You know what would make a great movie? Moby Dick.
A young Herman Melville finds his way into an old shanty to interview a crusty old seadog, long since grounded. His purpose: to pry out the true story behind the events that sunk the Essex, a Nantucket whaling vessel from 1820.
Here’s the scoop: Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth, Thor) wants to captain his own whaling ship but has to defer his helm to a gentleman who was born into the right family. So Chase joins as a first mate of the Essex and they’re off, searching for whales to harpoon and bring back the motherlode of oil to the homeland.
Whales prove to be scarce, essentially fished out (so to speak), forcing the Essex to journey deeper into unknown waters. But within those waters dwells some kind of malevolent demon force masquerading as gigantic white whale and it brings with it a reputation of vigorous ship-mulching.
As the marketing and disc cover art clues you in, our heroes do eventually encounter the whale and the final third of the film tracks the sailors as they try to get home, facing overwhelming circumstances — including a psycho whale that can’t let go of a grudge.
That all sounds okay, right? And in practice, In the Heart of the Sea is pretty okay. It’s no secret that the film sunk to the bottom of the ocean during its theatrical run (after being pushed out to the Christmas season for some reason). My anticipation for the film when I first caught wind of it was lofty, but plotzed fairly quickly when the audience soundly rejected Ron Howard’s seafaring adventure.
I’m glad I took the plunge, because this movie is solid and far from the piece of driftwood its reception would suggest. Then again I am predisposed to liking nautical movies, especially period tall ships movies (Master and Commander is firmly in my revolving Top Ten).
The ship stuff is all fairly excellent. There’s some storm sequences and of course the whale encounters and even a handful of whaling boat misadventures and it’s exciting enough. Ship nerds should revel in the on-deck goings-on what with the riggings and masts and what-have-you. The big downside? The CGI.
There is a lot of CGI. Enough that it’s distracting. The slickness of the video effects (especially during the whale scenes) takes away from the feel of genuineness. As a result, In the Heart of the Sea feels more stylized, like a 300: Rise of an Empire versus a Master and Commander or even a Horatio Hornblower or two.
That’s my biggest gripe. The whole thing just feels synthetic, a real crusher for a film built to be as authentic as possible. Chris Hemsworth’s stiff performance and not-that-much screen-time for the whale don’t aid the proceedings. Also, I suspect audiences didn’t love the graphic whale-slaying.
The In the Heart of the Sea (Blu-ray) is loaded. On the technical side, the 1080p/1.85:1 treatment is glorious, though, an argument can be made the boosted resolution makes the CGI even shinier. Sounds hits nice and hard with a Dolby Atmos mix, offering reference-level quality during the more intense scenes. Lots of extras, including a Ron Howard making-of video diary, a lengthy documentary on the Essex’s captain, featurettes on the character, the story and the history of whaling, deleted scenes, and standard def DVD and digital copies to cap it all off.