THE MOVIE GUY: Ron Howard’s film is a whale of a tale

Published 3:15 pm Thursday, December 10, 2015

Ron Howard is one of our best cinematic storytellers. He excels at the craftsmanship side of moviemaking, but is also known for adding those artistic flourishes that frequently make his films so special. His latest endeavor, “In the Heart of the Sea” flirts with that artistry, but ultimately settles for being an entertaining, if somewhat pedestrian high seas adventure movie.

The story is based on the real life events that are cited as the inspiration behind Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” Indeed, the film begins with a young Melville (Ben Whishaw) tracking down the last survivor of the doomed whaling ship, the Essex. It is through this framing device that we relive this whale of a tale.

We meet the crew of the Essex, led by the well-bred but somewhat clueless Captain (Benjamin Walker) and his more-accomplished first mate (Chris Hemsworth). Because of class differences, the two men do not like each other, yet they set forth hoping to return with a hold full of whale oil. Things go horribly awry when they come across a huge white whale that has no problem dealing with a ship full of tiny humans with harpoons.

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Credit goes to the computer and special effects crew for creating a totally believable whale that nearly comes close to being a science fiction fantasy monster. This whale is a smart and vengeful creature that ranks right up there with the year’s most lethal movie monsters. The sequences where the whale attacks the Essex are nothing short of thrilling and easily the best moments of the movie and some of the best action movie moments of the year.

The problem is that the human beings in the picture aren’t as believably written. Many of the sailors are simply presented as caricatures, and the few who do get fleshed out aren’t interesting enough to keep the audience’s attention. Hemsworth certainly looks great, giving the film plenty of beefcake, but it would have been nice to let him flex his acting chops as well.

Ultimately the film succeeds on the strength of its superb production design and amazing special effects. Howard is also very good at setting the scene and putting the audience right aboard the Essex. My legs even felt a little wobbly as I left the theater, almost as if I had been sitting on a boat for the past two hours.

Still, as is the case in many summer action flicks, “In the Heart of the Sea” sinks when it comes down to human characters and what motivates them to action. It’s somewhat ironic that the story that inspired one of the great character studies in American literature would be so shallow in its own character design.

Movie reviews by Sean, “The Movie Guy,” are published bi-weekly in “The Port Arthur News” and seen weekly on KFDM-TV and KBOI 2-TV. Sean welcomes your comments via email at