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'In the Heart of the Sea' is too much of a Ron Howard movie

The latest from Ron Howard tells the story that inspired "Moby-Dick," with the help of reliable beefcake, Chris Hemsworth.

In the Heart of the SeaIn the Heart of the Sea

‘In the Heart of the Sea’
Director: Ron Howard
Stars:
Chris Hemsworth, Cillian Murphy
Rating: PG-13
2 (out of 5) Globes

The whale-cannibal movie “In the Heart of the Sea” opens with young Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) narrating about the book he’s working on. “Right now it’s called ‘Moby-Dick,’” he boasts. It’s that kind of wink-winky movie, but it’s also another, very right-now kind of movie: the one that peels back a famous story to find the real, not as exciting tale that inspired it. “I believe you’ll be disappointed,” crows Thomas (Brendan Gleeson), the aged survivor of a doomed 19th century vessel, to the author who will immortalize his tale in prose. “But every word is true.”

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Thing is, he’s not wrong. “Sea” has whale attacks and sinking ships and men chowing down on men, but those are mere attention-nabbing distractions — especially compared to Melville’s despairing look at blind obsession and recklessness. (And at least “Moby-Dick” didn’t force actors like Gleeson to spout embarrassing dialogue.) Still, at least “Sea” isn’t one of those wan twists on immortal classics, a la “Pan” and “Victor Frankenstein.” And “Sea” does know to dwell on tough, dark things like existential despair and class warfare.

Despite serving as our wrap-around storyteller, Gleeson's Thomas isn’t the protagonist. That honor goes to a more manly man, namely Owen Chase, played by Chris Hemsworth, the manly-manliest actor in cinema today. He’s a mere first mate on the whaling ship the Essex, bristling that the job of captain went to one George Pollard Jr. (Benjamin Walker), the spoiled son of a whale oil magnate. (Director Ron Howard presents nepotism furiously, safe in the knowledge he’s never cast his own daughter, Bryce Dallas Howard, in his films.) The Essex has a massive quota of whale oil to fill, and when booty proves elusive, they head after a notorious mammal known for taking out ships. This doesn’t go swimmingly.

The typically saccharine Howard once went too far into the R-rated with “The Missing,” showing scalping and bloodshed and other very non-Opie business. He holds back this time. Even with a third act seque into cannibalism, he goes tastefully PG-13, resorting to telling, not showing. He doesn’t shy away from getting rough in other ways, nor in digging into theological debates, with the sometime-"Thor" taking the stance that maybe we all live in a godless universe where life is cheap and can be easily taken away from us. The script even makes sledgehammer subtle but righteously angry parallels between a bygone era’s reliance on whale oil and our current addiction to gasoline.

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It’s still a Ron Howard movie, which means it’s defiantly cornball even when things turn grim. And it’s very 2015 in another way: It’s not above falling back on slipshod CGI when it doesn’t want to get too real. Over half of the shoot was at sea, but it doesn’t always look it. The whale itself is as fake as the cardboard one in John Huston’s own movie of “Moby-Dick,” and not helped by an over-reliance on both “whale-cam” and “tail-cam.”

Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, who lensed many Danny Boyle films, including the ones made when digital looked like crap (such as “28 Days Later”), has a nasty habit of pushing a wide-angle lens in his actors’ faces, trying to make chaos look Xtreme-real but only making it look fake and overdetermined. Still, it at least it has one strong leader: Hemsworth, as ever, is all old school brawn and barked dialogue, and he’s often able to save the film with pure muscle. Get this guy a real aquatic epic, or at least a Hercules movie.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 

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