One of my favorite films in Ron Howard's long career as a director was “Rush,” and part of what I loved about it was how it didn't really feel like a Ron Howard film. There was something audacious and rude and hilarious about the film's unlikable set of main characters.
Howard is the perfect studio filmmaker because his work is rarely dangerous or challenging. He makes professional movies with good casts that tend to be good but rarely great. There are a number of Ron Howard films that I like, and a I few that I really like. “Apollo 13.” “Frost/Nixon.” “Parenthood.” “Rush.” “Night Shift.” “Splash.” I like that he's spent his career trying different things. He's capable of putting some of the best technical artists in the business together, and he always seems to give himself to his movies 100%. When I'm not a fan of a film he's made, it's inevitably because I just plain don't like the script he shot. When “A Beautiful Mind” comes up, it's the script that makes me crazy. When I say I don't like “The Dilemma” or Backdraft,” it's because I think they're shambles as screenplays.
To that end, I suppose I have more of a problem with the work by Charles Leavitt (with a story credit shared with Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver) adapting the book by Nathaniel Philbrick. Ostensibly the “true story” behind Herman Melville's “Moby Dick,” the film uses the facts of the wreck of the whaling ship Essex as a jumping-off point, but there's enough of what William Goldman called “Hollywood horseshit” in the mix here that the film borders on the ridiculous at times. Maybe the most unnecessary example of that is the framing device, in which Melville (Ben Whishaw) gives his entire life savings to Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) to tell him the story of the ship's wreck. In reality, Nickerson wrote and published his own book about the incident, but the movie wants to paint this as a painful secret that Nickerson kept, with Melville somehow drawing this cathartic story out of him.
There are details of the true story that are way more interesting than the things they invented here. There's a relationship between George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) and Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) that is built around a completely artificial conflict that doesn't pay off in any interesting way, and it runs exactly contrary to the truth. The two men had sailed together before, and they'd been so successful that they saw one another as lucky totems. The film would rather set it up so that Pollard, from one of Nantucket's oldest whaling families, resents Chase, who didn't come from the right sort of family. They spend some serious shoe leather setting it up, refer to it once or twice, and then it just plain doesn't matter.
The thing that was so insane about the story that the survivors of the Essex told is that they were sunk by a whale that acted strangely. In the movie, they attribute a malice and an intelligence to the whale that is sort of ridiculous, especially once their main ship is sunk and the whale continues to track and attack them. It's not what anyone actually claimed happened, and it's not the way whales behave. Sure, you can make a movie where an animal does something that it wouldn't normally do in nature, but not when you make the claim that you're telling us “the true story.”
Chris Hemsworth is fine as Chase, but in many ways, Tom Holland is the real star of the film. He plays Nickerson as a young man, and Holland carries much of the emotional weight of the film. As things deteriorate, he's the one who serves as the audience proxy, especially when things get morally difficult. There are some grisly ideas in the film, so be aware that younger viewers may be upset, but it may be the single most careful reference to cannibalism I've ever seen in a movie.
Normally, I adore the work of Anthony Dod Mantle, but I'm not a fan of the look of this film in particular. Perhaps to help sell the digital environments and the digital creatures, the camera never stops moving, but it makes things feel more artificial here, not less. The same is true of the Nantucket harbor set at the open and close of the film. It feels like a set in every way. There is something profoundly artificial about the film, and when you're telling a story about nature's fury, that's a problem.
The best audience for this movie is most likely a young one. Thanks to Holland, there's a feeling in the film's best moments like this is boy's adventure story, tinged with tragedy. But overall, it is false, both narratively and visually, in a way that just doesn't sit right with me, and it feels like a lesser effort from Howard, an itch he scratched but that hold little interest for anyone else.
“In The Heart Of The Sea” is in theaters now.