Movie review: "In the Heart of the Sea" finds narrative adrift

Brad Keefe, Columbus Alive

If movies are to be believed, approximately 85 percent of seafaring expeditions end up lost and adrift.

In Ron Howard's latest film "In the Heart of the Sea," his cast ends up as lost at sea as the fumbling plot, clinging to whatever driftwood it can find.

Billed as the story behind the story of "Moby-Dick," we meet young novelist Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) as he meets elderly former seaman Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson). Melville offers to pay a reticent Nickerson to tell the story of the 1820 whaling voyage of the Essex.

Eventually, Nickerson relents, recalling a young family man named Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) who joins the Essex as first mate, despite being promised a captaincy. The well-connected George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) is named captain, and a rivalry with the more experienced Chase ensues.

After a lengthy depiction of life at sea, the crew of the Essex turns its sails toward a fertile whaling area, only to encounter a massive and aggressive beast that leaves them shipless and fighting for survival.

"Heart of the Sea" joins "The Revenant" as this season's survival Oscar bait. There's no lack of earnestness, and some of the sailing action is quite pulse-pounding - fueled by CGI, but still.

Howard is following up on his best film in years, the racing biopic "Rush," and he reteamed with his star from that film in Hemsworth. The "Thor" star plays a throwback hero, barking out confident orders and defying death whenever he can before going through the sort of physical transformation that gets actors headlines. His gaunt frame as the time lost at sea takes it toll is impressive, but "Heart" spends a lot of time showing us this toll.

Howard strives for realism, and things get a little gross for a movie that's generally slick, but it's the narrative that never really finds a course. A smattering of whale attacks, an expectant wife back home and the unbaked layer of Melville's interview with his source are cobbled together like a makeshift raft.

The beautiful thing about this time of year is that you don't have to settle for mediocre at the movies. You can do better than this voyage.

"In the Heart of the Sea"

Opens Thursday

2 stars out of 4