater shots of the hull, views from the crow's nest — to give us a global sense of how ingeniously constructed this vessel is, and yet how vulnerable.
Insofar as it grounds us firmly in the ship's orderly world, then shows us everything that can go wrong, In the Heart of the Sea actually is a worthy cinematic counterpart to Moby-Dick. (Its best action sequences mirror ones in the novel.) Just don't look for Melville's philosophical ambitions or a Shakespearean dramatic arc, or anything worthy of replacing them.
What emerges from the wreckage of the Hollywood-ized historical accounts is a fairly standard tale of ill-fated hubris and dogged survival, like a wetter Everest. The story offers no real hero to root for, unless it's that white whale. And yet, moviegoers who enjoy seeing human ambitions walloped on a grand scale — just as the whale's tail wallops the sailors on several occasions — will enjoy this Sea for the spectacle it is. If it doesn't particularly respect Melville's talent, it does share his respect for the creatures of the deep.