Everything old is new again. This line of thinking has been dominating Hollywood for a number of decades now, and once there’s an opportunity to take an already familiar story or property and put the slightest of twists on it, you better believe that every remotely marketable name brand or familiar story will have a brand new adaptation out in the next few years. Hence, the newfound “story BEHIND the story” trope of adapting a quasi-prequel of sorts to a well known classic fable; a trope which actually originated with the stage play Wicked, but was so influential and innovative that it bled into other mediums such as film and television.
This practice of giving an already popular story a simultaneous origin and reboot of sorts has boasted mixed results, with a few notable successes (Disney has been riding this train for years with things such asOz: The Great and Powerful and Maleficent), but also some not so much (recent flops such as Pan andVictor Frankenstein speak for themselves). Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea seeks to bring this same approach to the Moby Dick legend, while also mixing in a bit of the “dark and gritty” style that was popularized after Batman Begins. This results in a slightly uneven but surprisingly rousing and mostly engaging piece of work from a director who normally works within more safe and generic territory.
Above all else, In the Heart of the Sea seeks to demythologize Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick story in a number of ways, firstly by having Melville himself appear onscreen in a framing device (played by Ben Whishaw) as he interviews a fisherman whilst looking for inspiration on his next book (the fisherman is played as an older man by Brendan Gleeson, and as a teenager by future MCU Spider-Man Tom Holland).
While the heavily advertised “man vs. nature” and whale-centered action setpieces certainly preoccupy the story, the main conflict of the film comes from the ship’s captain (Benjamin Walker) and its first mate (Chris Hemsworth, sporting a wishy-washy American accent) constantly at odds with one another, and how each one feels entitled to their share of the power on board their vessel. In this regard, the film has a lot of parallels to Ron Howard’s previous film Rush, where a pair of men deal with their man problems and butt heads for a while before learning to put their differences aside and face impossible odds together and the like. This film might see Ron Howard treading into areas he recently dealt with, but it’s territory he is clearly both familiar and capable of dealing with, so it doesn’t merit much complaining.
Clearly inspired by the otherworldly aesthetic of Life of Pi, In the Heart of the Sea at long last sees Ron Howard doing something he’s never, ever done before: telling his story in a manner which is somewhat interesting from a visual standpoint. As a director, Howard usually doesn’t do much to elevate the material he’s dealt with, and therefore relies mostly on the strengths of both his actors and the story at hand. Here, both are up to the task of being engaging enough on their own without having the film add much in terms of pacing or style, aside from the pretty ambitious scope of the project and some rousing action setpieces. But one can’t help but wonder how much more of a thrilling experience this could’ve been had it been in the hands of someone like Steven Spielberg or even James Cameron, if he’s not too busy still doing Steve Zissou’s job.
An imperfect, but nonetheless engaging ride, mostly thanks to the assembled cast and unusually slick visual style from Ron Howard, In the Heart of the Sea is a worthy voyage out to sea if it looks like your sort of thing. At the very least, it’s a passable second option if Star Wars is still sold out into its third week in theaters